Sacramental form

Question: In confession, the priest said he absolved me of “all” my sins. Since the word “all” is not in the proper form of the words of absolution, was my absolution valid?

— Name, location withheld

Answer: Yes, it was valid. A minor error such as this does not invalidate the form of absolution.

The “form” (i.e., words) of a sacrament are important because some of the sacraments have external actions that look similar. For example, confession, confirmation, holy orders and the anointing of the sick all feature the laying on of hands. Thus, the words signify, or specify, the intention of the Church and the minister as to what sacrament is actually being conferred.

The valid celebration of the sacraments consists, among other things, of matter (the external factors of the sacrament, such as bread and wine, the laying on of hands, etc.) and form (the words that are said). So it is important to say the words accurately. However, the priest might accidentally drop or mispronounce a minor word which would not, per se, render the sacrament invalid.

But, when the words are substantially changed, the validity is affected. If the priest had said, “God absolves you from your sins …” one would reasonably conclude that the sacrament was invalid. This is because substantial changes such as this do not reflect the faith of the Church, which teaches that the priest does not merely announce forgiveness but actually confers absolution by acting in the person of Christ.

In the case you cite, it would seem that the word “all” slipped into the priest’s prayer of absolution. But “all” does not alter or misrepresent the faith of the Church. We are in fact forgiven of all our sins committed since our last confession in the sacrament (presuming we have made a proper and integral confession). If it is noted that the priest consistently adds the word “all” to the formula, it should be called to his attention, and he should correct the practice, but a penitent need not be anxious that he or she was not actually absolved in a case like this.

Grace and free will

Question: If we are truly free, how can we account for God’s sovereign grace, which moves us to make good choices? Doesn’t this reduce us to mere puppets?

Henry Johnson,Chicago

Answer: Your question presupposes a freedom of the human person that is rather detached and absolute.

Even before we bring God into the picture, freedom for us (as finite creatures) is not absolute and detached. It is tied to what we desire by nature. Our human nature inclines us to choose what we perceive to be good and helpful to us. We are disinclined to choose what we see to be harmful, painful or odious. Such inclinations, at the natural level, do not rob us of freedom but actually enhance it by framing up a world of almost limitless possibilities and making the choices clearer.

It is the same with God and his grace. God does not destroy the nature of things but moves them in accord with their nature that he himself has established. Thus his grace does not destroy our freedom but enables it and assists it by inclining us to what is good and holy.

Thus, freedom and sovereign grace are not wholly opposed, though their exact interaction contains mysteries hidden from pure human analysis.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.