Q. Under what circumstances is general absolution acceptable? I’ve heard of this happening when the lines for confession were too long and Mass was about to begin.
A. The Code of Canon Law (CIC 961) provides guidelines for when general absolution can be granted:
1) Danger of death is present and there is not enough time for the priest or priests to hear individual confessions. For example, a priest on an airplane that is going to crash can obviously give general absolution. A priest would also be expected to offer general absolution for a large gathering of soldiers who were about to enter into battle.
2) There is a grave necessity and not enough confessors to properly hear the individual confessions within an appropriate amount of time. In this instance, it is allowed because – by no fault of the people – they would be deprived of absolution or the ability to receive the Eucharist for a long period of time. An example would be if a priest was only occasionally able to visit a remote area and was faced with thousands of people coming to have their confessions heard at a specific celebration. He would be permitted to offer general absolution on this occasion.
However, Canon 962 tells us that each penitent is expected as soon as they are able to make an individual private confession to confess all those mortal sins from which they were just absolved. An example of this happening may be at a parish penitential celebration where the priest expected no more than 50 people to show up and, to his amazement, more than 1000 did! Since he would not be able to hear all their confessions at that time, he could offer general absolution but must also inform everyone present that they are now obligated to individually confess those mortal sins as soon as possible.
An example where general absolution would be forbidden would be at a pilgrimage or festival where lots of Catholics were gathered and the organizers failed to get an adequate number of confessors for the occasion. Likewise, it would not be permitted if a priest simply got tired of hearing confessions and saw that a long line of people were still waiting and so gave them all absolution. That’s just being lazy, padre!