Part 2 History

Chapter r29 The Second Vatican Council

Preliminary Questions


Reconciliation Paradigms

Constitution on the Liturgy

"Tip of the Pistol" Changes

Gains and Losses

To Think About

Preliminary Questions

What did the sacrament look like at the time of the Council (e.g.1960,  55 years ago)?  What is the immediate history of the current Rite of Reconciliation?  Read the Rite of Reconciliation; are there ritual options in the rite which you have never seen used?   Which ones?   How does the theology presented in the Introduction compare with that which you learned at the time of your First Confession?  Did you celebrate first Reconciliation before or after your first reception of the Eucharist? 


NCCB-CL Newsletter, XXVIII (June/July 1992), pp 22-26.  [Excellent commentary on article 72 of the Sacrosanctum Concilium.]

Richard M. Gula, S.S.  To Walk Together Again, Chapter 6 "Reconciliation Through the Ages" pp 187-226.

James Dallen. The Reconciling Community: The Rite of Penance, "The Reform of Penance," pp 205-249, "Theological Foundations," pp 250-297, "Liturgies of Conversion and Reconciliation," pp 298-248, and "Shaping the Future," pp 349-407.

Kenan B. Osborne, O.F.M. Reconciliation and Justification, "The Sacrament of Reconciliation, Justification and Vatican II," 198-220, "Post-Vatican II Theology and Unresolved Issues on Justification and the Sacrament of Reconciliation," pp 221-254.

Annibale Bugnini. The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975, Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1990, Chapter 39 "Reconciliation," pp 664-683.

Return to   Top of This Page   Reconciliation Index   Home Page

Reconciliation Paradigms

The Church continues the healing ministry of Jesus. The risen Lord commissioned the disciples to continue his work of healing and forgiveness. "He breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.'" (John 20:22-23) "Over the centuries the concrete form in which the Church has exercised this power received from the Lord has varied considerably." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1447)

Reconciliation Paradigms Grid

Name(Jesus and Sub-apostolic Church)Canonical Penance (Order of Penitents)Celtic Penance (Tariff Penance)ConfessionReconciliation
Paradigm (Think...)Jesus in the GospelsBaptismDoctor visitJuridical trialEucharist
Process (Stages)Former life
LiturgyBaptism-confirmation-eucharistOrder of Penitents:
words of
Story Telling
MinistriesCommunity and its ministers and its overseerCommunity and its ministers and its overseerHoly person (who can read a tariff from the book)An ordained priest with proper jurisdictionThe community and its ministers and its pastor
Positive AspectsPart of the ongoing journey of the holy ChurchA liturgical process involving the whole communityHealing; quicker; repeatableRepeatable; eradicate sins, sin by sinThe celebration (and the sin) is ecclesial and public
Negative AspectsNo provision for exceptional tragic situationsOnce only; long and very hard; punishmentPrivate; no liturgy; (danger of money abuses)Sin is private; not liturgical but devotional; routine?

Return to   Top of This Page   Reconciliation Index   Home Page

Constitution on the Liturgy

1. 1963 Dec 04   Promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The Constitution contains one article on Penance, article 72: "The rite and formularies for the sacrament of penance are to be revised so that they more clearly express both the nature and effect of the sacrament."

2. This did not appear in the first draft.  Note the chapter title: "The Other Sacraments and Sacramentals." Penance was not mentioned, most probably because they thought of it (subconsciously) as a devotional practice and they were concerned with the reform of the liturgy, the sacraments.  The liturgy was public prayer, with the text (in Latin) contained in the liturgical books, with music, and vestments, and ceremonies, candles, etc, etc.  Confession was in English (except for the absolution which no ever heard), in private, with no ceremonies, vestments, music, etc, etc. 

3. Jounel (the chef d'equip of the replacement team which was entrusted with the reform of the Rite) told us in class:  "We were instructed to write the new Ordo directed by article 72 but also (and more importantly) by the understanding of liturgical law and the general liturgical principles of Chapter One. [Class notes, Institut Superieur de Liturgie, Paris France, October 1972] 

This involved moving "confession" from the category of "devotion" [Confessions of Devotion] and "ascetical practice" [private confession] to the category of liturgy and, specifically, to the category of sacrament. 

4.  The Second Vatican Council's reform of the Sacrament of Reconciliation consists primarily in returning the rite to the categories of "liturgy" and "sacrament."   [To check yourself to see if you have made this paradigm shift in your own theological understanding of the Sacrament of Reconciliation take your "image" of confession, and see how well it fulfills the following standard definitions of sacrament.]

Return to   Top of This Page   Reconciliation Index   Home Page

History of the Current Ritual

1959 Jan 25  Pope John XXIII, at St. Paul's Outside the Walls, first announces his intention to call a council. [I was in first philosophy.]

