While doing some background reading recently, I was pleasantly surprised to spy this note in Pope Benedict’s post-synodal exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis:
Together with the Synod Fathers I wish to note that the non-sacramental penitential services mentioned in the ritual of the sacrament of Reconciliation can be helpful for increasing the spirit of conversion and of communion in Christian communities, thereby preparing hearts for the celebration of the sacrament: cf. Propositio 7. (note 62, para. 21)
In my work with the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, I routinely draw attention to such services in the Rite of Penance (Appendix II) and make suggestions about how to celebrate them. After all, they are recommended for catechumens (RP 17), and they also provide good spiritual formation opportunities for candidates in the initiation process. In Canada, where there are no rites for the baptized candidates comparable to Penitential Rite (RCIA 459 ff.) found in the American edition of the RCIA, penitential services of this kind are especially useful.
My experience however, in the U.S. at least, is that the usual response to the idea of non-sacramental penitential services is a blank stare. People have no idea such a thing exists. The practice of celebrating a Penance service without the sacrament—for anybody, not just catechumens or candidates—is indeed a rarity. I have never been in a parish where they have been celebrated. Yet they are intended for everybody, as Pope Benedict’s warm recommendation suggests.
The Rite of Penance itself says they are desirable
- to foster the spirit of penance in the Christian community;
- to help the faithful to prepare for confession which can be made individually later at a convenient time;
- to help children gradually form their conscience about sin in human life and about freedom from sin through Christ… (RP 17)
In short, a lot of folks could benefit from them.
I think such services are a good idea, myself. They can be very affecting and powerful experiences of prayer. I suspect that if we did this sort of thing well and regularly, we would be more capable of entering into the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance in a wholesome and fruitful manner. If nothing else, we’d certainly have a forum in place to lament—for instance—the abuse crisis, to pray for healing, and to reflect on the call to renewed conversion as a community.
So why are such celebrations so very rarely offered? What stands in the way? Are we overworked in the parish? Do we simply not like to think about sin? Is it because if people don’t get a sacrament they feel it’s “nothing,” so they won’t come? Has it just never been tried?