Heartfelt Sorrow; Conversion of Life

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?


  1. To answer the questions in your final paragraph, I suspect that the few clergy who are aware of the possibility, would prefer not to be bothered. Lack of information stands in the way. A focus on liturgy, perhaps, is missing from the sacrament, which seems, these days, to emphasize either the medicinal or ecclesiastical dimensions.

    There is also a certain utilitarianism about American sacraments. People would ask, if the priest can be bothered to lead a word and penitential service, why couldn’t he hear a few confessions on the side?

    We know that in the US, people did come for form III. So I’d say that if these penitential services were well done, they would slowly draw parishioners.

    Your last question is apt; the answer is they’ve never been tried.

    1. Thanks, Jeffery. This looks good. I’m going to have to get hold of one for my library. We need to cross that American-Canadian border more often!

  2. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, Catholics had a very rich communal devotional life. On any given Sunday evening, the Church would be filled for a particular devotion or even one in the middle of the week. Popular devotions were in the vernacular, very personal and oriented toward miracles. These also had a very severe penitential aspect to them, i.e. Sorrowful Mother Devotions, Way of the Cross, etc. However, after Vatican II, devotions were ridiculed as too sentimental, non-scriptural and perhaps superstitious. Scripture services were recommended but these tended to be too cerebral and sterile. The Mass in English satisfied some devotional hunger for rank and file Catholics. Today you would be hard pressed to get Catholics to come out in large numbers for a penitential service or any sort of popular devotion, it is no longer a part of our communal culture. So I suspect the reason most won’t do it is that most pastors fear no one will show up except the priest and a handful of others. But it is a good idea if well done and emotionally satisfying.

  3. I will offer two examples from my own diocese:
    1. two years ago we hosted Bob Hurd for a diocese-wide prayer of his sung Rosary. It was very well attended and prayerful. Everyone knows what a Rosary is.

    2. this past winter we hosted a dioceses-wide non-sacramental penance service. We billed it as a Rite of Atonement and an opportunity for healing wrongs caused by the Church institution and other institutions. The Bishop presided. We had a lenthy litany of petitions–from prayers for healing sex abuse victims to prayers for architects to build more wheelchair ramps to prayers for people to stop destroying the planet.
    We had maybe 50 people show up. maybe.

    Everyone was clueless. “what do you mean there won’t be confessions or anointing of the sick?” It was poorly promoted in parishes. I think those who did attend were merely curious. The service was prayerful and beautiful, and if we do it again more people will come, now that folks are familiar.

  4. The response from parishioners cited above leads me to another question. Isn’t there the possibility that some might mistake this type of service for sacramental penance…particularly those for whom sacramental penance might be a problem? If a priest is there and the service is a “penitential” one, how many might leave at the end and think that they have received the sacrament? This could lead to some confusion….

  5. I think of the many parishes who celebrate “penance services” throughout the year, particularly in Advent and Lent. Such services are well attended. At the end of the liturgy people have the opportunity to speak to a priest privately. Many if not most people prefer not to stay for the private, sacramental absolution. It seems all these people are in fact celebrating non-sacramental penitential celebrations. So maybe such celebrations are well and alive…

  6. Then of course there was Rite 2B, prevalent in the past but not so much today. This consisted of a penitential service with individual confessions but no individual absolutions. Collective absolution was given when all the individual confessions were over. This gets over one of the problems of a communal service which then fragments into individuals and never really gets back together.

    1. Paul…wasn’t this specifically prohibited in 2003 via a rather harsh directive from the Vatican? If I remember correctly, Canon law allows this only in cases of imminent largescale death such as natural disaster, war, or other civil disasters. Even then, those receiving such absolution are required to receive individual absolution when the imminent danger passes if they survive.

      Maybe that is why it is “less prevalent” now?

  7. It should always be made very clear that a non-sacramental penance service is not “general absolution.” It would be very easy to assume it was without proper instruction. I had a thought on this topic a few weeks ago when on a 2 random occasions people asked me why we don’t “do general absolution anymore?”. The reason it caught my attention was those asking were those who would say, “the consecration is nit just magic words by the priest” etc, yet were asking for just the “magic words” without any of the sacramental experience. So, I gave them a brief explanation of the reasons and then offered to provide general absolution for them anytime we were on the same plane and the captain suggested we take crash positions.

    1. Ouch. Pretty blunt, though it gets the point across.

      I’ve found that EF/traditional Catholic communities often take Confession and Holy Communion quite seriously. Many are weekly penitents, and those who do not receive on a given Sunday are not ostracized for refraining from the Sacrament for whatever reason. I wish priests of both forms would emphasize the profound bond between Confession and the Eucharist as well as the importance of refraining from the Sacrament when not in a state of grace. Communal penance services, even those that offer sacramental Confession afterwards, send the wrong message. Confession isn’t a tollbooth one passes through to make the Easter Duty. It’s not a once a year experience that covers for the actions of the succeeding year. Confession is a difficult, even painful, experience. The examination of conscience and confession is difficult for everybody. This difficulty does not diminish the profound link between God’s mercy and Calvary.