1959 Jun 18  Cardinal Tardini sends a circular letter to the Cardinals, Bishops and heads of Religious Orders and certain other communities to ask for their suggestions for the Council.

1961 Apr 12-22  The second general meeting of the preparatory liturgical commission. During this meeting a first schema for the liturgy is prepared from the recommendations of the bishops.  There is no mention of confession or the Sacrament of Reconciliation.   (Everyone  - subconsciously / under the iceberg - considered confession a devotional practice and therefore was not a concern of the document on liturgy.)

1961 Aug 10  The secretariat for the preparatory liturgical commission (Rev. A. Bugnini, secretary) publishes a revised schema for the liturgy. This schema contains no mention of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

1961 Nov 15  The secretariat for the preparatory liturgical commission publishes a third schema for the liturgy. This text mentions the Sacrament of Penance in number 59. [This number 59 eventually becomes article 72 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.]

1962 Nov 6-7  Council members discuss the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Chapter 3, The Other Sacraments and Sacramentals. There is little discussion of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

1963 Dec 04  Promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The Constitution contains one article on Penance, article 72: "The rite and formularies for the sacrament of penance are to be revised so that they more clearly express both the nature and effect of the sacrament."

1966 Feb 17  Paul VI. Apostolic Constitution Poenitemini. Publishing Services USCC, On Fast and Abstinence  [i.e. on Penance and Conversion].

1966  Formation of Coetus 23bis of the Consilium. De Rituali, III (Penance). 1966-1969. Chair: J. Lecuyer, C.S.Sp. Membership includes Karl Rahner, S.J. and Cyrille Vogel.

1967 Jan 01  Paul VI. Apostolic constitution Indulgentiarum doctrina.

1967 Feb 08  First meeting of Coetus 23bis.

1968 Mar 16  Report of coetus to Concilium. Proposed common absolution after individual confessions, and general absolution. The coetus quoted 48 previous Roman indults permitting general absolution. Four absolution prayers are given including an optative prayer, a new declarative prayer [ancestor of the present prayer], and a deprecative prayer. 

1969 May 08  The Consilium is dissolved. Congregation of Rites divided into Congregation for Divine Worship [to which the members of the Consilium are appointed] and the Congregation for Saints' Causes [to which the members of the Congregation of Rites are assigned].

1969 Fall  Final report of Congregation for Divine Worship on the Ordo Reconciliationis is opposed by Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Tension grows. Work stops.

1971 Apr 11  General Catechetical Directory: ". . . the Holy See judges it fitting that the practice now in force in the Church of putting Confession ahead of first Communion should be retained" (addendum, #5).

1971 Fall  An article from the March 16, 1968 draft of the Ordo Reconciliationis is published in a leading theological journal; people begin to wonder what happened to the work?

1971 Fall  [Tom Richstatter student at the Institut Superieur de Liturgie -- studies under Frs. Gy, Vogel, Jounel.]

1972 June 16  Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issues Normae pastorales circa Absolutionem Sacramentalem Generali modo impertiendam. AAS 74 (1972) 518-525. Pastoral Norms for Giving General Sacramental Absolution.

1972 July  New coetus is appointed with [all] new members chaired by Msgr. Pierre Jounel.

1972 November 30  Draft of Ordo Reconciliationis circulated to congregations. Conflicts over jurisdiction and personalities.

1973  National Conference of Catholic Bishops. A Study Paper for First Confession. Publication Services USCC, 1973.

1973  National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Principles to Guide Confessors in Questions of Homosexuality. Publication 293-4. 15 pp.

1973 January and February  Revised coetus rewrites Ordo Reconciliationis in light of the developments of June 16, 1972.

The key developments are: 
1) New name [Sacrament of Reconciliation] is proposed for the sacrament;
2) the Proclamation of Forgiveness (absolution) changed from juridical to deprecative form
 [and for these two changes, the new Rite will be introduced by an Apostolic Constitution];
3) three rites are given (addition of an "Ordo ad reconciliandos plures paenitentes cum confessione et absolutione generali";
4) the place for the sacrament is left up to bishops' conferences;
5) ritual includes official examples of non-sacramental celebrations of reconciliation;
6) a celebration of the Word added to rite for reconciling individuals;
7) the Introduction is revised to match the style of the other revised rites.

1973 March  

At the March 1973 meeting of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Cult, Msgr. Pierre Jounel introduced the text as revised by the coetus.   One of the Anglo-Saxon cardinals, not finding the words "ego te absolvo" ("I absolve you") in each of the prayers of absolution objected:  "There is a great shortage of priests in my country.  The seminaries are empty.  Parishes are closing.  And why?  Because the priests have lost their identity.  Laity are taking over.  Lay people are reading the scripture, touching the eucharist, women in the sanctuary... But at least the priest can hold onto this:  he is the only one who can say 'This is my body' and 'I  [ego te absolvo] absolve you.'  Take that away and there won't be a priest left."  Other cardinals agreed.  And Msgr. Jounel was instructed to have only one formula for the absolution prayer and it had to contain the world "I absolve you."   [The members of the Congregation also instructed him to restore the "Act of Contrition" in place of the "Lord's Prayer" in Chapter One.]

