Part 2 History

Chapter r30 The Period After Vatican II [1975-2050]

Preliminary Questions


Misericordia Dei 2002

Model Influenced by the Experience of the RCIA

Cultural and Theological Context

The Sacrament Today

To Confess or Not to Confess

To Think About

Preliminary Questions

The laity have decided that the period of scholastic penance is over.  What positive elements from this period should be retained during this time of transition?  What might be the outcome of this transition period in the history of the sacrament?

What can our practice of reconciliation learn from contemporary developments in the other sacramental rites revised by the Second Vatican Council?

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Bernardin, Joseph Cardinal,  "New Rite of Penance Suggested." Origins 13:19 (October 20, 1983), 324-326

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

Joseph A. Favazza, Ph.D., The Future of the Sacrament of Reconciliation

Peter Fink. Praying the Sacraments. Pastoral Press. ISBN 0-912405-86-4. $12.95.

Peter Fink (editor). Reconciliation. Volume 4 of Alternative Futures for Worship, (Bernard Lee, General editor), Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1987. [Contains sections on: Celebrations for Special Occasions; The Reconciliation of Groups; Liturgy for a Christian Day of Atonement; Liturgy of Reconciliation where Unordained Ministers Receive the Confession of Sin, Pray for Forgiveness and Reconciliation, and Together Present This for Confirmation and Completion in the Liturgical Assembly]

James Lopresti, Penance: A Reform Proposal for the Rite (American Essays in Liturgy 6) (Washington:  The Pastoral Press, 1987)

Orsay, Ladislas. The Evolving Church and the Sacrament of Penance. Denville NJ: Dimension Books, 1978.

Pater, Giles. Karl Rahner's Historico-Theological Studies on Penance: The Retrieval of Forgotten Truths.  Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. University of Notre Dame, 1977.

Peter, Carl. "The New Forms for Communal Penance: Will They Help?" Worship 47 (January 1973) 2-10.

Rahner, Karl. "Some Forgotten Truths Concerning the Sacrament of Penance," Theological Investigations. Vol. II. Baltimore: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1964.

Garry Wills, The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis, Viking Press, 2015, ISBN-13: 978-0525426967.   In this book Roman Catholic historian Gary Willis traces 5 major changes that have taken place throughout the history of the church: the coming and going of Latin; monarchy, or what he labels the church-state relationship; anti-Semitism; natural law: and confession.

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CARA survey 2008

Twenty-six percent of adult Catholics say they participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation once a year or more often (this is equivalent to 13.3 million adults). Only 2 percent of Catholics do so once a month or more often. Thirty percent say they go to Confession less than once a year and 45 percent say they never do so.   [30% + 45% = 75%] 

Sixty-two percent of Catholics agree "somewhat" or "strongly" with the statement, "I can be a good Catholic without celebrating the sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a year" (33 percent agree "strongly"). Even 54 percent of weekly Mass attenders agree at least "somewhat" with this statement.

Two-thirds of all adult Catholics agree (67 percent) at least "somewhat" that one must make a confession with contrition for the forgiveness of sins. Forty-eight percent agree similarly that acts of penance or fasting are necessary for this forgiveness. More than half (52 percent) agree "somewhat" or "strongly" that by participating in the sacrament of Reconciliation they are reconciled with God and the Church. One in four Catholics agree "somewhat" or "strongly" with the statement, "The sacrament of Reconciliation is only necessary for the forgiveness of very serious sins" (8 percent agree "strongly").  For 2013 numbers see: 

2002 Misericordia Dei

John Paul II.  Apostolic Letter (motu proprio) on the sacrament of penance, Misericordia Dei, April 7, 2002.

1.  "Confessions" can once again be "heard" during the celebration of the Eucharist (revoking the provision of Eucharisticum Mysterium of 1967) so that one is "cleansed of sin" before receiving the Eucharist -- rather than by receiving the Eucharist. 

2.  The apostolic letter limits the use of Rite Three with General Absolution and states that it can be used only in such cases as are "objectively exceptional, such as can occur in mission territories or in isolated communities of the faithful, where the priest can visit only once or very few times a year, or when war or weather conditions or similar factors permit."  