      1. Jordan, I don’t know how you can say that “communal penance services… send the wrong message” without negating CCC 1140, 1438, 1482, and virtually the whole of the Rite of Penance.

  8. At the parish where I first worked, long, long ago and far, far away, we celebrated penitential services on the Wednesdays of Lent. They built somewhat, one on the other, and the climax was a sacramental celebration of reconciliation on the Wednesday of Holy Week. The sacramental celebration was the best-attended, but the others had respectable showings.

  9. The Vibrant Parish Life study of 129 parishes with 46241 respondents ranked “the availability of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) as #36 and “devotional services (rosary, etc) as #38 out of 39 items. So the future for large penitential services staffed by priests does not look good.
    However, if we think small, and lay run things may be more promising. I attended a wake where the rosary was lead by two women. They did it with a style, dignity and grace akin to some of the best monastic celebrations of the office in the old days. A great improvement over the priests who mumbled through the rosary in the old days!

    My favorite penitential service is the Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete sung during the first and fifth weeks of Lent and available as a CD from Lit Press in the Thompson series. In a small group I interwove the CD and the Life of our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt (not on the CD but available at http://www.ocf.org/OrthodoxPage/reading/st.mary.html ) cont’d

  10. I suggested to the group that we think of ourselves as desert monks around a “campfire” and then I told her story rather than reading it verbatim giving people the opportunity to discuss the story and the service. The story is long but has natural breaks that could lend to being done over up to 5 sessions. The story is actually read during the fifth week of Lent in the Byzantine tradition.
    For those unfamiliar, this story of Fr. Zosima and the Harlot Saint has aspects of a Romeo and Juliet impossible relationship, and would probably be R rated (partial nudity and somewhat graphic descriptions). Great for talking about desert spirituality, discernment, baptism, spiritual progress. A lot of contemporary flavor, .e.g. “teenager runaway” and a debate as to whether Father or Mother should give the blessing when they meet. Actually lots of good liturgical sidelights in this.

  11. Jordan Zarembo’s comment above about the EF Mass is true. The Mass itself has a very long penitential rite in the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar. The prayers of the Mass, most now eliminated in the OF Mass, all point out our “unworthiness.” The priest says, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof…” three times before he receives and then the laity do it again three more times even if they don’t receive. In an older form of the EF Mass, the Confiteor is prayed again by the laity before they receive Holy Communion. And yes, people who celebrate the EF Mass tend to go to confession much more frequently than those who only attend the OF Mass. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi?

    1. I’d suggest abandoning the invidious comments about people who attend Mass according to the Ordinary Form, and how their spirituality and moral character is inferior to that of people who prefer the Extraordinary Form. Personal sanctity is not a horserace and this thread is not about the EF versus the OF. Please give it a rest, or I am going to assign you a heavy penance! 🙂

      1. Since I celebrate both Masses, I can take heavy penances and not gripe; assign away! Celebrating both gives a unique perspective and strengthens the stamina, especially the legs! 🙂

  12. Rita, I stand corrected. I don’t (shouldn’t) deny that communal penance is a bad idea. It’s just that in my experience some pastors try to substitute a penance service for the traditional auricular confession. This is especially true during the close of Advent or Holy Week.

    A while back, perhaps just before Christmas or during Holy Week before Triduum, I stopped into a church to inquire about having my confession heard. An employee of the parish told me that the priests would no longer were hearing confession since “we had a penance service last week.” Contrast this with my parish, which offers ample opportunity to confess, especially before Christmas and Easter.

    Penance services are good. They are often an accessible route to forgiveness for those who do not attend church regularly or those who are intimidated by confession. Still, many penitents will seek the usual rite of confession. They should not be denied because communal penance has taken place.

    1. Thank you, Jordan. FWIW, I completely agree with your last statement and I deplore the way you were treated.

      To me, your story shows how the efficiency mindset is the enemy of true ministry. There are clergy who treat the parish penance service as a convenience for themselves (get everybody together and get it over with). I don’t think they are overburdened with penitents, so I find this attitude puzzling to say the least. I’ve also been to something that was billed as a “penance service” but was nothing of the kind. They handed out an examination of conscience, told people where the confessors would be located, and that was it. Purely a convenience for the priests. Not a service at all. I’m still angry about it.

      We have to separate the good thing from its bad handling. These services can be beautiful, powerful experiences of prayer, solidarity, reflection, and hearing God’s call to conversion. They’re not an excuse to deny Form 1.

    2. At least it was a staff member and not the priest that told you he wasn’t available. Priests should be looking for opportunities to reconcile penitents–not turning them away! I very rarely turn down a request to assist as a parish or school penance service and never will turn down someone coming to me for confession. I have told my parishioners that unless I am in the middle of Mass, I am available for confession. Other than celebrating the Eucharist, I cannot think of anything more important I can do for the people of God than hearing confessions or anointing the sick (of course the other sacraments, but they rarely come as “emergencies”). If a priest puts meetings, or convenience ahead of the people, he has some thinking and praying to do. This is a great reason priests should be wearing the collar in public. I have heard confessions in many random times and places simply because I was recognized as a priest and approached.

