IN THE FORM OF MOTU PROPRIO
On certain aspects of the celebration
of the Sacrament of Penance
By the mercy of God, the Father who reconciles us to himself, the Word took
flesh in the spotless womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary to save “his people
from their sins” (Mt 1:21) and to open for them “the way of eternal
salvation”.(1) By identifying Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the
sin of the world” (Jn 1:29), Saint John the Baptist confirms this mission.
In all his deeds and preaching, the Precursor issues a fervent and energetic
summons to repentance and conversion, the sign of which is the baptism
administered in the waters of the Jordan. Jesus himself underwent this
penitential rite (cf. Mt 3:13-17), not because he had sinned, but because
“he allows himself to be numbered among sinners; he is already `the Lamb of
God who takes away the sin of the world' (Jn 1:29); already he is
anticipating the `baptism' of his bloody death”.(2)
Salvation is therefore and above all redemption from sin, which hinders
friendship with God, a liberation from the state of slavery in which man
finds himself ever since he succumbed to the temptation of the Evil One and
lost the freedom of the children of God (cf. Rom 8:21).
Christ entrusts to the Apostles the mission of proclaiming the Kingdom of
God and preaching the Gospel of conversion (cf. Mk 16:15; Mt 28:18-20). On
the evening of the day of his Resurrection, as the apostolic mission is
about to begin, Jesus grants the Apostles, through the power of the Holy
Spirit, the authority to reconcile repentant sinners with God and the Church:
“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven;
if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20:22-23).(3)
Down through history in the constant practice of the Church, the “ministry
of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18), conferred through the Sacraments of Baptism
and Penance, has always been seen as an essential and highly esteemed
pastoral duty of the priestly ministry, performed in obedience to the
command of Jesus. Through the centuries, the celebration of the Sacrament of
Penance has developed in different forms, but it has always kept the same
basic structure: it necessarily entails not only the action of the minister
– only a Bishop or priest, who judges and absolves, tends and heals in the
name of Christ – but also the actions of the penitent: contrition,
confession and satisfaction.
I wrote in my Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte: “I am asking for
renewed pastoral courage in ensuring that the day-to-day teaching of
Christian communities persuasively and effectively presents the practice of
the Sacrament of Reconciliation. As you will recall, in 1984 I dealt with
this subject in the Post-Synodal Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia,
which synthesized the results of a General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops
devoted to this question. My invitation then was to make every effort to
face the crisis of `the sense of sin' apparent in today's culture. But I was
even more insistent in calling for a rediscovery of Christ as mysterium
pietatis, the one in whom God shows us his compassionate heart and
reconciles us fully with himself. It is this face of Christ that must be
rediscovered through the Sacrament of Penance, which for the faithful is
`the ordinary way of obtaining forgiveness and the remission of serious sins
committed after Baptism'. When the Synod addressed the problem, the crisis
of the Sacrament was there for all to see, especially in some parts of the
world. The causes of the crisis have not disappeared in the brief span of
time since then. But the Jubilee Year, which has been particularly marked by
a return to the Sacrament of Penance, has given us an encouraging message,
which should not be ignored: if many people, and among them also many young
people, have benefited from approaching this Sacrament, it is probably
necessary that Pastors should arm themselves with more confidence,
creativity and perseverance in presenting it and leading people to
With these words, I intended, as I do now, to encourage my Brother Bishops
and earnestly appeal to them – and, through them, to all priests – to
undertake a vigorous revitalization of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This
is a requirement of genuine charity and true pastoral justice,(5) and we
should remember that the faithful, when they have the proper interior
dispositions, have the right to receive personally the sacramental gift.
In order that the minister of the Sacrament may know the dispositions of
penitents with a view to granting or withholding absolution and imposing a
suitable penance, it is necessary that the faithful, as well as being aware
of the sins they have committed, of being sorry for them and resolved not to
fall into them again,(6) should also confess their sins. In this sense, the
Council of Trent declared that it is necessary “by divine decree to confess
each and every mortal sin”.(7) The Church has always seen an essential link
between the judgement entrusted to the priest in the Sacrament and the need
for penitents to name their own sins,(8) except where this is not possible.
Since, therefore, the integral confession of serious sins is by divine
decree a constitutive part of the Sacrament, it is in no way subject to the
discretion of pastors (dispensation, interpretation, local customs, etc.).
In the relevant disciplinary norms, the competent ecclesiastical authority
merely indicates the criteria for distinguishing a real impossibility of
confessing one's sins from other situations in which the impossibility is
only apparent or can be surmounted.
In the present circumstances of the care of souls and responding to the
concerned requests of many Brothers in the Episcopate, 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 – in a spirit of
communion with the responsibility proper to the entire Episcopate(9) with a
view to a better administration of the Sacrament. 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 (cf.