3.  In the future, Chapter III of the Rite will be removed and printed as an Appendix to the Ritual.

Antonio Santantoni writing in Anscar J. Chupungco's Handbook for Liturgical Studies (Volume 4):  Sacraments and Sacramentals, p 151 says:  "What perplexes both the liturgist and pastor is the strange situation that has been created since the promulgation of the new Ordo Penitentiae. The Church seems to have no faith in its own reform and acts defensively to place limitations on the new penitential discipline. ... While there is an understandable and even necessary defense of traditional forms, there seems also to be a closure to a new breath of the Spirit in his Church, which is responding to new needs, to new demands and expectations of the people of today. The answers of the past no longer seem adequate." 

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Model Influenced by the Experience of the RCIA

1. This model was discussed in the Working Group on Reconciliation of the North American Academy of Liturgy at our meetings in 1979 and 1980. The conclusions of the discussion were presented by Giles Pater to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago and the cardinal took this material to the synod of bishops. See: Bernardin, Joseph. "New Rite of Penance Suggested." Origins 13 (1983) 324-326.

2. Penance in the Sacramental Economy: All ecclesial encounters with Christ are expressions of eschatological hope, and the enactment of a sacramental sign is an epiphany, not simply of what we are, but also of what we are called to be. For this reason, discourse about the liturgy of penance must keep firmly in view the ambiguity of the situation of both the church and the individual Christian on the journey of faith.

3. Consequently, a model of "fall and return" to describe the process of "sin and reconciliation," while apt, is not entirely adequate, and must be corrected by other models which sustain both the once-and-for-all character of Christian initiation and a sense that an individual enactment of the sacrament of penance is but a step (albeit significant) in the church's journey.

4. Rather than speaking in terms of norm with regard to the place of penance in the sacramental economy, it would be more appropriate to speak of baptism (and confirmation) and eucharist as primary sacraments of initiation, and of penance as an extended derivative of both baptism and eucharist. Penance is related to both, though not designed to supplant either.

5. The Experience of Sin: In our ongoing encounter with God's Word, especially in the Gospel, we are able to recognize sin in ourselves, sin in the church and sin in the world. With the constant reassurance of God's creative love, we understand sin as inability and refusal to grow into our full potential. The Gospel brings before us Jesus who through death and resurrection was totally dedicated to his life with God. As members of the Body of Jesus we find ourselves called through dying and rising to live more fully in Jesus until the day we all appear as the Christ in glory. Meanwhile sin is both our inability and our refusal to submit to the dying and rising as we see it unfolding in the details of our life.

6. Contemporary Sin: One way of identifying and naming the contemporary experience of sin is through exploration of the phenomenon of alienation. Scripture records this alienation particularly in Genesis and St. Paul. But it is also characteristic of contemporary American society, church, and family life. It is evident in the phenomena of fragmented relationships, in generation gaps, in seeming helplessness in the face of corporate structures of society, in the search to meet all needs for intimacy in the intimate marriage and nuclear family, and in desires for community that are most often not met in contemporary parish structures. This phenomenon of alienation is often at the bottom of the contemporary experience of "daily sin." It gives rise to a sense of sinfulness and burden of sin which is better expressed in terms of failure in relationships rather than the history of a catalogue of sins.

7. Biblical evidence and contemporary understandings of the dynamics of human choosing demand a view of sin which includes the significant element of unconscious choice.

8. Into this human situation the Gospel needs to be preached, a realistic Gospel of hope and promise rooted in the covenant promise of the Old Testament and sealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It needs to be a comforting Gospel: "Come to me, all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest." It needs to proclaim the possibility of unselfish or self-giving live, was imaged and made possible in Jesus Christ. It is a Gospel of reconciliation which seeks to go beyond the "daily sins" to their root causes in the experience of evil today.

9. The ministry of Reconciliation: The Church is the place of reconciliation in which, in mutual responsibility to one another, we continue the mission of Jesus in the power of his Spirit. The ministry of the entire community, by which God's saving presence is continually offered to the faithful and to the world, is a ministry of reconciliation "whose ambassadors we are."

10. Daily Life of the Church -- The continual proclamation of the Gospel in the daily life of the church commands and empowers "a progressive change of outlook and morals . . . together with its social consequences" (RCIA #19) in the community. This Gospel Word finds its expression in every encounter that Christians have among themselves, in each act of charity, in the events of daily spiritual formation, in the proclamation of homilies, the celebration of penitential prayer, the ministry of spiritual guidance, and every effort directed at mutual support, encouragement, and loving correction. By faithful response to each opportunity of grace, the Christian community may come to grasp with ever-increasing vigor both the dimensions of its sinfulness and the mercy of God's love.

