Have you ever read the Introduction to the Rite of Penance? Do you think the current practice of reconciliation in your parish fulfills the orientation set down in the Introduction?
See also the general bibliography for the Sacrament of Reconciliation
Rite of Penance, Introduction #1-30
Bugnini, Annibale. The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1990.
Martos pp 305-324
Dallen, Chapter 7: The Reform of Penance, pp 205-249
Dallen, Chapter 8: Theological Foundations, pp 250-297
Reconciliation to God through reconciliation to the Church. see especially New Catholic Encyclopedia, volume 17: K. Untener "Reconciliation, Ministry of" and James Dallen "Reconciliation with the Community" and the bibliographies after these articles.
I was born in 1939 of Catholic parents who sent me to St. Anthony grade school in Wichita, KS. I made my "First Confession" -- along with all the other first graders -- one Saturday morning at the end of First Grade; it was the Saturday before First Communion Sunday. Sunday was the "big day" and I don't remember anything about my First Confession.
Growing up, I remember going with Mom and Dad to St. Anthony's Church most every Saturday evening and lining up in back of church to go to confession during Our Lady of Fatima devotions (one priest led the devotions and the other two priests heard confessions). I continued the practice of "weekly confession" throughout my seminary days.
From novitiate through college and theology, confession was combined with spiritual direction and was in the priest's office, sitting down, talking with him face to face. Again I have no particular memories of the sacrament except for a couple of times during which -- in response to some mention of sex -- the priest gave me "directives" which I found disturbing (and later learned were both incorrect and un-healthful). But, in general, confession was an uneventful, unchanging weekly devotion.
I was ordained to the presbyterate in June of 1966. During the summer of 1966 I attended a class taught by Fr. Bernard Harring during which he told the story of the little girl responding to the question "What's the most important thing about Confession?" (See below: The Little Girl Who Got It Right). This was the first time I had heard about "community celebrations" of the sacrament, and I began catechizing throughout the Archdiocese of Cincinnati (where I was on the Worship Commission) about this way of celebrating the sacrament.
In 1972, while a doctoral student in Paris, I had courses with Msgr. Jounel, chair of the committee which produced our current sacramental Ritual. It was here I first learned of the complex history of the sacrament. While living in Paris I experienced several parish communal celebrations of the sacrament which I found exceptionally beautiful, healing, and life-giving -- both for myself and, apparently, for the parish.
When I returned to the USA and was director of liturgy at St. Leonard Seminary in Dayton OH, I introduced such celebrations to the community (before Christmas and before Easter). After a period of initial resistance (many priests had never heard of such a thing) these celebrations soon became very popular. Since then, I have had many occasions to introduce "rite two" into parishes through preaching "Parish Missions." Rite Two has become my ordinary way of celebrating the sacrament. Spiritual Direction and the Sacrament of Reconciliation are no longer combined with the same person on the same occasion. (I survey the history of my journey in "Sacrament of Reconciliation: Celebrating the Mercy of God," Catholic Update, Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, June 2009.)
The Little Girl Who Got It Right
For me personally, the "insight" moment regarding the sacrament of reconciliation occurred one day at Immaculate Conception Abbey, Missouri during the summer of 1966. I was taking a class on moral theology presented by Fr. Bernard Harring, a saintly and learned German priest (who died in 1998 and today is often referred to as the founder of modern moral theology). One day in class he told us this story about confession. (This was 10 years before the promulgation of our current ritual for the Sacrament of Reconciliation and scholastic confession was the only sacrament I knew.) I have retold this story a million times and it has probably been changed in the telling and retelling, but this is how I remember it.
One Sunday afternoon in the 1930's in the parish in Germany where he was pastor, Fr. Bernard Harring was conducting the weekly Sunday afternoon religious instruction. This particular Sunday he was talking about Confession and began by asking the congregation: "What is the most important thing about Confession?" A woman in the front pew immediately answered: "Telling your sins to the priest. That's why we call it confession." Fr. Harring said, "Confessing your sins is important, but it's not the most important thing."
