Absolution in a liturgical church refers to the pronouncement of God's forgiveness of sins.

Roman Catholic ChurchEdit

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 offers 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."

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 in a given area are granted absolution for unconfessed sins, is only granted in extreme emergencies where there is immediate danger of death. Anyone receiving general absolution who survives the emergency is required to make a full sacramental confession and receive regular absolution as soon as possible after the emergency. Only the diocesan bishop may allow general absolution. 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 traditionsEdit

In the Greek ChurchEdit

The belief of the ancient Greek Church has been set forth above. 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 ChurchEdit

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."


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."


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.


(For the earliest tradition in the Syrian Church see Absolution in Patristic age.)

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.


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.


The earliest Reformers attacked virulently the penitential practice of the Catholic 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.

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."


In the Anglican Communion, absolution usually takes place after the General Confession during the Eucharist or during a Daily Rite. When possible, a priest or bishop makes this pronouncement. When a layperson or deacon makes this pronouncement, the formula is changed. Where a priest could say "forgive you", a deacon or layperson would say "forgive us".

An absolution is also pronounced after the sacrament of the reconciliation of a penitent by the priest hearing the confession.

Often, physical actions accompany an absolution. A priest or bishop may make the sign of the cross in front of him or her, facing the congregation. Those receiving the absolution may, in addition, make the sign of the cross across their chests.

The "Book of Common Prayer" contains a formula of Absolution in Matins, at the communion service, 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.

Of the third absolution the rubric speaks as follows: "Here shall the sick person be moved to make a special confession of his sins if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter. After which confession, the priest shall absolve him (if he humbly and heartily desire it) after this sort: 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." This is the form generally employed by the Anglican clergymen when they absolve after having heard private confessions. These formulæ, even the last, are indeed vague, and in the light of Anglican interpretation (always excepting the advanced Ritualists) mean little more than the power to declare sins forgiven. (Convocation, 1873; Lambeth Conference, 1877; Liddon's "Life of Pusey").

The Ritualists, since the Pusey sermon of 1846, have held with more or less variance that Christ has granted to His priests the power to forgive sins. They have also held that this power should be exercised after confession has been made to the minister of the Church. Among Ritualists themselves some have insisted that confession to the priest was necessary either in re or in voto


The common practice is the corporate confession of sins at the beginning of a worship service. The Lutheran reformers held that a complete enumeration of sins is impossible (see Psalm 19:12) and that one's confidence is not to be based on the sincerity of one's contrition nor on one's compliance with the works of satisfaction imposed by the priest. In fact, works of satisfaction, as taught by the medieval Church, were rejected. Faith, that is, trust in Christ's complete active and passive satisfaction is what receives the forgiveness and salvation won by him and imparted to the congregation by the general word of absolution. Some Lutheran churches also advocate private confession with a Pastor, but the practice is fairly rare.

Sources and referencesEdit

  • John N. Wall. A Dictionary for Episcopalians. Cambridge, Massachusetts|Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2000.
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