11. Lent-Easter: The Ritual of Ongoing Conversion for the Whole Community -- The outstanding penitential structure in the life of the church is the season of Lent and Easter, in which the whole Christian community is called to renewal of baptism through the initial acknowledgment of sinfulness and need for change of heart and mind (Ash Wednesday), through the process of repentance ritualized especially in the traditional practices of hearing the Word, prayer, fasting and almsgiving (throughout Lent,) to the joyful celebration of our reconciliation with Christ (in the Paschal Triduum).

12. The Sacrament of Penance: The Lent-Easter format of the sacrament would be carried out in three stages: 1) Penitents would be publicly received by the church at the beginning of Lent, at the Ash Wednesday liturgy. 2) They would then devote themselves to penitential practices to foster conversion of life, including the traditional pillars of Lent, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. 3) At the end of Lent, they would be individually reconciled publicly.

13. On Ash Wednesday, following the word service, the penitents would be received with a  laying on of hands and petitionary prayer. An instruction might also be given, spelling out their responsibility for penance, etc. Then they would receive ashes, followed by the rest of the community. 

14. They might best abstain from the Eucharist, as a ritual sign of their process rather than as a moral requirement.

15. In the context of "Lived experience / Story / Festivity" Tad Guzie states:

The practice of sacramental confession is a good example. Confession has been plagued throughout its history with a narrow legalism that turns the celebration of God's mercy into a kind of coldly clinical legal pardon for unobeyed prescriptions. The decline of this sacrament -- which few people associate with festivity! -- owes much to our having recourse to it before some degree of reconciliation or healing has taken place, and before the mercy of God has been savored and experienced. The new Rite of Penance tries to put the sacramental moment back into its correct context: "Faithful Christians, as they experience and proclaim the mercy of God in their lives, celebrate with the priest the liturgy by which the church continually renews itself" (#11).

Can Catholic people and their pastors reverse the trend of centuries, and come to see the sacrament of penance in this marvelously festive way? I would urge that it cannot be done unless the people and their confessors are firmly in touch with their own experience and stories. If I may paraphrase a saying of G. K. Chesterton, the sacrament of penance hasn't failed; it mostly hasn't been tried.

If legalism is one fruit of a sacrament's becoming detached from its natural cycle, the magical attitude toward sacraments is another. (Tad Guzie. The Book of Sacramental Basics, pp 19-20.)

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Cultural and Theological Context

The future of the Sacrament of Reconciliation will not be determined by the theology of the Sacrament considered in isolation.  The future forms that this Sacrament might take will be determined not only by the Theology of the Sacrament but by the cultural and Theological context in which it will be celebrated.  To review some of the changes in this context click here.

Scott P. Detisch in "The Sacrament of Reconciliation: In need of a Second Naiveté" in Worship (77:3) May 2003, p 195 " [the] good people who still approach the sacrament as post Vatican II adults [do so] with little change from the way that they were trained as pre-Vatican II children."

 Leo Hay in his book Eucharist: A Thanksgiving Celebration noticed, namely that "As the lines for communion got longer, the lines for confession got shorter."  In other words as the eucharistic liturgy began to be prayed in the vernacular the Christian faithful, attentive to the prayers of the Mass, began to experience the eucharist as the ordinary sacrament of reconciliation.

It has been my experience in teaching the sacrament in seminaries and my experience with men in formation for the priesthood that their experience of the sacrament of reconciliation is fundamentally different from that of most lay people in a parish. This is born out in the survey on penance I have often asked these students to complete. The experience of the sacrament of reconciliation for most seminarians is an aspect of their formation process. Its shape flows from a spirituality which is highly introspective, devotional, contemplative, and transcendent. For the seminarian, Reconciliation is frequently a combination of spiritual direction, counseling, discussion with a soul friend, and sacramental celebration.

As a "priest/confessor" it has been my experience that it is rare to experience this same type of Penance in a parish context except in those rare instances where the person (often a religious or parish minister) is seeking spiritual direction -- or more commonly, moral guidance. In these situations it has been my experience that the confessional (or even the reconciliation chapel) is a less than perfect setting for this ministry -- particularly when exercised on a Saturday afternoon before the Sunday liturgy when others are waiting in line to go to confession.