A man towards the back called out: "Contrition! Being sorry for your sins! The whole thing doesn't work without contrition." Fr. Harring said, "That's right, it doesn't 'work' without contrition; but I don't think that contrition is the most important thing."
A man over on the left side of church spoke up: "It's the examination of conscience. Unless you examine your conscience, you don't know what you have to be sorry for and so you don't know what to confess. Anybody can see that the examination of conscience is the most important thing." Fr. Harring wasn't satisfied with this answer either.
A young woman on the aisle tried: "It's the penance--giving back the things you stole--unless you do the penance, it doesn't count." The congregation could tell by Fr. Harring's face that he still hadn't heard the most important thing. An uneasy silence fell over the church as people tried to think.
In the silence a little girl in the third pew said: "Father, I know what's most important. It's what Jesus does!" Fr. Haring smiled. She got it right. It's what Jesus does!
I can still remember that moment. My entire understanding of "confession" shifted. There was a rumbling like an earthquake taking place under my confession iceberg -- pardon the mixed metaphor; I guess it was an "ice quake"!
It's what Jesus does! That's the most important thing. While the examination of conscience, sorrow for sin, telling the sins to the priest, and acts of satisfaction are important elements on our part, the focus is on God's part -- reconciliation. [Even in naming the sacrament we have moved from "Confession" (what we do) to "Reconciliation" (what God does)]. As a minister of the sacrament this is where my attention must be focused: helping people realize and experience "what Jesus does." And Jesus tells us that God loves us with a parent's love. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is the liturgical celebration of our faith-awareness that God loves us as sons and daughters even in our imperfection, even in our sinfulness.
From Webster's New World Dictionary:
Confess. From the Latin confiteri to acknowledge. 1) to admit or acknowledge a fault, crime, opinion; 2) to declare one's faith in; 4) to tell one's sins to a priest) 5) To hear the confession of a person (said of a priest).
Confession 1) a confessing, acknowledgement; admission; 2) something confessed; 4) the confessing of sins to a priest for absolution; 5) a general acknowledgement of sin; 6) a declaration of faith, creed; 7) a group of people adhering to a certain creed; 8 the tomb of shrine of a martyr or confessor.
Penance. Noun: 1) a sacrament of the RC church involving the confession of sin, repentance, and submission to penalties imposed followed by absolution by a priest; 2) the penalty or penalties so imposed; 3) any voluntary suffering or punishment to show repentance for sin or wrongdoing.
Penitence. The state of being penitent; repentance.
Penitent. Adjective from the Latin poenitere to repent: 1) sorry or ashamed for having done wrong and willing to atone; repentant. Noun: 1) a penitent person; 2) RC church: a person undergoing the sacrament of penance.
Penitential. Adjective: of, constituting, or expressing penitence or penance. Noun: 1) a penitent; 2) a list or book of rules governing religious penance.
Penitentiary. Adjective: 1) of or for penance; 2) used in punishing, disciplining, and reforming; 3) that which makes one liable to imprisonment in a penitentiary. Noun: 1) a prison; especially a state or federal prison for persons convicted of serious crimes. 2) in the RC church: a) an office or tribunal headed by a cardinal she grand penitentiary) and dealing with matters of penance, confession, dispensation, absolution, etc.; b) an officer empowered to give absolution in cases normally reserved to a bishop.
Reconcile. 1) to make friendly again or win over to a friendly attitude; 2) to settle a quarrel or compose a difference; 3) to make [texts etc] consistent, compatible, to bring into harmony; 4) to make content, submissive, or acquiescent (to) [...as we became reconciled to our lot...]
Reconciliation. Noun: a reconciling or being reconciled.
To understand the history of naming the current official ritual see my notes on the history of the sacrament in Chapter r29 The Second Vatican Council, March 1973.
