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‘The plane’s going down’ — am I absolved, generally speaking?

A Boeing 747 made an emergency Miami landing Thursday evening, after one of the plane’s engines caught fire shortly after takeoff. 

While Florida residents captured video of the plane streaking across the sky, with flames shooting from its left side, no one was hurt before the plane landed. 

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Otto, left, the inflatable autopilot from the 1980 film “Airplane!” Credit: Paramount Pictures.

The flaming plane was one of several high-profile aviation incidents in recent weeks, including the emergency Jan. 5 landing of a Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft, which saw a door plug detach from the airplane shortly after takeoff. 

No one was hurt in that situation either — which was nearly miraculous, given the possibility that the falling door plug could have caused damage to the airplane’s engines, wings, or other essential flying components, or that someone could have fallen out a gaping hole in the airplane!

But as Boeing undertakes a massive review of airplane safety, some Catholics are asking a big question: If a plane is going down, and a priest is on board, can he absolve us?

It’s a great question. 

The Pillar explains.

What is the sacrament of penance?

The Church teaches that through the sacrament of penance, the baptized can “obtain pardon from God's mercy for the offense committed against him,” and also be “reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins.”

Penance, often called confession, and sometimes called “reconciliation,” is the “sacrament of conversion,” through which penitents can have assurance of the forgiveness of their sins.

Of course, God is not bound to the sacraments, and can confer forgiveness beyond the confessional, but sacramental absolution offers penitents assurance that in their repentance and contrition, God has forgiven them.

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And how does penance ordinarily work?

Well, the Church says that “individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the only ordinary means by which a member of the faithful conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and the Church.”

The notion of “individual and integral confession and absolution” describes the ordinary process of going to confession, confessing one’s sins in kind and number, and receiving absolution from the priest, who “forgives sins in the name of Jesus Christ,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. 

But there are other ways of seeking forgiveness for sins — one of those is called “general absolution.”

So what’s general absolution?

General absolution describes a rite in which the priest offers absolution to many penitents at once, without individual confession first. It can be conferred in a few circumstances.

One of those is a circumstance of “grave necessity,” when “in view of the number of penitents, there are not enough confessors available to hear the confessions of individuals properly within a suitable period of time in such a way that the penitents are forced to be deprived for a long while of sacramental grace or holy communion through no fault of their own,” according to the Church’s canon law.

Here’s a situation in which to envision that. Imagine a rural and remote village, to which a priest is able to visit only once a year. Imagine that when he comes, everyone in the village lines up to go to confession — but there are so many people, and only one priest! 

In that case, hearing all confessions might be impossible — the priest might have 24 or 36 hours in the village, and hundreds of people lined up for confession. Even if he could get consistently through 10 confessions an hour — and not sleep, eat, or go to the bathroom — he could only hear 240 confessions in the period of a day. 

And of course, priests must sleep, eat, and even go to the bathroom.

So in that scenario, the diocesan bishop might allow for the conferral of general absolution. 

Or, for a more typical situation, imagine the priest with a large prison in his parish, who is only able to spend a few hours each week hearing confessions there, because of his other duties, or even because of prison regulations.

If hundreds of Catholics live at the prison who don’t have the option of just walking out and going to another parish — and if the demand for confession is so much that the priest can’t possibly hear them in the time he has — the diocesan bishop might allow for the conferral of general absolution.

Now here’s the airplane scenario: Whenever the danger of death is imminent, and the priest can’t hear everyone’s confessions because there isn’t time, he can offer general absolution. 

That could be true on a battlefield, or in the situation of a crashing airplane, with an engine on fire or a wayward door plug disabling the wing flaps.

The priest offers general absolution by inviting penitents to offer an expression of contrition, like the confiteor, and then he offers the words of forgiveness:

“I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit.”

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And that’s everything? Just like that, sins are forgiven?

Just like that, sins are forgiven, yep.

But there is a bit more to know.

Here’s canon 962 §1: “For a member of the Christian faithful validly to receive sacramental absolution given to many at one time, it is required not only that the person is properly disposed but also at the same time intends to confess within a suitable period of time each grave sin which at the present time cannot be so confessed.”

In other words, if it happens that you receive general absolution, you must plan on going to confession as soon as possible — assuming you live through the emergency — to confess the sins you weren’t able to.

That’s true whether you receive general absolution on a crashing airplane, in prison, or in a remote and isolated village. 

In fact, the Church reminds priests that if they’re able to — if there’s enough time — they should remind everyone participating in the sacrament of their obligation to go to confession, before conferring absolution.

Ok, so, are the sins of everyone on the plane forgiven? Just by being there for the general absolution?

God can work in and out of the sacraments, to forgive everyone he wants. But sacraments aren’t magic, and absolution isn’t a spell. Those participating in the sacrament are those who are baptized, and who at the time of absolution have:

  • the intention of receiving the sacrament,

  • contrition for their sins,

  • and an intention to go to confession when possible, if possible.

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This is cool. But what if there isn’t a priest on my plane?

If there were a superabundance of priests in this world, it would be cool to have a missionary order that just flew around all the time, racking up frequent flyer miles and being ready to absolve generally — just in case. 

But that’s not the world we live in. If you’re in the exceedingly improbable situation of a plane crash, it is even more improbable that a priest will be on the plane. If he is, sure, he’ll be ready.

But the odds are slim he’ll be on board.

If you’re in the situation in which your life is in danger, God won’t hold it against you that a priest wasn’t around. Remember, the sacraments offer assurance of salvation, but God can work to confer grace without sacraments. 

In danger of death, with real sorrow for sins, consider praying an act of contrition. Something like: 

“O my God, I am sorry for having offended you, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend you, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.”

And if the plane doesn’t crash, get to confession when you’re able. The Lord’s mercy is waiting there.

And also, if the plane is crashing, “don’t call me Shirley.”

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