Penance and the New Evangelization

“The new evangelization begins … in the confessional!” Pope Benedict said to a group of 1,000 clergy gathered for a conference on the sacrament of Penance, Adoremus Bulletin reports.

Without discounting the evangelizing potential of what transpires in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, this seemed, on the face of it, a strange claim to make. Does Pope Benedict envision great numbers of un-evangelized Catholics going to confession?

Upon reading further, however, the following statement suggested a different insight: “The Sacraments and the proclamation of the Word, in fact, must never be conceived as separate” the Pope said. The proclamation of the Word in the sacrament of Penance seems to have been his focus.

Is the Word proclaimed well “in the confessional”? What is your experience?



  1. In my experience, confessors work with whatever the perceived expectations of penitents are with regard to following the reformed ritual for the sacrament: in most cases, therefore, there is not a formal reading of the Word in the course of the ritual, because most penitents will launch with the formula they learned as children (or have been encouraged to adopt by bloggers as re-verts, shall we say) and head directly into listing sins. It’s been decades since I’ve seen a guide for the whole reformed ritual in a reconciliation room or confessional.

    It’s not what it could be. Then again, it’s still better than the inexcusable practice I long encountered in some climes of having priests attempt to limit your confession to one sin, or, even worse, the simple admission that you are a sinner, et cet.; deeply inhospitable (we need not even address liciety) practices that make penitents feel like parasites on a priest’s much more valuable time, shall we say.

  2. As far as “proclaiming the Word” is understood to mean reading from Scripture, the only times I have witnessed the reading of Scripture in the context of the sacrament is at Advent and Lent reconciliation services, where there are readings from Scripture and from an examination of conscience, perhaps some psalms, perhaps a homily, and then individual confession with absolution.

    But even when the sacrament is not carried out in that manner, I have on occasion had a priest paraphrase the Word in response to my confession, recounting some parable or teaching or event (Old or New Testaments) that relates to my particular situation, and direct its application to the reform of my life.

  3. A friend of mine told me that the best Good News she’d heard in “Confession” was when, 3 years ago, she was glumly “making her Easter duties” and the priest jauntily told her that to confess annually was no longer one of the commandments of the Church.

    She was delighted, and hasn’t been back.

    Not quite what the Pope had in mind?

    1. You friend’s priest was badly mistaken… please invite her back to Confession, for her own eternal good!

  4. I’m coming back from a retreat where just a few of us went for confession. My own was a remarkable let down… The priest just rattled the absolution as if not thinking one moment about what he was saying… Talking with an understanding good friend would have probably been so much more meaningful. Or just talking with Godde…
    I seem to fall outside the boundaries Benedict proposes…

  5. I have to wonder about the emphasis on the Confessional when there aren’t enough priests around to simply offer Mass.
    Consider also, how few priests put any effort into preparing people for other sacraments such as Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation and Marriage. Typically, preparation for these sacraments is foisted off on to lay volunteers. I doubt if the priest who witnessed my marriage could have picked me or my husband out of a crowd the next day!

    1. I don’t understand why you are so dead-set against allowing lay people to step up and take responsibility for things like sacramental preparation and feel the need to mock this with “foist off” language. No doubt you want to restrict the work of the Church to just the priests, but I personally think it’s a good thing when dedicated laymen *and* women can play a direct role in the Church’s mission. Sorry, laypeople don’t just belong in the pews anymore!

      1. I did not mean to disparage the many lay people who spend so much time and effort to transmit the Faith to others. All of them (especially the Sisters!) are to be applauded. What I meant to comment on was that all too often priests are present only when they are in authority over others. When a priest stands in the pulpit and castigates the congregation for not going to Confession often enough, hasn’t he placed himself in the role of a judge who finds his people unworthy? This doesn’t apply to every priest, of course, but it does apply to too many.
        I heartedly agree that laypeople don’t just belong in the pews anymore. It is well past time that they bring their talents and knowledge to the guidance as well as the service of the Church!

    2. Consider also, how few priests put any effort into preparing people for other sacraments such as Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation and Marriage.

      I don’t know the statistics.

  6. The reformed rite of reconciliation is an admirable attempt to lessen the rote nature that the sacrament has taken in recent times. Still, the form of confession that is most often practiced (“Bless me Father”, number of weeks since last confession, etc.) is familiar. Familiarity is important in the context of a very personal sacrament. Perhaps some people might find that a rote form of confession helps them overcome anxiety about the confession process.

    Interestingly, the familiar form of confession among anglophones in the Roman Rite has also crossed over into Eastern Catholicism. A Ruthenian priest friend of mine once said that many of his parishioners were brought up to begin confession with “Bless me Father” rather than the petition traditional for Byzantines. I am not sure if this is due to either ministry by Roman priests to Byzantine Catholics or to Latinization. Either way, the very personal nature of the sacrament appears to overcome any attempt to codify an established liturgy for the sacrament.

  7. The minister of the Sacrament truly collaborates in the new evangelization, Pope Benedict told the group, by renewing himself, his own awareness that he is a sinner and is in need of receiving sacramental pardon. The Pope is not talking about the confessions of people who are not going to Church regularly but rather about the confessions of priests who want to attract people who are lukewarm or have abandoned the practice of Catholicism.

    In the Vibrant Parish Life Study of 129 Parishes and more than 46000 respondents “The availability of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession)” was ranked 36th out of 39 items in importance and 22nd out of 39 items in being well done. Since even people who come to church regularly give low priority to Confession, priests and their collaborators in the New Evangelization should start with their own need for conversion,

    New Evangelization draws its lifeblood from the holiness of the children of the Church, from the daily journey of personal and community conversion in order to be ever more closely conformed to Christ… The real conversion of our hearts, which means opening ourselves to God’s transforming and renewing action, is the “driving force” of every reform and is expressed in a real evangelizing effort.

    Why should not priests and pastoral ministers begin the New Evangelization in our parishes by taking seriously the findings of VPL that the people’s top two priorities are liturgy and community but they are half way down the list on being done well by parishes?

    Why should not priests and pastoral ministers open their own hearts to real conversion by asking the people how priests and ministers could provide better liturgy and better community? Why wait until more people decide to no longer come because of the mediocrity of our parish life?

    Such a public confession and willingness to change might go a long way to jump starting the New Evangelization.

    Just because B16 said it and it is in Adoremas, don’t assume the worst. Imagine the best!

    It is also OK to imagine a public form of conversion as a way to proclaim of Good News of personal conversion.

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