Having responded to the question of “why” we need to confess to a priest (and how going straight to God, while it is encouraged, does not assure us of being forgiven), another important issue surrounding confession is the use of the sacrament for large gatherings of people and whether or not it is legitimate for a priest to pronounce the words of absolution over the entire congregation of people at once (what is called “general absolution”).
In the Code of Canon Law, canons 960-964 give necessary clarity on legitimate ways for priests to give absolution to those who seek forgiveness and reconciliation. Canon 960 describes the normal manner: “Individual and integral confession [‘integral’ means that one confesses each and every mortal sin recalled at the time of confession] and absolution constitute the only ordinary means by which a member of the faithful conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and the Church.” In other words, the norm is that absolution is only granted to individuals upon their making an individual confession to a priest. Therefore, in normal circumstances absolution is only to be given individually.
It is gravely unfortunate and has become an utter confusion (primarily due to laxity in teaching and in practices) that in some places the absolution of groups of two or more people in one act of absolution by a priest has been made to appear normal. Canon 961 is very clear that such general absolution is only permissible in very particular circumstances – nearly all of which require the diocesan bishop to judge if the circumstances for general absolution are truly present in the first place. First of all, the canon says there must be an imminent danger of death and a lack of both time and a priest/s available to hear confession. Pardon the image, but think of the sinking Titanic as a real example of one of these moments where general absolution would have been permissible.
Second, the canon describes general criteria that must be in place causing a grave necessity for such general absolution. These criteria are 1 - a large number of penitents; 2 – not enough priests available to hear confession in the timeframe such that these penitents would be forced to be without reconciliation and Eucharistic communion for a long time (emphasis added) by no fault of their own. It further states that a large group together with an insufficient numbers of priests is not enough to satisfy need for general absolution – it must also include the risk of people not otherwise being able to receive the sacrament for an extend time. Practically speaking: no men’s conference, women’s conference, youth camp or rally, or Advent/Lent communal penance service in the Diocese of Duluth will satisfy need for general absolution – as there remains ample opportunity even after these events for people to receive individual absolution without being unduly deprived of sacramental grace.
Thus, and in point of fact: while general absolution is foreseen as a possibility by the Code of Canon Law, it is rarely meant to be employed and only in very specific (and emergency type) situations (usually with permission of the bishop). In addition, were general absolution to be needed, any/all who are conscious of having committed mortal sin/s are to make use of individual confession as soon as reasonably possible. It is sad that over recent decades in many places (including some in this diocese) the unlawful and common use of general absolution has led many people away from confession – who now refuse to go to individual confession because they were told in previous times that it was not necessary. Please know that individual confession is a gift of God’s mercy – assuring His forgiveness of our sins through the ministry of priests, granting restoration and communion in His love.