HONOLULU — Reacting to an emergency alert that mistakenly warned of an imminent ballistic missile attack from North Korea, Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu, Hawaii, gave general absolution to a group of deacons and their wives gathered at the chapel near his residence Jan. 13.

Bishop Silva arrived as the deacons and their wives had returned to their pews after receiving Holy Communion. Moments later, he stepped forward to repeat the shocking news and offer absolution.

“No one can offer general absolution to the whole diocese at once,” Bishop Silva told the Register later, explaining that it was the first time he had done so for a group of the faithful. “But I could offer it to those who were present.”

Indeed, as he raced from his residence to the chapel, he told himself, “What could be a better way [to prepare for this attack] than to be in Mass and then receive absolution?”

Some in the congregation wept as they bowed their heads for the absolution. But just a short time later, Bishop Silva and the rest of Hawaii’s panicked residents learned there was no incoming missile attack, and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency revoked the alert.

Still, the Honolulu bishop believes he made the right call with the information he had in hand. And those who received the absolution said they were moved by the rush of pastoral concern that brought him to the chapel.

“I was impressed that the bishop’s first thought was for his people,” Deacon Dave Kane, who was present with his wife, Anne, told the Register. “In a time of crisis, he jumps in the pen with his sheep and tries to do the best he can for them.”

 

Code of Canon Law

Now, weeks after the false-missile alert, Bishop Silva’s actions have drawn attention to a rare practice: the provision of general absolution in times of grave crisis.

“The Code of Canon Law says you are required in most cases to offer individual confession; that is the norm,” Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, the chairman of pastoral studies and assistant professor of canon law at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California, told the Register.

“With general absolution, you are talking about extraordinary cases,” he added, “such as the danger of imminent death for a large group of people, and the priest has no time for individual confessions.”

Father Pietrzyk noted several instances when this extraordinary provision could be judged licit: “A priest on a plane that is about to crash or a missionary who is only able to visit a village or a mountain town for a very short period, with no likelihood that another priest can offer the sacrament.”

In this context, the decision to insist on individual confession could “deprive penitents of sacramental grace.”

In the United States, perhaps the best-known case of a Catholic priest offering general absolution dates back to the Civil War. At the battle of Gettysburg, Holy Cross Father William Corby, chaplain to the 88th New York Infantry of the famous Irish Brigade, offered general absolution to his troops. And today, visitors touring the battlefield will find a bronze statute commemorating the striking spectacle of the priest raising his hands to offer words of forgiveness to soldiers kneeling before him moments before they would enter a battle that resulted in a devastating loss of life.

Back at the University of Notre Dame, there is an identical copy of the statute in front of Corby Hall.

Father Thomas Byles, 50 years later, also granted general absolution in the most dire of circumstances. Eyewitnesses report seeing the priest hearing confessions and granting general absolution as the RMS Titanic was sinking after striking an iceberg on its infamous maiden voyage.

After the start of the First World War, Pope Benedict XV formally approved the use of general absolution in specific wartime conditions. And by the Second World War, the Pope’s teaching was expanded to permit general absolution for a group of people in “manifestly grave or urgent need,” said Father Pietrzyk.

 

1996 Vatican Clarification

Much later, after the Second Vatican Council inspired some progressive pastors to offer general absolution in lieu of individual confession as a “communal” exercise, the the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts issued a 1996 clarification that effectively barred the practice and gave the local bishop authority to set the conditions for when general absolution should be made available.

Today, however, several military chaplains contacted by the Register said they had never felt “the need” to provide general absolution.

Father Paul Hurley, the chief of chaplains for the U.S. Army, told the Register that in almost two decades of military service, he had always been able to offer individual confessions.

“I have had a lot of deployments and heard a lot of confessions, but I have never had the need to offer general absolution,” said Father Hurley, a priest in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Modern combat operations generally involve the deployment of smaller units, and thus a chaplain will likely have enough time for individual confessions.

Father Hurley is glad this is the case, because he remains “very cautious about a situation that would require general absolution. The individual penitent’s confession is so critical to the sacrament, and to go to a general absolution, you lose that.”

Like Father Hurley, Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland, California, a longtime Jesuit chaplain in the U.S. Navy, said he has never offered general absolution.

“Even when I was in Iraq and visiting encampments of Marines dug into the border between Kuwait and Iraq, the Marines gave me enough time to hear individual confessions,” Bishop Barber told the Register, recalling many instances when Marines heading into battle waited patiently for confession.

“But if they had said, ‘You have 10 minutes,’ and there was a long line, I would have given them general absolution.”

 

Micronesia Missionary

However, the Oakland bishop said he once received general absolution while serving as a Jesuit missionary at his order’s missionary school in Micronesia, in Chuuk, part of the Caroline Islands.

There, he traveled on a ship with a missionary priest who visited each of the outer islands on a quarterly basis.

The ship would arrive at an island at dawn and leave at noon.

During this brief visit with local Catholics, the priest baptized children, blessed the graves of those who had died and celebrated Mass in a church with a thatched roof and a dirt floor.

“The priest would also give general absolution because there wasn’t enough time for individual confession,” Bishop Barber recalled. “I thought that was a good use for when it is intended.”

His experience underscores the rarity of general absolution. And even when it is permitted, penitents are still required to confess their sins at the next opportunity.

Of equal importance, he noted, a confessor must be physically close to penitents, even when general absolution is offered.

Illustrating this point, he cited the Vatican’s ruling in one historic case. An underground mine caved in, trapping miners. They were still able to speak with people aboveground, however, and a priest wanted to know if he could give them absolution.

“The Vatican said, ‘No. You have to be in physical proximity,’” said Bishop Barber.

Sometimes, though, a pastor has no time for consultation with his bishop or the Holy See, and he must depend on his priestly formation and knowledge of canon law to assess a fast-moving crisis.

 

‘Ground Zero’ Confessions

On Sept. 11, 2001, Father George Rutler confronted this challenge at Ground Zero.

At the time, Father Rutler was the pastor of St. Agnes Catholic Church next to Grand Central Station in Manhattan. And when he learned the World Trade Center had been attacked, he sped out of his parish and ran 3 miles to a surreal urban battleground of smoke-filled skyscrapers, fleeing office workers and first responders arriving for duty.

The priest remembered ranks of firemen and police officers lining up, “like an army,” poised to enter the buildings and rescue office workers trapped inside. By then, Franciscan Father Mychal Judge, chaplain to the New York City Fire Department, had already died in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

As firefighters carrying heavy equipment passed by Father Rutler, some were able to make quick confessions.

“They asked for absolution, a blessing. They knew what they were getting into,” Father Rutler told the Register.

That was when he gave general absolution to the ranks of first responders. The terror attack, he realized, was another form of war, and time had run out.

“It was like being on a battlefield,” he said, somberly. “That’s why I gave general absolution.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.