19 March 2020, The Tablet

Bishop permits general absolution

Bishop permits general absolution

Bishop of Motherwell Joseph Toal, pictured here at St Columbkilles RC Church.
Andrew Milligan/PA Archive/PA Images

A Scottish bishop is giving permission for “general absolution” at Masses today ahead of a nationwide ban on public liturgies, while another is telling priests he disagrees with the suspension of Masses. 

With measures to prevent Covid-19 ramping up in intensity, the impact on Catholic communities is profound and forcing priests, bishops and laity to be creative about how they minister to church communities. 

The Bishop of Motherwell, Joseph Toal, has written to priests allowing them to absolve people from their sins without going to confession individually. Church rules permit general absolution during a time of crisis and where a sufficient number of confessors are unavailable for a reasonable period of time. 

“This can only be used in exceptional circumstances, which is clearly the case at present,” the bishop writes in a letter seen by The Tablet. “I recognise also that those who attend Daily Mass would probably wish to go to Confession before Easter, and that will be difficult in the weeks ahead. By celebrating the Sacrament in this way, they are receiving the consolation of the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness as they face this prolonged period without Mass and Holy Communion. If someone present at Mass tomorrow is living with grave sin they are still required to make an individual confession as soon as possible.” 

Bishop Toal, who is suggesting that general absolution be offered today, the Feast of St Joseph, says that emergency baptisms can take place during the restricted period with just parents and God parents presents. He adds that marriages can be performed with just the couple, two witnesses and the celebrant.

Meanwhile, the English and Welsh bishops are encouraging priest to offer “phone support” to those who are in isolation and when anointing “the Oil of the Sick can be applied using a cotton bud which can be burned afterwards.” The bishops’ guidance say that “confession may be offered on request as long as hygiene and social distancing requirements are observed.”

General absolution was popular in the years after the Second Vatican Council taking place in the context of special penitential services. There was also anecdotal evidence that it led to a rise in individual confessions. Rome, however, cracked down on the practice so it is only used infrequently. Bishop Toal’s moves shows the impact of the Covid-19 virus on the life of the Church as public liturgies are banned. 

The English, Welsh and Scottish bishops have announced a suspension of Masses and funerals from the evening of Friday 20 March. Their decision comes as bishops across Europe cancel public worship, with the lockdown expected to last through Easter. The Vatican says that Pope Francis’ Holy Week liturgies will take place without the “physical presence” of believers and instead by live-streamed. Churches will, however, remain open for private prayer. 

But not all bishops are happy about the suspension of Masses. 

“I wish it to be known that, as Bishop of Dunkeld, I personally do not accept this decision, and although our parishes will cease celebrating public Mass, I want you to know that I strongly disagree with this decision,” Bishops Stephen Robson told his priests in a letter, seen by The Tablet.  

“This decision has been incredibly difficult for me, as in forty-one years as a priest, I never thought that it would be mandated that public Mass would be suspended like this, when the Mass is the greatest gift and remedy for ill that we have to offer our people as a Catholic Church.”

His comments come despite official advice from health authorities across the world that banning public gatherings is crucial in preventing the spread of the Coronavirus. 

While he personally disagrees with the decision to suspend Masses, the bishop says he has been able to sign the Scottish bishops' letter suspending liturgies. The letter says the decision has been taken due to the "unprecedented crisis" and that has respected "the prudential judgment of each bishop." 

It goes on: “Priests will continue to celebrate Holy Mass in private with the particular intention of praying for those suffering from Covid-19 and those who care for them. Our Churches will remain open for personal prayer and we would encourage parish priests to welcome individuals who seek consolation and encouragement from the Lord. We also ask our priests to be available for the reception of the Sacraments of Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick and Holy Communion as and when they are needed especially for the sick and housebound.”

Pope Francis has thanked priests in northern Italy for their “creativity” in ministering to their people during the crisis, but warned them not to be like a “Don Abbondio”, the cowardly and selfish priest featured in Alessandro Manzoni’s great novel “I Promessi Sposi”(The Betrothed), which vividly describes the Milan plague of 1630.


The Tablet has an online list of useful spiritual and other resources during the Covid-19 pandemic. 



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