Jn 20:19-23). This seems especially necessary, given that in some places
there has been a tendency to abandon individual confession and wrongly to
resort to “general” or “communal” absolution. In this case general
absolution is no longer seen as an extraordinary means to be used in wholly
exceptional situations. On the basis of an arbitrary extension of the
conditions required for grave necessity,(10) in practice there is a
lessening of fidelity to the divine configuration of the Sacrament, and
specifically regarding the need for individual confession, with consequent
serious harm to the spiritual life of the faithful and to the holiness of
Thus, after consultation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the
Sacraments, and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, and after
hearing the views of venerable Brother Cardinals in charge of the
dicasteries of the Roman Curia, and reaffirming Catholic doctrine on the
Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation as summarized in the Catechism of
the Catholic Church,(11) conscious of my pastoral responsibility and fully
aware of the need for this Sacrament and of its enduring efficacy, I decree
1. Ordinaries are to remind all the ministers of the Sacrament of Penance
that the universal law of the Church, applying Catholic doctrine in this
area, has established that:
a) “Individual and integral confession and absolution are the sole ordinary
means by which the faithful, conscious of grave sin, are reconciled with God
and the Church; only physical or moral impossibility excuses from such
confession, in which case reconciliation can be obtained in other ways”.(12)
b) Therefore, “all those of whom it is required by virtue of their ministry
in the care of souls are obliged to ensure that the confessions of the
faithful entrusted to them are heard when they reasonably ask, and that they
are given the opportunity to approach individual confession, on days and at
times set down for their convenience”.(13)
Moreover, all priests with faculties to administer the Sacrament of Penance
are always to show themselves wholeheartedly disposed to administer it
whenever the faithful make a reasonable request.(14) An unwillingness to
welcome the wounded sheep, and even to go out to them in order to bring them
back into the fold, would be a sad sign of a lack of pastoral sensibility in
those who, by priestly Ordination, must reflect the image of the Good
2. Local Ordinaries, and parish priests and rectors of churches and shrines,
should periodically verify that the greatest possible provision is in fact
being made for the faithful to confess their sins. It is particularly
recommended that in places of worship confessors be visibly present at the
advertized times, that these times be adapted to the real circumstances of
penitents, and that confessions be especially available before Masses, and
even during Mass if there are other priests available, in order to meet the
needs of the faithful.(15)
3. Since “the faithful are obliged to confess, according to kind and number,
all grave sins committed after Baptism of which they are conscious after
careful examination and which have not yet been directly remitted by the
Church's power of the keys, nor acknowledged in individual confession”,(16)
any practice which restricts confession to a generic accusation of sin or of
only one or two sins judged to be more important is to be reproved. Indeed,
in view of the fact that all the faithful are called to holiness, it is
recommended that they confess venial sins also.(17)
4. In the light of and within the framework of the above norms, the
absolution of a number of penitents at once without previous confession, as
envisaged by Can. 961 of the Code of Canon Law, is to be correctly
understood and administered. Such absolution is in fact “exceptional in
character”(18) and “cannot be imparted in a general manner unless:
1. the danger of death is imminent and there is not time for the priest or
priests to hear the confessions of the individual penitents;
2. a grave necessity exists, that is, 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; it is not
considered sufficient necessity if confessors cannot be readily available
only because of the great number of penitents, as can occur on the occasion
of some great feast or pilgrimage”.(19)
With reference to the case of grave necessity, the following clarification
a) It refers to situations which are objectively exceptional, such as can
occur in mission territories or in isolated communities of the faithful,
where the priest can visit only once or very few times a year, or when war
or weather conditions or similar factors permit.
b) The two conditions set down in the Canon to determine grave necessity are
inseparable. Therefore, it is never just a question of whether individuals
can have their confession heard “in an appropriate way” and “within an
appropriate time” because of the shortage of priests; this must be combined
with the fact that penitents would otherwise be forced to remain deprived of
sacramental grace “for a long time”, through no fault of their own.
Therefore, account must be taken of the overall circumstances of the
penitents and of the Diocese, in what refers to its pastoral organization
and the possibility of the faithful having access to the Sacrament of
c) The first condition, the impossibility of hearing confessions “in an
appropriate way” “within an appropriate time”, refers only to the time
reasonably required for the elements of a valid and worthy celebration of
the Sacrament. It is not a question here of a more extended pastoral
conversation, which can be left to more favourable circumstances. The
reasonable and appropriate time within which confessions can be heard will
depend upon the real possibilities of the confessor or confessors, and of
the penitents themselves.
d) The second condition calls for a prudential judgement in order to assess
how long penitents can be deprived of sacramental grace for there to be a
true impossibility as described in Can. 960, presuming that there is no
imminent danger of death. Such a judgement is not prudential if it distorts
the sense of physical or moral impossibility, as would be the case, for
example, if it was thought that a period of less than a month means
remaining “for a long time” in such a state of privation.
e) It is not acceptable to contrive or to allow the contrivance of
situations of apparent grave necessity, resulting from not administering the
Sacrament in the ordinary way through a failure to implement the above
mentioned norms,(20) and still less because of penitents' preference for
general absolution, as if this were a normal option equivalent to the two
ordinary forms set out in the Ritual.
f) The large number of penitents gathered on the occasion of a great feast
or pilgrimage, or for reasons of tourism or because of today's increased
mobility of people, does not in itself constitute sufficient necessity.
