WASHINGTON (May 1, 2002) – Citing Catholics' return to the Sacrament of Penance since the Jubilee Year, Pope John Paul II today issued an apostolic letter in which he calls for a "vigorous revitalization" of the sacrament and which reiterates existing Church teaching regarding its valid celebration.
"I consider it useful to recall some of the canonical laws in force regarding the celebration of this Sacrament and clarify certain aspects of them … with a view to a better administration of the Sacrament," Pope John Paul II writes in the letter, titled Misericordia Dei (The Mercy of God). "It is a question of ensuring an ever more faithful, and thus more fruitful, celebration of the gift entrusted to the Church by the Lord Jesus after his Resurrection."
In particular, the Pope notes his concern about those places where individual confessions have been largely replaced with "general" or "communal" absolution.
He instructs bishops to remind confessors that "individual and integral confession and absolution are the sole ordinary means" for reconciliation and that general absolution, except in extraordinary situations, should be avoided.
The exceptions include the imminent danger of death and "grave necessity."
In eight paragraphs, the Pope explains that a "grave necessity" exists when "in light of the number of penitents a supply of confessors is not readily available to hear the confessions of individuals in an appropriate way within an appropriate time, so that the penitents would be deprived of sacramental grace or Holy Communion for a long time through no fault of their own."
For example, he says, a "grave necessity" can occur in mission areas where a priest is present only once or a few times in a year.
In addition to the extensive language about the necessity for individual confessions in most circumstances, the Pope also offers several general recommendations to accommodate what he calls the faithful's "right to receive personally the sacramental gift."
For example, he advises that "confessors be visibly present at the advertised times," and that parish priests periodically reevaluate the adequacy of their schedules for confessions. In any case, a church or oratory is "the proper place to hear sacramental confessions," although other places may be acceptable for pastoral reasons, according to the letter.
The Pope's apostolic letter, issued motu proprio (on his own initiative), was approved April 7 and issued May 2.