From the introduction to the FDLC book: "I have titled this book The Reconciliation of Penitents; this is the name of the sacrament used in the Rite of Penance itself. Throughout the book I often refer to confession as the "sacrament of reconciliation" because Pope Paul VI, during whose pontificate the rite was promulgated, preferred that name for the sacrament. Clergy and theologians have consistently over the past centuries spoken of "the sacrament of penance" and "penitents" whereas Catholics in general have consistently used the words "confession," "confessor," "confessional." The difference in vocabulary is significant and points to the basic difference in the way the sacrament has been viewed by clergy and laity.
From USCC. Reflections on the Sacrament of Penance in Catholic Life Today: A Study Document. Washington, DC: Office for Publishing and Promotion Services, United States Catholic Conference. 1990. ISBN 1-55586-340-X. Page 8. "One possible explanation [regarding preaching about the sacrament] is that people do not connect the vocabulary of reconciliation with the Sacrament of Penance.
The Gift of Reconciliation: Ten Tips for Better Confessions, Tip 2: "Name it Reconciliation" ---- The word reconciliation is rich in meaning. It suggests the gift of God's forgiveness and the removal of the barriers we place between ourselves, our community and our God. Reconciliation means the re-bridging of the gap between God and us and between ourselves and others. It also suggests the deep peace that comes from being brought back into harmony with God, with sisters and brothers and with the whole of creation.
From: Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education. Instruction on Liturgical Formation in Seminaries. Rome: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1979. Number 36. "It's [the sacrament of reconciliation's] liturgical character is always to be retained. Generally it is to be distinct from spiritual direction." Commentary page 76: "Wisely, the Instruction urges that the student's decision on the frequency and occasion of sacramental reconciliation should be a personal one. In this way, students should develop a personal esteem for the sacrament and not succumb to its celebration out of pressure from authority or convenience of schedule. Sacramental reconciliation is distinct from spiritual direction..."
What grammatical forms of the absolution prayer have been used and which are possible?
1. Optative, also called Laudatory, Epikletic, Berakah, or Exomologesis (see Dallen, p 174.)
Example: Blessed are you, O God, who forgives John.
I talk to God about John
The one addressed = God
Action performed by God
2. Deprecative, also called Exhortatory or Intercessory.
Example: John, may God forgive you.
I talk to John about what God does.
The one addressed = John.
Action performed by God.
3. Declarative (in a narrative sense).
Example: John, God forgives you.
I talk to John about what God does.
The one addressed = John.
Action performed by God
4. Declarative (in a juridical sense).
Example: John, I forgive you.
I talk to John about what I do.
The one addressed = John.
Action performed by me.
To understand the history of the current prayer of absolution and the naming the current official ritual see my notes on the history of the sacrament in Chapter r29 The Second Vatican Council, March 1973.
Guided by these considerations, the authors composed the following prayer for Roman Catholics:
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.)
Comment: This prayer is declarative in the juridical sense.
1. The Episcopal Church The Book of Common Prayer (1977), "Reconciliation of a Penitent" p 447.
"Two equivalent forms of service are provided here to meet the needs of penitents. The absolution in these services may be pronounced only by a bishop or priest. Another Chri8stian may be asked to hear a confession, but it must be made clear to the penitent that absolution will not be pronounced; instead, a declaration of forgiveness is provided." (Introduction)
Our Lord Jesus Christ,
who has left power to his Church
to absolve all sinners
who truly repent and believe in him,
of his great mercy forgive you all your offenses;
and by his authority committed to me,
I absolve you from all your sins:
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Comment: The first phrase is deprecative (exhortatory / intercessory); the second part is declarative in the juridical sense.
Our Lord Jesus Christ,
who offered himself to be sacrificed for us to the Father,
and who conferred power on his Church to forgive sins,
absolve you through my ministry by the grace of the Holy Spirit,
and restore you in the perfect peace of the Church. Amen.
Comment: This prayer is deprecative.
