Following the mandate of Vatican Council II, the Pope Paul VI promulgated the Decree on the Rite of Penance (1973) which affirmed, “Individual, integral confession and absolution remain the only ordinary way for the faithful to reconcile themselves with God and the Church, unless physical or moral impossibility excuses from this kind of confession.” (This norm was reiterated in the Code of Canon Law, #960 and the Catechism, #1420ff.) Therefore, the Church upheld the traditional practice of the penitent examining his conscience, repenting of sin and feeling sincere contrition for those sins, having the firm amendment not to commit those sins again, confessing those sins to a priest privately and receiving absolution, and then performing the appropriate penance. This spiritual regimen is essential for the pursuit of holiness.
As indicated in the 1973 decree, legitimate, grave circumstances may arise which may impede private confession and necessitate the granting of general absolution. Such a circumstance would arise in a time of crisis, danger, or imminent death, and a sufficient number of confessors are not available to hear individual confessions within a reasonable period of time. Consequently the penitents, through no fault of their own, would be deprived of the sacramental grace of Penance or Holy Communion for a long period of time, and their souls are at risk.
An example when the granting of general absolution was appropriate occurred on March 29, 1979 when the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania was in danger of exploding. If the reactor had exploded, large quantities of radioactive material would have been released into the environment, jeopardizing the lives of countless citizens. Bishop Keeler of Harrisburg (now the Cardinal-Archbishop of Baltimore) granted general absolution to the faithful since every individual person would not have had the chance to go to private confession.
Nevertheless, strict norms govern the exercise of general absolution. The priest must provide an explanation to the faithful, read a selection of passages from Scripture, and give a brief homily. The penitent, who is impeded from making a private confession, must have prepared himself by examining his conscience, repenting of sin, having contrition for that sin, and having a firm amendment not to commit the sin again; this sincere, personal preparation is essential to the valid reception of the sacrament. Together, the penitents would recite a formula for general confession, like the Confiteor (“I confess to Almighty God…). The priest would impose a penance, and then impart absolution. The service would conclude with an exhortation to give thanks to God for His mercy, and then a blessing. (Confer Decree, #35, and Code of Canon Law, #962.)
A couple of cautions must be noted: First, anyone in serious, mortal sin who receives general absolution must go to private confession as soon as possible, but at least within a year (unless some grave reason prevents the person from doing so).
Second, only the Bishop of the diocese may judge whether the circumstances justify the granting of general absolution. The priest must first check with the Bishop before he may impart general absolution. In case of an emergency, however, a priest may impart general absolution and then inform the Bishop.
Finally, a large number of penitents gathered for a special occasion does not constitute a grave necessity. For instance, a parish has a regular penance service during Lent, where the faithful gather for prayers, readings of Scripture, and a homily in preparation for individual private confessions heard by a group of priests. Simply because the number of penitents is large and confessions may last for a prolonged period of time does not justify resorting to general absolution. General absolution may only be imparted in cases of grave necessity.
Sadly, as indicated in the reader’s question, the exercise of general absolution has been abused. When I was a campus chaplain at Marymount, on more than one occasion a student came to confession who had never experienced private confession, but only received general absolution. How tragic! Such an abuse deprives a person of that beautiful, intimate encounter with our Lord, the Divine Healer of our souls. Granted, individually confessing our sins to a priest is much harder than general absolution; however, the personal spiritual benefits of actually verbalizing our particular sins to a priest, who is both the minister of the Sacrament and the representative of the Church, are far greater. Private confession is an essential element for our ongoing conversion and growth in holiness.