Non Solum: Penance Services

During Advent and Lent it is the custom in many communities to offer penance services. Penance services are especially appropriate during Advent and Lent due to the penitential nature of both seasons.

I serve on the liturgy committee for the community I attend here in Leuven, and a few weeks ago we debated the pros and cons of a penance service. Unfortunately, the committee decided to not organize one this Lent. Penance services can be a powerful source of healing and forgiveness. If your community has the resources, I would encourage you to offer a penance service.

There are several different types of penance services. Some of them are non-sacramental services and others are communal penance services with individual confession. Even less common are communal penance services with general absolution. Communal penance services with general absolution have been discouraged in recent years.

There are a variety of ways to organize a penance service, especially a non-sacramental penance service. Some communities encourage their members to write their sins on a piece of paper that is later burned. Others follow the sacramental services outlined in the official Rite of Reconciliation.

I am curious to know if your community has penance services during Lent. If so, how is your penance service structured? How popular is the service?

Please comment below.


  1. In my experience, a lot of people go to confession only in the context of a communal penance service. I’d like to see parishes offer them more often and not just during Advent and Lent.

  2. I think these Penance services are very important. One of the most profound I ever took part in was when the folks wrote out their sins on a piece of paper, and if appropriate, we we had a brief discussion. After the words of absolution I put the paper into the fire in a small pot next to us. Very often it was an emotional, in the best sense of the term, experience. If I were in a position to do so, I would arrange such a service on a regular basis. A few of the other priests were offended, and they made enough commotion so there weren’t any more at that parish.

  3. We have three communal services on consecutive days every Advent and Lent – one apiece in each of the three parishes in our town. All of the active and retired priests from the three parishes are available at all of the services for individual confessions. The communal services are sufficiently popular that the lines for individual confession are quite long, and if I didn’t have children to drag along with me to a communal service, then in the spirit of sheer efficiency I’d just go to a regular Saturday morning reconciliation.

  4. One or two years at a former parish (a cathedral in a residential neighborhood), our principal service for Ash Wednesday was a Liturgy of the Word with a little more extended preaching and the Distribution of Ashes. From there a trajectory of penitential services was charted culminating with a sacramental communal penance service on Wednesday of Holy Week (the last full day of Lent). Each Wednesday in between we had a simple soup supper and a penitential service of the Word, with extended preaching by some good and sometimes well-known preachers (themes well-publicized–sort of like Parish Mission spread over all of the Wednesdays in Lent. Individual confessions were offered during and around these public gatherings as well as several other times each week. The weekly round of penitential services with substantial preaching really helped the community to “dig in” and and for everyone to be reconciled by the time the Sacred Triduum began. Also, there was nothing about the Ash Wednesday Service or any of the Wednesdays penitential services that necessarily excluded those outside of our Communion. Those who needed a few weeks to examine their consciences were able to and encouraged to take that time. Those who were away from the church had a 40-day opportunity to perhaps find their way back. There was ample potential for seekers to hear the Word of God and receive encouragement toward conversion of heart that this liturgical scheme presented a unique opportunity for evangelization.

  5. Why would a parish have general absolution simply because it’s Lent and/or Advent? The participants would still have to seek individual confession at the earliest opportunity.

  6. The churches I attend strive to offer confession all year round. Before Mass, after Mass, Saturdays, mornings, evenings, whenever. Sometimes Father sits there all alone, but he does so for the care of souls.

    By contrast, I once missed confession during passiontide, and called the local parish. Oh no, no more confessions. There was a penance service two weeks ago.

    Penance services are not a steady substitute for the standard of auricular confession. If more people knew of the more devout parishes, in one of these cases a large city church, and merely availed themselves of the sacrament at their convenience. There are devout clergy who will do nearly anything to find a convenient time for you to confess. Go and find them.

    Penance services are another example of the endlessly experimental mentality of the postconciliar/postmodern mindset. Let’s invent another liturgy when the Church has advocated private confession for at least a millennium! Nobody likes to go to confession, but it is a more cleansing experience than trying to invent a service that will shield us from a stark recollection of our sin.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #6:

      “By contrast, I once missed confession during passiontide, and called the local parish. Oh no, no more confessions. There was a penance service two weeks ago.”

      Jordan – yes, that’s apt to happen around here, too. I do think that priests feel they are doing the work of 2-3, are at the end of their rope, and need parishioners to meet them halfway. If they offered a penance service recently, and Triduum is looming, they may feel that they’ve done what they reasonably can. I know it’s frustrating. I guess I see both sides.

    2. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #6:

      I will offer one emendation and exception to what I have written. There is good reason to limit auricular confession to adults. Perhaps children and young adults should use one of the group penitential rites to ensure their safety and well being (cf. Marjorie Campbell, “Is it Time to Rethink Confession for Minors?”, CatholiCity, 9 April 2010).