Declaration of Forgiveness to be used by a Deacon or Lay Person
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who offered himself to be sacrificed for us to the Father, forgives your sins by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
TRR Comment: This prayer is declarative (in a narrative sense).
2. Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship Lutheran Book of Worship (1979) "Corporate Confession and Forgiveness", p 193.
The minister stands and addresses the congregation: Almighty God in his mercy has given his Son to die for us and, for his sake, forgives us all our sins. Through his Holy Spirit he cleanses us and gives us power to proclaim the mighty deeds of God who called us out of darkness into the splendor of his light. As a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy spirit. Amen. Those in the congregation may come forward and kneel before the altar. The minister laying both hands on each person's head, addresses each in turn: In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins. Amen.
Comment: In the prayer over the congregation, the first phrase is declarative (in a narrative sense). The second is also declarative in a narrative sense. However, the prayer over each individual penitent is declarative in the juridical sense.
"Individual Confession and Forgiveness", p 196.
God is merciful and blesses you. By the command of our Lord, Jesus Christ, I, a called and ordained servant of the Word, forgive you your sins in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. (R) Amen.
Comment: This prayer is over the individual penitent is declarative in the juridical sense.
3. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Common Worship "A Service of Repentance and Forgiveness for Use with a Penitent Individual", p 1023.
The mercy of the Lord
is from everlasting to everlasting.
I declare to you, in the name of Jesus Christ,
you are forgiven.
May the God of mercy,
who forgives you all your sins,
strengthen you in all goodness,
and by the power of the Holy Spirit
keep you in eternal life.
Comment: This prayer is over the individual penitent is declarative in the juridical sense.
4. United Church of Christ Book of Worship. "Order for Reconciliation of a Penitent Person" p 268.
In Christ's name, / and as one with you in the church, / I declare to you: / Your sins are forgiven. / Go in peace, in the knowledge of God's mercy.
TRR Comment: This prayer is declarative (in a narrative sense).
"Order for Corporate Reconciliation" p 275.
(Leader) In Christ's name, and as one with you in the church, / I declare to you: Your sins are forgiven. (People) In Christ's name, / and as sisters and brothers in the church, / we declare to you: Your sins are forgiven.
TRR Comment: This prayer is declarative (in a narrative sense). Note also: This is the only ecclesial community [that I know of] where the minister is offered forgiveness by the people.
"There are three criteria for validating sacramental practice. These are 1) the fullness of language, 2) adequacy to experience, and 3) the celebration's relation to the orthopraxis of gospel and freedom and solidarity with the suffering. The criterion of fullness of language is both historical and anthropological. It derives from what has been said about the sacramental canon and about liturgy's integration of the language of ritual, myth, and metaphor. For example, since the sacramental canon gives central importance in celebration to a prayer of thanksgiving and intercession, one must still remain dubious about the prayer for reconciliation in the new Rite of Penance, since it is a compromise between laudatory, intercessory, and declaratory forms." David N. Power, Unsearchable Riches, pp 213-214].
#1 Rite 1 A --- Quasi Penance
Situation: The individual comes to the Reconciliation Chapel or confessional wanting something other than the Sacrament of Reconciliation. They may have a question; they may want advice; they may want a candle or a rosary blessed; they may need money or food or medicine. They may be lonely and want to talk to someone. They may need psychiatric help: advice, counseling or therapy.
Pastoral Response: The priest does what he can in the situation (while sometimes gently suggesting another forum).
#2 Rite 1 B --- Devotional ConfessionSituation: The individual comes to the Reconciliation Chapel or confessional and kneels behind the screen and wants to "go to confession" understanding the sacrament as scholastic confession. The penitent appreciates the devotional aspects of the sacrament and has found it a useful ascetical means for overcoming sins and achieving some degree of peace.
