I've been ill the last few days with a heavy cold, but am now getting better; and therefore, at last having turned to books of sacramental theology that I have at hand, find that I was mistaken in assuming that the Trinitarian formula is essential to validity of absolution.
(These comments of course pertain only to the Roman Rite; the absolution used in the Byzantine Rite is cast in a different, precatory form, including the words "May the same Lord God, through me a sinner, forgive you all the sins of your life" – though I understand that in the Russian recension of the Byzantine Rite, and perhaps in others, a prayer similar to the Western form came into use some centuries ago as a result of liturgical and theological cross-fertilization.)
For example, Fr Nicholas Halligan, O.P., in his The Administration of the Sacraments (Cork: The Mercier Press, 1962), informs me that "It is certain that the words absolvo te are required for a valid form... it is probable that the words a peccatis tuis also pertain to validity... thus, in practice, these words must be included, lest the sacrament be exposed to nullity, and where they are omitted the form is to be repeated conditionally. The words in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti are not required for validity" (p. 175f).
As an Anglican writer, F. G. Belton, in his A Manual for Confessors (London: Mowbray, 1936), quite sensibly explains (p. 16), "Our Lord made no mention of the Blessed Trinity in the institution of the sacrament, so the words, 'In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen' cannot be considered of the essence of the sacrament; but they express the fact that the priest absolves from sin by the power of God."
Obviously, the priest ought use the lawfully appointed form – e.g. that given in the 1962 liturgical books, or that in the more modern books – but if he stray therefrom without invalidating the sacrament, that is his own fault and failing, a venial sin. As Halligan says, omission of an essential or probably essential word of the form of the sacrament is gravely sinful, as it invalidates the sacrament or "exposes it to the danger of nullity", and this also applies in "the case of substantial corruption of the form", whereas "Absolution imparted in an equivalent form would be gravely unlawful but valid" (p. 176) – hence a Western priest deciding to use the Byzantine formula, or some other, would absolve validly, of course, but would sin by using a formula not approved for the Roman Rite (unless he had biritual faculties).
What rather confused and upset me with the priests I mentioned in my last post below was that, before getting to the essential words of the absolution, they used, not the modern Roman form of words, but strange formulas apparently made up by themselves – one always mentions that God the Father "sent the Holy Spirit for peace and love" [sic] and the other began a very odd sentence with "Holy Church" does such-and-such. It seems to me that both had once heard the proper, lawfully appointed formula, but have made up their own partial reminiscence of it without bothering to learn or read out the correct words! Neither used the words which any penitent in the last forty years would recognize:
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.
While rarely used in the original Latin (those using Latin usually use the older form), in that tongue it runs as follows:
Deus, Pater misericordiarum, qui per mortem et resurrectionem Filii sui mundum sibi reconciliavit et Spiritum Sanctum effudit in remissionem peccatorum, per ministerium Ecclesiæ indulgentiam tibi tribuat et pacem, et ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.
(Attentive readers will notice that the English version breaks the Latin up into two sentences, omitting "who" and changing "he" to "God", and moreover inserts "among us", which the Latin does not have.)
When all is said and done —
Is it really too much to ask that priests confess their penitents properly, according to the very straightforward ritual laid out in the relevant liturgical books?
One gets the feeling – and I think this applies also to other sacraments – that "anything will do"; only the fact that most priests read from the Missal, and are too lazy to compose their own Eucharistic Prayers or ad lib beyond a few changes here and there, prevents Mass from being similarly mucked about.
I recall once being at a nursing home with an old priest, who went to anoint a patient there and only used half the sacramental formula! I tried respectfully to remind him of his duty, but got nowhere. Given this nonresponse, I was rather impertinent and told him to be careful when leaving the facility, lest the staff think he was one of theirs...
I take up the words of the Prayer for the Church from the Anglican Patrimony (already come home to Rome, via the American 1979 B.C.P., in the Book of Divine Worship):
Give grace, O heavenly Father, to N., our Pope, to N., our Bishop, and to all bishops and other ministers [especially N....], that they may, both by their life and doctrine, set forth thy true and lively Word, and rightly and duly administer thy holy Sacraments.
Yes, may the holy Sacraments be rightly and duly administered! That is, after all, the absolute minimum to demand, not some holy devout add-on extra to be praised and overlauded!
Ah, the so-called Gaudium et spes generation of priests: let them remember, as their ill-judged preaching and ministrations ever remind the unlucky faithful, that the next words of that document of Vatican II are the all too prophetic luctus et angor, sorrow and distress.