Msgr. Pierre Jounel told us in class at the Institut Superieur de Liturgie that when he was instructed to compose a new prayer which kept the "I absolve you -- Ego te absolvo" he was guided by the following considerations:

1.  Christian prayer is Trinitarian: the Spirit opens the mouth of Christ to address the Father.
2.  Liturgical prayer is addressed to the Father as the prayer of the Body of Christ head and members. 
3.  The prayer should mention the source of reconciliation: the paschal victory.
4.  The prayer should contain the name of the sacrament: reconciliation.
5.  The prayer should indicate the "ends" (purpose) of the sacrament: pardon and peace.
6.  The prayer should clearly show the relation of the priest to the community (See: Introduction, # 19).
7.  The prayer is one, unified prayer. 

Guided by these considerations we have this prayer:

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. (R. Amen.) 

The change of the "essential formula" ("form" of the sacrament / as in "matter and form") requires very special procedures and papal permissions, as does the change of the name of a sacrament.  (For example, that is why the new Rite for the Anointing of the Sick  is introduced by an Apostolic Constitution and not simply by an Instruction.)  [Those of us who are not "insiders" with the workings of the curia are not aware of these procedures but they exist (see the metaphor of the cruise ship)].  Msgr. Pierre Jounel told us in class at the Institut Superieur de Liturgie that because they were not going to (i.e. were instructed not to) change the "essential formula" of the sacrament, they [the committee] judged it would be un-necessarily complicated (and procedurally dangerous) to ask for a change in the name of the sacrament. And so they replaced "Ordo Reconciliationis" on the cover and title page with "Ordo Penitentiae"  BUT they did not change the text of the document which consistently names the sacrament the "Rite of Reconciliation."  Notice, for example, the table of contents:  [ICEL translation in the USCCB edition of 2010] 

Chapter I: Rite of Reconciliation of Individual Penitents
Chapter II: Rite of Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution
Chapter III: Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with General Confession and Absolution
Chapter IV: Various Texts Used in a Celebration of Reconciliation.

1973 May 24  Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments and the Congregation for the Clergy issue a joint declaration concerning the first reception of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist by children, bringing an end to the practice by which preparation for Reconciliation was put off until after first Communion.

1973 Fall  Rewrite of the Ordo Reconciliationis. Juridical prayer restored. Principle reason for an Apostolic Constitution removed. Name on title page restored to Ordo Paenitentiae. [Introduced by a decree.]

1973 Nov 29  Paul VI approves final text.

1973 Dec 02  [First Sunday of Advent]   Sacred Congregation for Divine Cult, Ordo Paenitentiae, editio typica. 121 pp. Decree of the congregation (A. Bugnini) introduces the new rite.

1974 Feb 07  Publication of Latin editio typica of the Ordo Paenitentiae.

1974 Dec 08  Paul VI. Apostolic Exhortation Paterna Cum Benevolentia.  Publication Services USCC, On Reconciliation Within the Church.

1975 Mar 04  NCCB submits ICEL text of the Rite of Penance to the Holy See; confirmed within a week on March 7, 1975.

1977 Feb 27 [First Sunday of Lent]   Implementation date for USA the new Rite of Penance.

1979 Mar 04  John Paul II. [First] Encyclical letter Redemptor hominis. Publication Services USCC, Redeemer of Man, publication number 003-6. 100 pp. Explores the relationship between the mystery of redemption in Jesus Christ and human dignity.

1980 Nov 30  John Paul II.  Encyclical letter Dives in misericordia. Publication Services USCC, Rich in Mercy, publication number 734-0. 61 pp. Examines some of the major anxieties of our time declaring that "the love and the mercy of God should lead to love and mercy on the part of Christians toward others."

1983  Code of Canon Law. Canons 959-997. (See Dallen, p 224.)

1983  Synod of Bishops. Publication Services USCC, Penance and Reconciliation in the Mission of the Church: Synod of Bishops, 1983, publication number 187-3. 68 pp.

1984 Mar 25  John Paul II. Apostolic exhortation Redemptionis donum. Publishing Services USCC, The Gift of Redemption, publication number 925-4. 55 pp. In the light of the mystery of the redemption, concepts of vocation, consecration, evangelical councils, and love of the Church in the spirit of reconciliation are discussed.

1984 Dec 02  John Paul II. Post-synodal apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia. Publication Services USCC, Reconciliation and Penance, publication number 951-3. 144 pp. Urges a return to individual confession and stresses the individual reconciliation with God.

