Sacraments of Reconciliation
Part 6 Theological and Pastoral Issues

Chapter r61 The Frequency of Reconciliation

Preliminary Questions


Historical Survey


Pastoral Reflection

To Think About

Preliminary Questions

When you celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, do you use the individual rite (Chapter 1) or the communal rite (Chapters 2 and 3)?

How often do you celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation?  Has the frequency of your celebration of this sacrament changed over the past several years?  If so, why? Do you celebrate more frequently or less frequently now?

How often to you think a Catholic should celebrate the sacrament?

Review the History of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  Ask an imaginary "typical Christian" living during each of the historical periods (early Church, Canonical period, Celtic penance, Scholastic penance, Vatican II, etc.)  "How often do you celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation?

What does the current Rite of Penance say about the frequency of celebration? The Code of Canon Law? The Norms for Priestly Formation?

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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.

Richstatter, Thomas. The Reconciliation of Penitents: A Study of the Structural Elements of the Communal Rite of Penance. Washington DC: Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, 1987.

Kennedy, Robert J. (editor). Reconciliation: The Continuing Agenda. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1987. Paper, 284 pp, $11.95. ISBN 0-8146-1568-6.

Hart, Joseph. "A Proposal for the Renewal of Penance in the Lenten Season" in Kennedy, pp 171-180.

O'Hara, Ellen. "Penance and Canon Law" in Kennedy, pp 238-253.

Osborne, Kenan B. Reconciliation and Justification. New York: Paulist Press, 1990. Paper $14.95. ISBN 0-8091-3143-9.

Dallen, James. The Reconciling Community: The Rite of Penance. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, a Pueblo Book, 1986. Paper $17.50. ISBN 0-8146-6076-2.

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Historical Survey

1. Apostolic [0-399]

Jesus reveals the All-Merciful God
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us
Persecutions -- Origins of Canonical Penance

"How often do I have to go to confession?" is a question which has been answered in different ways throughout the history of the Church.  For the first six centuries the answer to this question was "never". Ordinary Christians never went to confession. Sin was forgiven once and for all in the sacrament of baptism and the sins committed after baptism were forgiven by participation in the eucharist.

2. Patristic [400-799]

Origins of the RCIA
Canonical Penance modeled on Baptism

The canonical penance of the fourth to sixth centuries was only for grave sins. And the question "how often can one receive penance" was answered "only once." Penance was seen to be a kind of "second baptism" and as baptism was a once in a lifetime event, so was penance. If, after the sinner did penance and returned to the eucharist, the person sinned again, the Church felt it could do nothing further. It suspected the sincerity of the penitent in this case.

3. Early Medieval [800-1199]

Origins of Celtic Penance
Celtic Penance brought to the Continent
Development of "priestly power"  Power of Orders and Power of Jurisdiction

The tariff system, which began in Ireland and England during the sixth century, was repeatable by design. As often as you needed the medicine to cure the sin, you took it. It was the very "repeatability" of this form of the sacrament that caused it to be condemned as it began to be introduced into Europe. The Third Council of Toledo (589) found the idea of receiving penance more than once in a lifetime "detestable".

But it was also the "repeatability" of this form of the sacrament which caused it to be widely accepted by the Christians of Europe during the sixth century, so that little by little it replaced canonical penance. And as the tariff system evolved into the modern practice of confession in the twelfth century, the repeatability of the sacrament was taken for granted.

4. Medieval [1200-1299]

St. Thomas presents "confession" in the Summa

Confession before Holy Communion

It is hard to tell how often Catholics went to confession during the Middle Ages. Frequent confession was known before the thirteenth century; but "frequent" probably meant three times a year, probably immediately preceding the reception of Holy Communion at Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.

In the year 1215, Pope Innocent III convened the fourth and most important of the Lateran Councils to call the Fifth Crusade against the Saracens and also to reform and renew the Church of his time. Bishops were reminded of their duties as teachers; sermons were to be preached in the cathedral churches for the instruction of the faithful. Catholics were not to abstain habitually from reception of the eucharist but were to receive Holy Communion at least once a year during the Easter time. And the Council prescribed that those Christians who had committed mortal sin and were cut off from eternal salvation had the obligation to go to confession to their proper pastor within a calendar year. In practice this usually meant during Lent so that they could receive Holy Communion at Easter. Although there is no longer mention of "to their proper pastor," this legislation from 1215 is the basis for Canon 989 in the 1983 Code of Canon Law: "After having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year."