Pastoral Response: One of the basic qualities of devotional prayer is its "invariability". Consequently, the priest will take care not to change the experience less the devotional aspects of the sacrament be diminished. At the same time the priest will attempt to incorporate the principle values of the current rite (e.g. 1) use the current formula of absolution in the vernacular, 2) wait while the penitent says the act of contrition so that he/she can hear the absolution prayer, 3) etc.)
#3 Rite 1 C --- Sacrament of Reconciliation: Rite of Reconciliation of Individual Penitents
Situation: The individual comes to the Reconciliation Chapel wanting to celebrate the Sacrament as prescribed by the Second Vatican Council.
Pastoral Response: The priest will follow the ritual and gift the person with the word of God and celebrate the peace resulting from sacramental resolution.
#4 Rite 1 D --- Sacrament of Reconciliation with Spiritual Direction
Situation: The individual comes to the Reconciliation Chapel and indicates (face to face, or anonymously behind the screen) that in addition to telling you their sins they expect counsel and advice.
Pastoral Response: Fr. Kurt Stasiak gives a very helpful presentation of this situation in his book.
#5 Rite 1 E --- Spiritual Direction concluding with Sacramental Absolution
Situation: The individual comes to your office for spiritual direction and at the end of the hour asks if you would give them absolution for the sins they have just told you about..
Pastoral Response: [This is the situation experienced by many seminarians and priests.] The priest calls upon his skills as a "director of souls".
#6 Rite 2 A. Communal celebration of the Liturgy of the Word, with or without homily, followed by individual confession (using Rite 1) After the communal celebration, the people either go home, or those who wish to celebrate the sacrament [the preceding rites were not "part of the sacrament itself" line up and go to individual priests in private confessional stations, confess their sins, talk with the priest, receive penance and absolution, and go home.
Situation: This is practiced in many parishes. A "Liturgy of the Word" is simply added to Rite 1. The Liturgy of the Word often has little influence on the confession of sins; people often depart after confessing.
#7 Rite 2 B. Communal sacramental celebration with individual confession and absolution using the ordinary formula for absolution, or the shortened "emergency prayer". Following the Liturgy of the Word, the people who wish to confess come forward to the priest (as they would at Eucharist to receive Holy Communion), admit their sinfulness in a simple formula (e.g. "I am sorry for all my sins"; or "Father, I am a sinner.") except in those cases where they are alienated from the Church by serious sins which are then confessed number and kind. The priest gives absolution, and the people return to their place as after they would after communion. When the confession procession is completed, the priest presiding leads the congregation in a joyful prayer of thanksgiving and absolution, the Lord's Prayer, the Kiss of Peace and Reconciliation, a final prayer of thanksgiving and a concluding / commissioning hymn. The participants all leave together at the end of the liturgy. The entire liturgy -- from opening hymn to closing hymn -- is "the Sacrament of Reconciliation."
Situation: Rite 2 as in the Ritual. This is a true communal celebration of the sacrament with the emphasis on the celebration of God's Mercy (not on the confession of sins). There is no time for individual conversation with the priest or to receive spiritual direction; those who wish this, meet with the priest (or their spiritual director) at another time.
#8 Rite 2 C. Communal sacramental celebration with individual confession and collective absolution using the ordinary absolution prayer.
Situation: Like 2B above, but the absolution was only said once, after everyone had confessed. Often used before the Code of 1983.
#9 Rite 2 D. Communal sacramental celebration with individual confession and collective absolution using the expanded absolution prayer.
Situation: Often used before the Code of 1983.
#10 Rite 3 A. Communal sacramental celebration with general confession and general absolution using the expanded absolution prayer.
Situation: This is Rite 3 as in the Ritual.
#11 Rite 3 B. Communal sacramental celebration with general confession, individual response, imposition of hands, and general absolution using the expanded absolution prayer.
Situation: Many liturgists would consider this the ideal form.
#12 Rite 4 A. The emergency form of the sacrament using the emergency prayer for absolution.
Situation: When the plane is about to crash, the boat is sinking, the building is exploding, etc.