1990 Mar 01  NCCB Pastoral Research and Practices Committee. "Reflections on the Sacrament of Penance in Catholic Life Today: A Study Document." Office of Publishing Services, USCC. Publication no. 340-X. $2.95.

Return to   Top of This Page   Reconciliation Index   Home Page

"Tip of the Pistol" Changes

Sometimes a very small change can have very large effects -- especially when the small change is close to the heart of the matter.   (Recall the example of the German policemen). 

At the time of the Council most people thought of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (then "Sacrament of Penance") as Confession.  Confession was a devotional practice which was used by devout Catholics as a means of overcoming venial sins. 

When the new Ordo Penitentiae (1979) was published many pastors changed the "form" or the "ritual" to look like Chapter Two of the rite, without realizing the "tip of the pistol" change that had taken place.  In the table below I have summarized these "tip of the pistol" changes. 


 Before Vatican IIAfter Vatican II
ParadigmJuridical TrialEucharist
PurposeDevotion:  Overcome (venial) sinLiturgy:  Worship God
FocusConfession of my sinsProclamation of God's Mercy
What I think aboutWhat I do (confess)What Jesus does (reconciliation)
MentalityIndividual / PersonalCommunal / Ecclesial
GodAccountant / number & kindParent / parental love
ActionCause God to forgive the sinnerCause the sinner to feel forgiven

Return to   Top of This Page   Reconciliation Index   Home Page

Gains and Losses

If "private confession" disappears from church practice, what would be gained and what would be lost?

Msgr. Jounel (the chef d'equip entrusted by Pope Paul VI with the reform of the Rite of Penance) told us in class:  "We were to write the new Ordo directed by article 72 of the Constitution on the Liturgy  [72. The rite and formulas for the sacrament of penance are to be revised so that they more clearly express both the nature and effect of the sacrament]  but also (and more importantly) by the understanding of liturgical law and the general liturgical principles of Chapter One. [Class notes, Institut Superieur de Liturgie, Paris France, October 1972]  This involves moving the popular understanding of "confession" from the category of "devotion" [Confessions of Devotion] and "ascetical practice" to the category of liturgy and, specifically, the category of sacrament.  For example  articles 26 and 17 of the Constitution on the Liturgy  state:

26. Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church, which is the "sacrament of unity," namely, the holy people united and ordered under their bishops.

Therefore liturgical services pertain to the whole body of the Church; they manifest it and have effects upon it; but they concern the individual members of the Church in different ways, according to their differing rank, office, and actual participation.

27. It is to be stressed that whenever rites, according to their specific nature, make provision for communal celebration involving the presence and active participation of the faithful, this way of celebrating them is to be preferred, so far as possible, to a celebration that is individual and quasi-private.

This applies with especial force to the celebration of Mass and the administration of the sacraments, even though every Mass has of itself a public and social nature.

Many interpret paragraph 27 to indicate that "private" confession will go the way of "private" (side-altar) Masses.  If this were to happen, would anything be lost?

Telling one's sins to the priest

There is positive psychological value in "confessing" -- Some pastors (Priests / Bishops / Popes) wish to preserve devotional confession for this reason.  For example, Pope Pius XII wrote: 

As you well know, Venerable Brethren, it is true that venial sins may be expiated in many ways which are to be highly commended. But to ensure more rapid progress day by day in the path of virtue, We will that the pious practice of frequent confession, which was introduced into the Church by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, should be earnestly advocated. By it genuine self-knowledge is increased, Christian humility grows, bad habits are corrected, spiritual neglect and tepidity are resisted, the conscience is purified, the will strengthened, a salutary self-control is attained, and grace is increased in virtue of the Sacrament itself. Let those, therefore, among the younger clergy who make light of or lessen esteem for frequent confession realize that what they are doing is alien to the Spirit of Christ and disastrous for the Mystical Body of our Savior. (Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi, encyclical On the Mystical Body of Christ, 1943, #88)  [Richstatter Comment:  While this statement was made in 1943, many pastors are still of this mentality 70 years later.]

When one celebrates the Sacrament of Reconciliation in a communal setting where the procession to the priest/confessor is modeled on the procession to Communion at Eucharist, all these values can be preserved, but there is no time to "confess" as there was formerly in "Scholastic Confession."  But note that: 

Return to   Top of This Page   Reconciliation Index   Home Page

To Think About

Be able to reproduce by memory the above table on the history of the Paradigms for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  How has your knowledge of the history of the Sacrament of Reconciliation affected your understanding of this sacrament?  How will you be able to convey this essential information to the members of your parish who did not study this history during their catechetical instruction? 

Go to the previous period of this history Go to the next period of this history

Return to   Top of This Page   Reconciliation Index   Home Page

Copyright: Tom Richstatter.  All Rights Reserved.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 02/23/14 . Your comments on this site are welcome at