Once a year was a minimum. The "holier" some people were expected to be, the more frequently they were required to go to confession. Priests were to confess once a month; seminarians, novices and most religious were to confess at least once a week. There were saints who went to confession every day. Blessed John the Good, a contemporary of St. Francis of Assisi and a hermit of the Order of St. Augustine, went to confession every day, sometimes more than once a day. 5. Late Medieval [1300-1499]

A certain St. Brigid in the fourteenth century went to confession every day; but she was a princess and could afford the expense to keep two confessors in her employ!

6. Reformation [1500-1699]

Luther finds biblical mandate for confession
Trent defines Penance as one of the Seven Sacraments

Bishop Turibius of Mogrovejo (1538-1606) confessed every morning to his chaplain.

7. After Trent [1700-1899]

Confession once a year before Easter Duty Communion

8. Before Vatican II [1900-1959]

Confession becomes more frequent
Frequent (weekly) Communion brings with it frequent (weekly) Confession
Confession becomes a "devotional practice"
Liturgical Movement:  discovery of Canonical Penance, Celtic Penance, etc. history

As more and more Catholics responded to the decree of Pope Pius X in 1905 encouraging the frequent reception of Holy Communion, many Catholics began the practice of going to confession weekly in order to be properly prepared to receive Holy Communion. This practice reached its zenith during the pontificate of Pius XII (1939-1958). More people went to confession more frequently during the pontificate of Pius XII than during any other period in history. Today, during the last years of the twentieth century, there are those who consider 1940-1960 to be the ideal and model period for the frequency of celebrating the sacrament.

During the 1960's we began to see a decline in the number of people going to confession; 75% or 80% of the American Catholic population stopped going to confession in the 1970's. The Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life, reporting on active, committed parish members, found that in the 1980's "thirty-five percent of active parishioners go to confession once a year; only 6% go once a month or more. Fifteen percent of volunteer parish leaders never go to confession; neither do 38% of active parishioners under 30."

9. Vatican II [1960-1975]

Practice of devotional confession declines steeply.
As confession is a devotional practice, Constitution on the Liturgy doesn't treat it (only one paragraph)

10. After Vatican II [1975-2050]

Rite of Penance
Development of Communal Celebrations
Pre-Vatican mentality prevails in many parishes
Sacrament is not celebrated by many Catholics in the USA

The document Reflections on the Sacrament of Penance in Catholic Life Today: A Study Document, published by the United States Catholic Conference in 1990 (pages 8-9) states:  "In open-ended responses, laity provided information on realities that may affect the frequency of their reception of the sacrament.

The most commonly listed difficulty deals with the availability of a suitable confessor -- and these people formed three distinct groups:

1.  Those who feel that their involvement in parish life makes it impossible to confess to their parish priest because of the conflict of forums and confidentiality. [This is an example of the "moral impossibility" which excuses from auricular confession.] Those with conflicts with the parish priest and who do not trust the priest.  People who feel the priest does not take their search for moral and/or spiritual growth seriously enough.  This was the largest group of the three.

2.  The second reality was that people do not understand the ecclesial dimension of the reconciliation process; they do not see the priest as representative of the ecclesial community.

3.  The third reality was that divorced Catholics frequently mentioned their inability to receive the sacrament.

For examples of sacramental practice today see r31surve.htm

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Rite of Penance

7b. The frequent and careful celebration of this sacrament is also very useful as a remedy for venial sins. This is not a mere ritual repetition or psychological exercise, but a serious striving to perfect the grace of baptism so that, as we bear in our body the death of Jesus Christ, his life may be seen in us ever more clearly (see 2 Cor 4:10). In confession of this kind, penitents who accuse themselves of venial faults should try to be more closely conformed to Christ and to follow the voice of the Spirit more attentively.

10b. The confessor should always show himself to be ready and willing to hear the confessions of the faithful whenever they reasonably request this.

13. The reconciliation of penitents may be celebrated in all liturgical seasons and on any day. But it is right that the faithful be informed of the day and hours at which the priest is available for this ministry. They should be encouraged to approach the sacrament of penance at times when Mass is not being celebrated and preferably at the scheduled hours.

Lent is the season most appropriate for celebrating the sacrament of penance. Already on Ash Wednesday the people of God hear the solemn invitation, "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel." It is therefore fitting to have several penitential services during Lent, so that all the faithful may have an opportunity to be reconciled with God and their neighbor and so be able to celebrate the paschal mystery in the Easter triduum with renewed hearts.

Appendix II 5. Lent is the principal time of penance both for individual Christians and for the whole Church. It is therefore desirable to prepare the Christian community for a fuller sharing in the paschal mystery by penitential celebrations during Lent.

The Code of Canon Law

Canon 989: After having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year.

Canon 276 §2, 5º: They [clerics] are to be conscientious ... in approaching the sacrament of penance frequently...