#13 Rite 4 B. The emergency form of the sacrament using the conditional emergency absolution prayer
Situation: When the person is unconscious, or might be alive.
#14 Rite 5 A. Non-sacramental liturgy of Reconciliation (with no absolution).
Situation: Does not need an ordained person to preside. Good preparation for the sacrament.
#15 Rite 5 B. Non-sacramental liturgy of Reconciliation followed by an abbreviated Rite1
Situation: Similar to Rite 2A above. Some parish do this before Easter and/or Christmas.
#16 Rite 5 C. Non-sacramental liturgy of Reconciliation followed by Rite 1 with spiritual direction.
Situation: Some retreat experiences where one has the opportunity to review one's past life and to have an extended conversation with a priest/director/confessor.
The Father has shown forth his mercy by reconciling the world to himself in Christ and by making peace for all things on earth and in heaven by the blood of Christ on the cross. (See 2 Cor 5:18ff.; Col 1:20.) The Son of God made man lived among us in order to free us from the slavery of sin (See Jn 8:34-36.) and to call us out of darkness into his wonderful light. (See 1 Pt 2:9.) He therefore began his work on earth by preaching repentance and saying: "Repent and believe the Gospel" (Mk 1:15).
This invitation to repentance, which had often been sounded by the prophets, prepared people's hearts for the coming of the kingdom of God through the voice of John the Baptist, who came "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mk 1:4).
Jesus, however, not only exhorted people to repentance so that they would abandon their sins and turn wholeheartedly to the Lord, (See Lk 15.) but welcoming sinners, he actually reconciled them with the Father. (Lk 5:20 and 27-32, 7:48.) Moreover, he healed the sick in order to offer a sign of his power to forgive sin. (See M 9:2-8.)
Dallen, Chapter 8: Theological Foundations, pp 250-297.
Metanoia [is the] process toward full union with the Father, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit active in the Church. (256 b)
[While Trent taught that the Eucharist is the primary sacrament of reconciliation] for centuries the Western Church has not maintained a close relationship between the eucharist and the remission of sins, except for the Jansenistic use of confession as preparation for communion. (257 d - 258 a)
Seeing the Church itself as penitent... thought deeply rooted in patristic tradition, was practically forgotten until retrieved at the council. (258 d)
All the reformed [sacramental] rituals except penance, provide for celebration in the context of the eucharist. (289 a)
The ordinary obligation of confessing grave sins before communion is an ecclesiastical law that the Church can suspend. (290 a) [Footnote] In any case, the pre-Tridentine Western tradition, as well as the constant tradition of the East, must be part of the context for interpreting the statement of Trent that complete ("integral") confession is "iure divino." (295 c) The exclusion of the grave sinner from communion was not dogmatically defined at Trent as a matter of divine law. (297 b)
The Latin of the RP and the Code, translated literally in the original ICEL text, is intra congruum tempus. The amended ICEL text has "reasonable time," which is misleading: what is otherwise "reasonable" may not be "suitable" in a liturgical celebration. The celebration should not be so long as to inconvenience seriously the participants or cause some to leave after their confession and absolution or break the rhythm of the celebration. (James Dallen. The Reconciling Community, page 404, note 14.)
A number of individuals (ten or a thousand) unknown to one another, uncaring of one another, come in, out of the cold and, in quavering song and stilted prose, petition an absent God to become really present so that they may receive Him bodily and return each to his/her isolated home convinced that they have been nourished spiritually. [Walter Burghardt, quoted in Gula, p 81]. "I hope that I can create the type of community in the parish where I minister so that the sacrament of reconciliation has a basis in lived experience."
"In sacraments, we celebrate our experience already begun and, in this way, deepen that experience by bringing it to a new level of expression." [Gula p 44] Apply this statement to each of the seven sacraments. Does it apply equally well to the sacrament of reconciliation?
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 02/10/14. Your comments on this site are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org