The Statement of Conclusions - the summary document resulting from discussions at the end of 1998 between a group of Australian bishops and leading Vatican figures - cited a wide range of concerns about the state of the Catholic faith in Australia.
One of these concerns related to the widespread, unjustified use of the Third Rite of Reconciliation (or general absolution). The Holy See made it clear that the curbing of this practice was to be a priority.
While most of Australia's bishops acted promptly to clarify the Church's teaching on general absolutions, a few hesitated. One of them, Adelaide's Archbishop Leonard Faulkner, even indicated in a radio interview that he expected general absolutions to continue in his diocese without too much difficulty.
In response to this, the Vatican has now requested that Archbishop Faulkner circulate a "Statement of Clarification" to his priests (see report on page 4), which makes absolutely clear that no circumstances exist in the Adelaide Archdiocese that would justify general absolutions.
Although the Statement is written in the first person, as if by the Archbishop himself, it appears on Vatican letterhead, making it obvious that the Archbishop was following orders.
Apart from the fact that this Statement is equally relevant to the rest of Australia, it is not only bishops who need to exercise their pastoral responsibility regarding the Sacrament of Penance. It is also up to each priest to ensure that individual confessions are always conveniently available - keeping in mind that most Catholics prefer anonymity. Equally important - given that individual confession has virtually disappeared in some places - a major priestly effort is needed to re-catechise the faithful on the meaning and necessity of the Sacrament of Penance.
Michael Gilchrist: Editor (E-mail - firstname.lastname@example.org)