Canon 739: Besides the obligations which they [members of societies of Apostolic Life {popularly, "Religious"}] have as members according to the constitutions the members are bound by the common obligations of clerics, unless something else is evident from the nature of the matter or from the context.

The Norms for Priestly Formation

Second Vatican Council. Presbyterorum ordinis.

Second Vatican council. Decree on the Training of Priests (Optatam totius 28 Oct 1965).

Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education has published The Instruction on Liturgical Formation in Seminaries (Rome: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1979, and published in the United states by the NCCB on January 5, 1984), Numbers 35 and 36, and Appendix, Article V, Number 53. Number 36. "It's [ = the sacrament of reconciliation]  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..."

USCCB. Liturgical Formation in Seminaries, (see especially pp 45, 105-106).

USCCB. Program of Priestly Formation.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

1166. Sunday is the preeminent day for the liturgical assembly.

Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy

106. By a tradition handed down from the apostles and having its origin from the very day of Christ's resurrection, the Church celebrates the paschal mystery every eighth day, which, with good reason, bears the name of the Lord's day or Sunday.

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Pastoral Reflection

The current documentation and legislation do not define "frequent" in relation to how often one should celebrate the sacrament. The "Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution" is usually offered in parishes only during Lent and Advent, although some dioceses require parishes to offer this form of the sacrament at least once each month.  Needless to say, those Catholics who celebrate using this form of the sacrament cannot celebrate more frequently than the opportunity is presented.

Lent is the preferred time for the sacrament. There are pastoral scholars today who would say that Lent is the only ordinary time for the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation (just as they would say that Easter is the only ordinary time for the celebration of the sacraments of initiation.)

Ordinarily the sacrament is not to be celebrated during the Triduum. Lent is the preferred time for the sacrament and the liturgical season of Lent ends on Holy Thursday before the Mass of the Lord's Supper. Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday are not appropriate days for the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation as these days have their own proper liturgical celebrations and focus.

A similar case might be made for not celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation during the last week of Advent.

The sacrament should be scheduled for a time at which it is possible for the faithful to be present. Communal celebrations should be scheduled at various times of the day and on various days of the week to enable as many members of the parish as possible to take part.

Many parishes schedule the "Rite for Reconciliation of Individual Penitents" on Saturday afternoon immediately before Mass. In addition to possibly reinforcing the impression of may Catholics that one must go to confession before each reception of Holy Communion, Saturday afternoon is often the same time when the church building is being cleaned and prepared for the Sunday liturgies. Often it is a time for choir practice and organ rehearsal. The church is also often occupied on Saturday afternoons with the celebration of the sacrament of marriage.

Perhaps more importantly, the rhythm of family life in America on weekends should cause a parish to examine its schedule to see if Saturday afternoon is the best time for the celebration of the sacrament.

"How often should I celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation?" It seems that this question is being answered in two different ways in the contemporary Church. There are those who encourage "frequent" celebration of reconciliation (presumably, Rite One; as Rite Two and Three are not frequently available). They encourage this "devotional" practice as a means of overcoming sin and growth in self-awareness and grace.

There are others in the Church who see that the eucharist is the "form" of all the sacraments, and hence the ordinary sacrament of reconciliation. The Eucharist, and Rites Two and Three for Reconciliation are therefore normative [liturgy is an ecclesial celebration]. Reconciliation is primarily a liturgical celebration and only secondarily an ascetic practice. Spiritual direction and the celebration of the sacrament are best kept distinct and separate. Lent is the ordinary time for reconciliation. For these pastors, "frequent" devotional celebration of the sacrament would be "once a year, during Lent."

The fact that two such different opinions are being taught on this issue is one more sign that we are currently in a period of paradigm shift in our understanding of the function of the sacrament of reconciliation today.

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Sacramental Reconciliation at Saint Hypothetical Parish

Mary Gautier, editor of The CARA Report of Feb 18, 2011 (CARA = Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Washington DC), said the average size of a U.S. Catholic household is the same as the national average, 2.6 persons per household. The overall average size of parishes grew 36 percent, from 855 households in 2000 to 1,167 in 2010. So a parish of 1,167 registered households would have about 3,000 registered members. (see:  accessed March 20, 2011)

1. Saint Hypothetical Parish is a typical USA Catholic parish with 1,167 households and about 3,000 registered members.

Mary Gautier, editor of The CARA Report of Feb 18, 2011 (CARA = Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Washington DC), said the average size of a U.S. Catholic household is the same as the national average, 2.6 persons per household. The overall average size of parishes grew 36 percent, from 855 households in 2000 to 1,167 in 2010. So a parish of 1,167 registered households would have about 3,000 registered members. (see:  accessed March 20, 2011)

2. The busy, elderly pastor of Saint Hypothetical Parish with deep faith in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, sits in the confessional for an hour each day, 5 days a week, for a total of 5 hours a week.

