absolution

absolution

[ab-suh-loo-shuhn]

In Christianity, a pronouncement of forgiveness of sins made to a person who has repented. This rite is based on the forgiveness that Jesus extended to sinners during his ministry. In the early church, the priest absolved repentant sinners after they had confessed and performed their penance in public. During the Middle Ages, it became the custom for priests to hear confession and grant absolution privately. In Roman Catholicism penance is a sacrament, and the priest has the power to absolve a contrite sinner who promises to make satisfaction to God. In Protestant churches, the confession of sin is usually made in a formal prayer by the whole congregation, after which the minister announces their absolution.

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Absolution is a traditional theological term for the forgiveness experienced in the traditional Churches in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Roman Catholic Church

Absolution is an integral part of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. The penitent makes a sacramental confession of all mortal sins to a priest and prays an act of contrition. The priest then assigns a penance and imparts absolution in the name of the Trinity, on behalf of the Church:

"God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

Before the Second Vatican Council, and still practiced in traditionalist parishes, absolution was given in Latin, followed by another Latin prayer by the priest:

Absolution: "Dominus noster Jesus Christus te absolvat; et ego auctoritate ipsius te absolvo ab omni vinculo excommunicationis (suspensionis) et interdicti in quantum possum et tu indiges. [making the Sign of the Cross:] Deinde, ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen."

Translation: "May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you; and by His authority I absolve you from every bond of excommunication and interdict, so far as my power allows and your needs require. [making the Sign of the Cross:] Thereupon, I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."

Post-absolution prayer: "Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi, merita Beatae Mariae Virginis et omnium sanctorum, quidquid boni feceris vel mali sustinueris sint tibi in remissionem peccatorum, augmentum gratiae et praemium vitae aeternae. Amen."

Translation: "May the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of all the saints and also whatever good you do or evil you endure merit for you the remission of your sins, the increase of grace and the reward of everlasting life. Amen."

Absolution forgives the guilt associated with the penitent's sins, and removes the eternal punishment (Hell) associated with mortal sins. The penitent is still responsible for the temporal punishment (Purgatory) associated with the confessed sins, unless an indulgence is applied.

General absolution, where all eligible Catholics gathered at a given area are granted absolution for sins without prior individual confession to a priest, is lawfully granted in only 2 circumstances:
(1) there is imminent danger of death and there is no time for a priest or priests to hear the confessions of the individual penitents,
(2) a serious need is present, that is, the number of penitents is so large that there are not sufficient priests to hear the individual confessions properly within a reasonable time (generally considered to be 1 month) so that the Catholics, through no fault of their own, would be forced to be deprived of the sacrament or communion. The diocesan bishop must give prior permission before general absolution may be given under this circumstance. It is important to note that the occurrence of a large number of penitents, such as may occur on a pilgrimage or at penitential services is not considered as sufficient to permit general absolution. Circumstance 2 is thus envisaged more for mission territories where priests may visit certain villages only a few times a year.

For a valid reception of general absolution, the penitent must be contrite for all his mortal sins and have the resolution to confess at the next earliest opportunity each of those mortal sins that is forgiven in general absolution. Anyone receiving general absolution is also required to make a complete, individual confession to a priest as soon as possible before receiving general absolution again. A contemporary example of general absolution was the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, where general absolution was granted to all Catholics endangered by the incident.

  • The French form absoute (in French also public absolution during Whit Sunday mass) is used in English for the absolution in a prayer concluding the burial service

Eastern Orthodox Church

In the Greek Church

That the Greeks have always believed that the Church has power to forgive sin, that they believe it at present, is clear from the formulæ of absolution in vogue among all branches of the Church; also from the decrees of synods which since the Reformation have again and again expressed this belief (Alzog on Cyril Lucaris III, 465; Synod of Constantinople, 1638; Synod of Jassy, 1642; Synod of Jerusalem, 1672). In the Synod of Jerusalem the Church reiterates its belief in Seven Sacraments, among them Penance, which the Lord established when He said: "Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain they are retained." The formulæ of absolution are generally deprecatory, and if now and then the indicative form appears, it may be traced to Latin sources.

Russian Church

The belief of the Greek Church is naturally also that of the Russian. Russian theologians all hold that the Church possesses the power to forgive sins, where there is true repentance and sincere confession. The form in use at present is as follows: "My child, N. N., may our Lord and God Christ Jesus by the mercy of His love absolve thee from thy sins; and I, His unworthy priest, in virtue of the authority committed to me, absolve thee and declare thee absolved of thy sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen."

Anglican Church

In the Anglican Communion, formal, sacramental absolution is given to penitents in the sacrament of penance now formally called the Reconciliation of a Pentitent and colloquially called "confession." There is also a general absolution given after general confessions in the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer and after the general confession in the Eucharist.

Often, physical actions accompany an absolution. A priest or bishop makes the sign of the cross over the congregation. Those receiving the absolution may make the sign of the cross as well.