Eucharist as Reconciliation  If the eucharist is the primary sacrament of reconciliation, perhaps we will come to view the celebration of "the sacrament of penance" not as a common weekly, monthly, or even yearly sacrament but a sacrament for exceptional situations where reconciliation must be celebrated following rupture with God caused by grave sin. (This statement must also be understood in the light of the discussion of contemporary moral theologians and the experience of Catholics in general regarding the frequency of "grave sin".) The fact that eucharist is the ordinary sacrament of reconciliation and sacrament of penance is a more occasional sacrament has been explored by Joseph Favazza in his article "Forum: The Fragile Future of Reconciliation," Worship 71 (1997) 236-44, p.240.

Sacrament as Process  As has been our experience with the Sacrament of Holy Orders and Marriage but especially the Sacrament of Christian Initiation for Adults, the sacramental process is indeed a process which accompanies and sustains and supports the faith journey of the Christian. Perhaps Reconciliation also will evolve into a "process sacrament" -- perhaps learning something for the Canonical Penance of the early days where the sacrament was celebrated in stages and the entire reconciliation process was not subsumed into one moment of "I absolve you..."

Rite III  All sacraments are communal in nature and just as we have seen the move from private Mass to public Masses, baptisms celebrated at Sunday Eucharist, anointing of the sick in a parish context, etc. so "confession" is basically ecclesial and communal. Private confession may well go the way of private Mass.

Theoretically most liturgists point to a Rite III modeled upon the Eucharist as the "ideal" form of the sacrament. [Each person would come forward for an individual sacramental sign such as imposition of hands in the context of a larger communal celebration -- much as at Eucharist each participant shares in the banquet by eating and drinking without this action consuming an inappropriate proportion of time for the celebration of the sacrament. Note that at Eucharist, many ministers are involved in this action; the eucharistic prayer is not repeated for each communicate.] There must be a clear understanding of what is communal and what is individual. Communal and personal are not contradictory.

Currently those celebrations which currently seem to have the most pastoral benefit for the participants are those modeled upon Rite III in which general absolution is celebrated. Many pastors report effective use of Rite III even while realizing that (in most situations) it is forbidden by the local bishop, the Conference of Bishops, the authorities in Rome, and the Pope himself. In the current ecclesial context Rite III is being even more forbidden in current pronouncements. Apparently in the next revision of the Rite of Penance it will be placed in an appendix rather that appear as the third form of the Rite. This ecclesial climate is very different from that in which the current ritual was composed and approved under Pope Paul VI. This is a situation where two Popes have very different theological and liturgical viewpoints. Perhaps the situation similar to that in the early part of the 20th century regarding the vernacular in the liturgy: the prohibitions increased in vigor until they were suddenly reversed by the Vatican Council.

We are still in a time of transition and the ideal for of the sacrament of reconciliation has not yet emerged.

The Sacrament Today (2014)

In the 2012 Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality, "Becoming the Sign: Sacramental Living in a Post-Conciliar Church", Kathleen Hughes RSCJ, speaking of the sacramental rituals as reformed by the Second Vatican Council, writes (on page 52):   The eucharistic liturgy was the first rite to be introduced. The Rite of Penance was, in 1975, the last major rite to be published, and it is my contention that it was never implemented or catechized at all. A few years ago, I tried to buy a copy of the Rite of Penance. I found it had been out of print for nine years; so I went to There was a copy there, available from a priest who said it was in mint condition -- "never been opened."  By 1975 there was already a fair amount of "change fatigue."

And Antonio Santantoni writing in Anscar J. Chupungco's Handbook for Liturgical Studies (Volume 4):  Sacraments and Sacramentals, p 151 says:  "What perplexes both the liturgist and pastor is the strange situation that has been created since the promulgation of the new Ordo Penitentiae. The Church seems to have no faith in its own reform and acts defensively to place limitations on the new penitential discipline. ... While there is an understandable and even necessary defense of traditional forms, there seems also to be a closure to a new breath of the Spirit in his Church, which is responding to new needs, to new demands and expectations of the people of today. The answers of the past no longer seem adequate."

Pope Francis, in the spring of 2014, delivered a series of catechetical talks on the sacraments.  Regarding the Sacrament of Reconciliation he said:  (reported in, Feb 19, 2014)

Continuing his catechetical series on the Sacraments, Pope Francis reflected on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which along with the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick form what he described the "Sacraments of Healing".