5. Judgement as to whether there exist the conditions required by Can. 961
§1, 2 is not a matter for the confessor but for “the diocesan Bishop who can
determine cases of such necessity in the light of criteria agreed upon with
other members of the Episcopal Conference”.(21) These pastoral criteria must
embody the pursuit of total fidelity, in the circumstances of their
respective territories, to the fundamental criteria found in the universal
discipline of the Church, which are themselves based upon the requirements
deriving from the Sacrament of Penance itself as a divine institution.
6. Given the fundamental importance of full harmony among the Bishops'
Conferences of the world in a matter so essential to the life of the Church,
the various Conferences, observing Can. 455 § 2 of the Code of Canon Law,
shall send as soon as possible to the Congregation for Divine Worship and
the Discipline of the Sacraments the text of the norms which they intend to
issue or update in the light of this Motu Proprio on the application of Can.
961. This will help to foster an ever greater communion among the Bishops of
the Church as they encourage the faithful everywhere to draw abundantly from
the foun tains of divine mercy which flow unceasingly in the Sacrament of
In this perspective of communion it will also be appropriate for Diocesan
Bishops to inform their respective Bishops' Conferences whether or not cases
of grave necessity have occurred in their jurisdictions. It will then be the
task of each Conference to inform the above-mentioned Congregation about the
real situation in their regions and about any changes subsequently taking
7. As regards the personal disposition of penitents, it should be reiterated
a) “For the faithful to avail themselves
validly of sacramental absolution given to many at one time, it is required
that they not only be suitably disposed but also at the same time intend to
confess individually the serious sins which at present cannot be so
b) As far as possible, including cases of imminent danger of death, there
should be a preliminary exhortation to the faithful “that each person take
care to make an act of contrition”.(23)
c) It is clear that penitents living in a habitual state of serious sin and
who do not intend to change their situation cannot validly receive
8. The obligation “to confess serious sins at least once a year”(24)
remains, and therefore “a person who has had serious sins remitted by
general absolution is to approach individual confession as soon as there is
an opportunity to do so before receiving another general absolution, unless
a just cause intervenes”.(25)
9. Concerning the place and confessional for the celebration of the
Sacrament, it should be remembered that:
a) “the proper place to hear sacramental confessions is a church or an
oratory”,(26) though it remains clear that pastoral reasons can justify
celebrating the Sacrament in other places.(27)
b) confessionals are regulated by the norms issued by the respective
Episcopal Conferences, who shall ensure that confessionals are located “in
an open area” and have “a fixed grille”, so as to permit the faithful and
confessors themselves who may wish to make use of them to do so freely.(28)
I decree that everything I have set down in this Apostolic Letter issued
Motu Proprio shall have full and lasting force and be observed from this day
forth, notwithstanding any provisions to the contrary. All that I have
decreed in this Letter is, by its nature, valid for the venerable Oriental
Catholic Churches in conformity with the respective Canons of their own
Given in Rome, at Saint Peter's, on 7 April, the Second Sunday of Easter,
the Feast of Divine Mercy, in the year of our Lord 2002, the twenty-fourth
of my Pontificate.
JOHN PAUL II
(1)Roman Missal,Advent Preface I.
(2)Catechism of the Catholic Church,536.
(3)Cf. Ecumenical Council of Trent, Session XIV, De Sacramento Paenitentiae,
Can. 3: DS 1703.
(4)No. 37: AAS 93 (2001) 292.
(5)Cf. Code of Canon Law, Cans. 213 and 843 § 1.
(6)Cf. Ecumenical Council of Trent, Session XIV, Doctrina de Sacramento
Paenitentiae, Chap. 4: DS 1676.
(7)Ibid., Can. 7: DS 1707.
(8)Ibid., Chap. 5: DS 1679; Ecumenical Council of Florence, Decree for the
Armenians (22 November 1439): DS 1323.
(9)Cf. Can. 392; Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on
the Church Lumen Gentium, Nos. 23, 27; Decree on the Pastoral Ministry of
Bishops Christus Dominus, No. 16.
(10)Cf. Can. 961, § 1, 2.
(11)Cf. Nos. 980-987; 1114-1134; 1420-1498.
(13)Can. 986, § 1.
(14)Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Decree on the Ministry and Life
of Priests Presbyterorum Ordinis, 13; Ordo Paenitentiae, editio typica,
1974, Praenotanda, No. 10, b.
(15)Cf. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the
Sacraments, Responsa ad dubia proposita: Notitiae, 37 (2001) 259-260
(16)Can. 988, § 1.
(17)Cf. Can. 988, § 2: John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation
Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (2 December 1984), 32: AAS 77 (1985) 267;
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1458.
(18)John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et
Paenitentia (2 December 1984), 32: AAS 77 (1985) 267.
(19)Can. 961, § 1.
(20)Cf. above Nos. 1 and 2.
(21)Can. 961, § 2.
(22)Can. 962, § 1.
(23)Can. 962, § 2.
(26)Can 964, § 1.
(27)Cf. Can. 964 § 3.
(28)Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, Responsa
ad propositum dubium: de loco excipiendi sacramentales confessiones (7 July
1998): AAS 90 (1998) 711.