      1. I agree with almost everything in this post, and would want to add something about the ministry of listening, which is happily increasing and which we are all called to, whether ordained or lay. Being there for others, even if this does not lead to sacramental absolution, is vitally important.

        And as a footnote, as a lay person I have fairly often been approached and asked to hear people’s confessions. Sometimes it has not been easy to convince the person that I am not a priest, and I have had recourse to sitting down with the person, listening to him/her underburden her/himself, and then praying with that person, taking the position that we are both sinners standing before the face of God (which is remarkably similar to Orthodox practice, incidentally).

        The wearing or not of a collar has not been a factor in those situations.

      2. Paul, does your last sentence mean that this has been your experience whether or not you were wearing a collar?!? 🙂

  13. I think we can make distinctions between good liturgical practices, like the inclusion of Scripture and ritual with a sacrament as important as Penance, and the seemingly lazy choice of grace by substitution, rather than by addition.

    Penance as a sacrament should be judged not only on the apparent effectiveness of “t”radition, but also on how we judge other sacraments: the links between formation, metanoia, mystagogy, community, Scripture, and ritual. In other words, what makes Penance so special that it seems or seemed to require little or nothing liturgical? Because it’s not such a big step to move beyond Penance by appointment to Eucharist by appointment. And if all the sacraments are now being done by alloted time rather than in the context of a faith community, it seems to exalt individualism and private piety above the “T”raditions of the Church.

    My own sense is that the pre-conciliar practices were far too utilitarian, and not demanding enough. The suppression of form III was a gravely serious error in both theology and pastoral practice.

  14. The original context of this post was non-sacramental prayer experiences that are penitential in nature. I think we need to give people more opportunities for Sacramental Penance which include more times for it and also the normal Advent and Lenten Liturgical Penance Services with multiple priests available. But we also need to remind our people we all need to be penitential. Again popular devotions of the past, both private and communal had very strong penitential themes, just read the St. Alphonsus Liguori version of the Stations of the Cross. I think there was a service similar to what Rita writes of when Archbishop Weakland admitted his guilt publicly, in a liturgical way–it made national news. Hopefully all of us are trying to have some kind of Liturgical prayer or para-liturgies in our parishes in addition to daily Mass and the other sacraments. In these experiences we should incorporate a penitential aspect. I think these then lead people to sacramental confession rather than causing them to forgo the Sacrament of Penance.

  15. The framers of the 1973 Rite of Penance were already experiencing a decline in lay participation. Nobody kept statistics, but the decline start is placed anywhere from the late 40’s to the mid-60’s.

    It seems obvious the church acted with optimism instituting form ii, form iii, and the non-sacramental services. They all seem to approach the need for a deeper awareness of metanoia from a different view. Forty years later, and what have we accomplished? Traditional penance apologists still bemoan the numbers and blame the laity. One pope wants to apologize and the curia frets. Just who is burdened by a lack of a sense of sin?

    And of the three new options, the first is largely segregated to Lent and maybe Advent (when monthly might be worth a try). A pope panicked on the second. And clergy worldwide ignore the third.

    I’d say on this front, there’s precious little of a reform to reform. The guys in black, top to bottom, seem to have missed a unique opportunity, preferring timidity to boldness. Meanwhile AA and other groups effect significant recoveries with steps four through nine. What was it that Jesus said? Fear is useless; what is needed is trust.

  16. With regard to penitential services with general absolution, in this country the numbers attending were extremely high (and you can still find a few of these services if you know where to look). Furthermore, this was the doorway through which significant numbers of people returned to the Church and to regular practice.

    It has been said that only a completely dysfunctional institution would seek to ban something which was actually bringing people back to church…. Interestingly, no one challenged John Paul II when he said, in effect, that there are three forms of the rite of penance but only the first of these is to be used. (In which case, why are the others there?!)

    I think one of his problems was that he saw services with general absolution as an easy option. I would like to have had him attend some services that I was involved with which were tough on the participants and very powerful, and certainly not an easy option. Perhaps not everyone handled it like this.

  17. Wherever two are three are gathered together in my name…that would make any group/communal penance/atonement service “sacramental” de facto…a sacrament is an outward sign of God’s grace…are we to assume that just because there isn’t individual confession that there is no contrition? forgiveness? atonement? reconciliation? A community coming together to show sorrow & to atone can be much more of a conversion than the ordinary individual confession which is too often the recitation of the laundry list…we worship in community (Eucharist) we should atone in community, also…otherwise, where does the notion of social sin or sin affecting others ever come into view of the entire worshipping community?? Individual confession is just that—individual.

  18. If you have a priest available, why would you conduct a penance service without an opportunity for auricular confession immediately afterwards? But suppose you don’t have a priest available – and this is the case in much of the Church – then a penitential service lead by a deacon or a lay leader makes sense. I imagine this is what Pope Benedict is getting at. If you have penitential services without the sacrament then people will be better disposed to receive the sacrament when it is available. And, of course, for catechumens, sacramental confession is not available.

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