"The Sacraments of Penance and Reconciliation [...] flow directly from the Paschal mystery," he told pilgrims attending his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square.

"In fact, the same evening of Easter the Lord appeared to the disciples, closed in the Cenacle, and, after addressing them 'Peace be with you', he breathed on them and said: 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone's sins, their sins are forgiven.'"

This indication by Jesus, the Pope stressed, shows that the forgiveness of our sins is not gained through any strength of our own, rather it is a gift that springs from the heart of Christ Crucified and Risen.

Departing from his prepared statement, the Holy Father spoke on the reservations one might have to confessing their sins to a priest. "Someone may say: 'I confess only to God.' Yes, you can tell God: 'Forgive me', and say your sins," he said. "But our sins are also against the brothers, against the Church, and for this it is necessary to ask forgiveness to the Church and to the brothers, in the person of the priest."

The Holy Father also said that some may feel ashamed of confessing their sins. However, he noted, feeling shame for one's sins is good because it humbles us.

"Do not be afraid of Confession!" he exclaimed. One who is in line to confess himself feels all these things - even shame - but then, when he finishes confessing, he leaves free, great, beautiful, forgiven, [...] happy. And this is the beauty of Confession."

Concluding his catechesis, Pope Francis encouraged those who have not confessed, whether it be for two weeks or 40 years, to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation as soon as possible. "Jesus is there, and Jesus is much better than the priests, and Jesus receives you. He receives you with so much love. Be courageous, and go forward to Confession," he said.

"To celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation means to be wrapped in a warm embrace."

[Comment:  Note that Pope Pius XII could have given this same talk -- except that he would have said "Penance" instead of "Reconciliation".] 


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To Confess or Not to Confess

1.  The Eucharist is the original and ordinary sacrament of reconciliation; it is the ordinary way in which sins committed after baptism are forgiven.  (...forgiven by the Eucharist, not during the "penitential rite." 

2.  A person who is not separated from God and the Church by serious sin has no obligation to ever celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation -- not once a year, not ever.

3.  For such a person, sacramental reconciliation is an option of which which each individual determines the usefulness.  

4.  Every one seriously involved in theology or catechetics should have a spiritual director or psychological counselor. 

5.  Your confessor and your spiritual director should not be the same person.

6.  Never confess to a priest whom you consider your friend.

7.  Never confess to a priest who is your boss. 

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To Think About

1. What can we learn about the possible future of the Sacrament of Reconciliation from the experience of the "journey of faith" model of the RCIA?

2. What other models might serve as a future for the sacrament?

3. Might the sacrament of reconciliation disappear from the Church? Why? Why not?

4. Work still to be done   A man whose opinion I respect very much, Father Robert F. Taft S.J., writing in America 198:18 , p11 gives the following list of "work still to be done." A list of works still to be done would include the order of the Christian initiation of infants, The liturgy of the hours, the practice of taking holy Communion from the tabernacle during Mass and the retreat from any meaningful reform of the sacrament of reconciliation, which has left confession a disappearing sacrament, at least in North America. Regarding all of these except the last, Catholics might learn from the East.

5.  The Thirteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops met in Vatican City from October 7 -28, 2012 on the topic of The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith. At its conclusion the Synod Fathers approved 58 propositions to Pope Benedict XVI for his consideration in a future Post-Synodal Apostolic Expectation.

Proposition 33: The Sacrament of Penance and the New Evangelization

The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is the privileged place to receive God's mercy and forgiveness. It is a place for both personal and communal healing. In this sacrament, all the baptized have a new and personal encounter with Jesus Christ, as well as a new encounter with the Church, facilitating a full reconciliation through the forgiveness of sins. Here the penitent encounters Jesus, and at the same time he or she experiences a deeper appreciation of himself and herself. The Synod Fathers ask that this sacrament be put to again at the center of the pastoral activity of the Church.

In every diocese, at least one place should be especially dedicated in a permanent way for the celebration of this sacrament, where priests are always present, allowing God's mercy to be experienced by all the faithful. The sacrament should be especially available, even on a daily basis, at places of pilgrimage and specially designated churches. Fidelity to the specific norms which rule the administration of this sacrament is necessary. Every priest should consider the Sacrament of Penance an essential part of his ministry and of the New Evangelization, and in every parish community a suitable time should be set apart for hearing confessions.  USCCB CDW Newsletter 2012 p 43.

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