At minimum, Anglican prayer books contain a formula of absolution in the daily offices, at the Eucharist, and in the visitation of the sick. The first two are general, akin to the liturgical absolution in use in the Roman Church; the third is individual by the very nature of the case. The offices of the earliest Books of Common Prayer contained an absolution that read both as assurance of pardon, placing the agency with God ("He [God] pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent"), and as priestly mediation (God "hath given power and commandment to his ministers to declare and pronounce to his people...the absolution and remission of their sins"). The following is the form of absolution for the sick in the Book of Common Prayer: "OUR Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences: And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen." http://www.eskimo.com/~lhowell/bcp1662/occasion/sick_visit.html

Oriental Orthodox Churches

Armenians

Denzinger, in his Ritus Orientalium (1863), gives us a full translation of the penitential ritual used by the Armenians. The present version is from the ninth century. The form of absolution is declarative, though it is preceded by a prayer for mercy and for pardon. It is as follows: "May the merciful Lord have pity on thee and forgive thee thy faults; in virtue of my priestly power, by the authority and command of God expressed in these words, 'whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be hound in heaven', I absolve thee from thy sins, I absolve thee from thy thoughts, from thy words, from thy deeds, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and I restore thee to the Sacrament of the Holy Church. May all thy good works be for thee an increase of merit, may they be for the glory of life everlasting, Amen."

Copts

Dr. Hyvernat asserts that the liturgical books of the Copts have no penitential formulæ, nor is this surprising, for they inscribe in the ritual only those things not found in other rituals. Father du Bernat, writing to Père Fleurian (Lettres édifiantes), says, in reference to the Sacrament of Penance among the Copts, that the Copts believe themselves bound to a full confession of their sins. This finished, the priest recites over them the prayer said at the beginning of the Mass, the prayer asking pardon and forgiveness from God; to this is added the so-called "Benediction", which Father Bernat says is like the prayer said in the Latin Church after absolution has been imparted. Dr. Hyvernat, however, asserts that Father Bernat is mistaken when he likens the Benediction to our Passio Domini, for it is like the Latin prayer only inasmuch as it is recited after absolution.

Jacobites

The Syrians who are united with the Roman See use the declarative form in imparting absolution, a relatively recent formula. The present Jacobite Church not only holds and has held the power to absolve from sin, but its ritual is expressive of this same power. Denzinger (Ritus Orientalium) has preserved for us a twelfth-century document which gives in full the order of absolution.

Nestorians

The Nestorians have at all times believed in the power to absolve in the Sacrament of Penance. Assemani, Renaudot, Badger (Nestorians and their Rituals), also Denzinger, have the fullest information on this point. It is noticeable that their formula of absolution is deprecatory, not indicative.

Lutheranism

Both private and corporate confession and absolution are practiced in the Lutheran tradition. Private confession and absolution have fallen into disuse due to the Pietism and Rationalism of the 17th through the 19th centuries. While confession of sins is the biblical pattern to be followed (Ps. 32:5: "I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the LORD'; And You forgave the guilt of my sin."), only holy absolution is held to be specifically instituted by Jesus (Matt. 16:19, John 20:23) in Lutheran theology. The common practice is to follow the rite of corporate confession of sins and absolution before the beginning of the Lutheran Divine Service. (Traditionally, the Divine Service begins with the Introit: the order of corporate confession and absolution is placed before it.) The Lutheran reformers held that a complete enumeration of sins is impossible ( Augsburg Confession XI, see Ps. 19:12) and that one's confidence of forgiveness was based on the absolution, God's word, rather than on what the penitent did or might do: the sincerity of the penitent's contrition or act of confession or deeds of satisfaction (penance). Deeds of satisfaction have been completely excluded from the Lutheran rite of confession and absolution. Faith in Jesus' sufficient active and passive satisfaction, implicit in the word of holy absolution, receives the forgiveness of sins and salvation. Traditionally confession and absolution is understood as "return to baptism" (reditus ad baptismum). Therefore baptism is a precondition for the reception of absolution. Generally, private confession and absolution are practiced in the Lutheran tradition only when requested by the penitent or recommended by the confessor or pastor.

The Reformed tradition

The earliest Reformers attacked the penitential practice of the medieval church, particularly the confession of sins to a priest. Their opinions expressed in their later theological works do not differ as markedly from the old position as one might suppose.

The Lutheran tenet of justification by faith alone would make all absolution merely declarative, and reduce the pardon granted by the Church to the merest announcement of the Gospel, especially of remission of sins through Christ.

Zwingli held that God alone pardoned sin, and he saw nothing but idolatry in the practice of hoping for pardon from a mere creature. If confession had aught of good it was merely as direction.

John Calvin denied all idea of sacrament when there was question of Penance; but he held that the pardon expressed by the minister of the Church gave to the penitent a greater guarantee of forgiveness. The Confession styled "Helvetian" contents itself with denying the necessity of confession to a priest, but holds that the power granted by Christ to absolve is simply the power to preach to the people the Gospel of Jesus, and as a consequence the remission of sins: "Rite itaque et efficaciter ministri absolvunt dum evangelium Christi et in hoc remissionem peccatorum prædicant."

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