Communal Penance Services
Q: Advent is upon us, and I need some information on “communal penance services.” Surely absolution pronounced by a priest in one of these is not valid?
A: There is certainly nothing wrong with a “communal penance service” if by that you mean a worship service in which the need for repentance is preached, followed by individual reception of the sacrament of penance. This is what the great majority of seasonal “penance services” are.
If, however, you mean that the priests pronounces a general absolution–that is, he says the formula of absolution (“And I absolve you of your sins…”) over a group of people without individual confession first–then the situation bears more scrutiny.
If he uses the standard formula (“I absolve you of your sins…”, etc.) then yes, it would presumably be valid, but without individual absolution first it would be highly illicit.
General absolutions are allowed only in cases of necessity, not just because it’s Advent, and they do not relieve one of the duty of confessing all of one’s mortal sins. The Church requires that after a general absolution has been done (e.g., for a bunch of soldiers going into battle with no time for individual confessions, during a plane crash, etc.) one must go as soon as possible to the sacrament and confess all the stuff that was absolved in the general absolution.
This is similar to how, even though the gentiles to whom Peter preached had already received grace still needed to receive the full rite of baptism, even though they had already begun to partake in its graces (Acts 10:44-48). In the same way, Christ intended us to confess our sins (not simply be forgiven of them), and so the full rite of confession must also be gone through unless impossibility prevents it.