3. Each of his 3,000 parishioners, obedient to the urging of the pope and bishops, wishes to go to confession, using Rite I, and wishes to talk to the priest and receive spiritual direction for but a brief 10 minutes (granted, you can't get much done in 10 minutes!).  Each Confession would take approximately 15 minutes.

4.  At 15 minutes each, it would take 750 hours to hear the confessions of the parishioners.  At 5 hours a week, it would take 150 weeks. If the pastor takes 2 weeks of vacation and hears confessions one hour a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, each parishioner can have the opportunity to go to confession once every 3 years.

5. Of course, if the pastor has 2 typical parishes, each parishioner can have the opportunity to go to confession once every 6 years.

6. If someone is returning to the Church after a long absence, 10 minutes is not sufficient to minister to this person.  If someone has a pressing family, marriage, or personal crisis to discuss and needs the help of the priest, 10 minutes is not sufficient to minister to this person.  Should these situations arise, each parishioner would have to wait longer than 3 (or 6) years for their turn to confess.

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To Think About

I found the following passage from Life in the Church  by James J. Bacik (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1992, pp 18-19) interesting: 

What should be done in the case of a person who returns to the sacrament after a long absence?   When someone comes to Reconciliation and says "... My last confession was [and mentions a period of five or ten years]"  In these cases it may be helpful to know what is that brings them to this point at this particular time. "May I ask what prompted you to come to confession today?" My experience, guided by some of the current literature, tells me that individuals return for a number of reasons:

But I am not sure that it is all that important to know why. A woman stopped in the other day to discuss her return to the Church. She had not gone to Mass for 30 years and claimed she never thought much about it. One Saturday afternoon she was driving by a Catholic Church when Mass was being celebrated. For some unknown reason she stopped abruptly and went in. The setting and ritual all seemed so different to her. She was confused, but she also felt a mysterious inner peace. She is now going to Mass regularly while trying to learn more about the changes in the Church. Who can explain such a happening! It seems better to breathe a simple prayer of gratitude and get on with life."  [end of Bacik quote]

3.  Should general absolution become a part of the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass? Why or why not?

4.  Why is it that the current rituals of the Roman Rite recommend or require that the sacramental celebrations of Baptism, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony be joined with the eucharist and forbid the Sacrament of Reconciliation to be joined with eucharist?

5.  Do you think that most members of your parish experience the Sunday celebration of the eucharist as a sacrament of reconciliation? What do the texts of the eucharist say about reconciliation?  During Sunday Mass, do you personally avert to the reconciliation dimensions of the Lord's Prayer, the sign of peace, the breaking of the bread, the reception of Holy Communion?

6.  How frequently does your parish offer the "Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution"? Should your parish schedule the sacrament more frequently? Less frequently?

7.  Is the sacrament scheduled at a time that permits most members of the parish to participate? The celebration of the rite of individual reconciliation is usually scheduled in parishes for Saturday afternoon. Do you feel that Saturday afternoon is the best time for the sacrament? If you do not feel that Saturday afternoon is a good time, when would be a better time in your parish?

8.  Does your parish ever join with neighboring parishes to host common celebrations of the sacrament of reconciliation? Is this a good idea? Why or why not?

9.  Is the third form of the sacrament, "Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with General Confession and Absolution", ever scheduled in your parish? Should it be? Can it be?  If your parish celebrates Rite I each week, and Rite II twice a year, and Rite III never, what does this say about the relative "value" of the three forms?

10.  Do you think that the declining number of people receiving the sacrament is a sign that people have lost a sense of sin or is this a positive sign that marks a period of history during which the sacrament is evolving to a new form?

11.  Is the sacrament of penance celebrated in your parish on Good Friday? On Holy Saturday? If so, do you think the practice should be discontinued? Why or why not? If you discontinue the practice of celebrating the sacrament on Good Friday, how can you explain to the congregation the fact that the Pope hears twelve confessions on Good Friday?

12.  Can you celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation over the phone? Why or why not? [Note: the scholastics taught that the matter and form of the sacrament had to go together: the one saying the "form" had to be in proximity to the "matter". However as confession has only "quasi" matter this rule does not apply. The confessor does not need to see or have any physical contact with the penitent; they may be on opposite sides of a wall or at some distance from one another. The Church has allowed the use of a telephone for the hearing impaired. How "close" does the penitent need to be for the sacrament to be valid?

13.  In order to receive a plenary indulgence one must celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation within 7 days. If your parish does not schedule the sacrament each week, how can the parishioners receive indulgences?

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