      My diocese, and undoubtedly many others, encourage Catholics to go to confession throughout Lent, and not just at the last minute. Priests are exhorted to offer more hours and accessibility.I know priests who preach the same. Yet people often will not confess until the last opportunity, and usually at a communal service. Again, priests are waiting to hear your confession. All it takes is a few minutes.

  7. Stanislaus Kosala : Why would a parish have general absolution simply because it’s Lent and/or Advent? The participants would still have to seek individual confession at the earliest opportunity.

    Who is talking about general absolution? People go to one of the multiple priests who are available at the communal services.

  8. A Franciscan shrine chapel I go to, holds a communal penance service during Advent and Lent. After psalms and a Scripture reading, about four friars priests are seated at the communion rail. The congregation are invited to come up individually, and confess one or two sins that really weigh on them. They then receive absolution.

    1. @Jonathan F Jones – comment #8:
      This is similar to a communal penance service I’ve seen for Lent and Advent at several churches. Much like the Greek Orthodox practice, the penitent kneels before an icon of Christ placed in the choir and with the priest seated next to it. The absolution is given before this icon with the priest standing, placing his stole over the head of the kneeling penitent.

      In my own parish, these penance services seem to be the rule. The old confessionals now service to hold folding chairs and hymnals.

  9. In the parishes I have served a well crafted communal penance service is usually well received. Nonetheless in most places the numbers of people going to confession has dropped severely over the last two generations.

    I think it is time to reconsider communal penance services with general absolution in the style of the late Bishop Carroll Drozier of Memphis, Tenn. He attracted thousands to these liturgies in several large arenas throughout his diocese with its sparse Catholic population. He saw it as a tool of Evangelization and a way to reach out to non practicing Catholics. Although included in the new rite of penance some church leaders were uncomfortable and put severe limitations on its usage.

    Strangely enough I know one diocese where some priests used a variation of this. During penance services Catholics were instructed to write their sins down, come forward and put them in a large container over charcoals, and then father burned them. All went home forgiven. Most of these “sin burners” were conservative priests in one priest parishes who found this process easier than recruiting a number of other priest to help hear individual confessions for hours and then feeling obliged to reciprocate in their neighbors parishes
    Rather than being limited by the strictest interpretation of the present rite or inventing one’s own variation I suggest it is appropriate to give wider usage to the church’s existing rite with general absolution.

    1. @Brian Culley, CMF – comment #10:
      Were the people at these general absolution services instructed that they must go to individual confession at their earliest opportunity and confess the sins of which they were just absolved?

      1. @Stanislaus Kosala – comments #5 and #12:

        That’s twice you said it, Stanislaus, and both times it was wrong. In fact they only need to go to individual confession subsequently if they were in a state of grave sin.

        While we’re at it, cf. also Catechism of the Catholic Church 1393 and especially 1394 concerning forgiveness of venial sins through Holy Communion.

      2. @Paul Inwood – comment #20:
        Thanks for keeping track and for the magisterial correction. I realize that we only have an obligation to confess mortal sins, I was just curious whether it was explained to the people present at these services that general absolution is in no way an alternative to individual confession.
        Having general absolution simply for venial sins seems to me still a complete misuse of the rite.

  10. Brian Culley, CMF: “I think it is time to reconsider communal penance services with general absolution in the style of the late Bishop Carroll Drozier of Memphis, Tenn.”

    This immediately conflicts with the fact that individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the sole ordinary means by which one who is conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and with the Church. See, for example, Canon 960. I don’t believe Bishop Drozier was doing this during wartime and Pope Paul VI and James Cardinal Knox personally expressed their displeasure to Bishop Dozier.

    The primary problem seems to be priests putting other matters ahead of the obligation (see Canon 986.1) to make confession available. It can be done; a local parish with two priests provides daily confessions plus confessions at every weekend Mass. Before we devise a clever workaround, why not try going through the front door?

  11. I’ve always believe all 3 Forms of Reconciliation work well together, and sort of give a glimpse on the various dimensions on sin and grace. So while we have a fair amount of people coming to individual private penance (we add extra opportunities during Lent), we also have quite a few people come to communal celebrations as well. I’ve always appreciated the ritual book for the Rite of Penance has so many varied options, especially in its appendix, and it’s a shame most people don’t advantage of the great variety that exists in the book.

    If I confessed (pun intended) in great detail what form our community does during Lent and Advent, I suspect all of the lurkers on here would turn us into the Pope. Here’s a teaser: It’s what I call “Form 2.5”. It can be done with just one priest, but we do NOT have general absolution.

  12. We have deanery penitential services in Advent and Lent with priests stationed around the building for individual confessions. We also have regular weekly confessions.
    For me the advantages of the deanery services are that firstly having different people lead the examination of conscience each time means that I get to look at my life through a fresh pair of eyes – that can be very uncomfortable. I also like the implication that sin affects those around us as well as the vertical relationship. It is very moving to have a community come together to acknowledge its sinfulness, be forgiven and then celebrate God’s forgiveness communally.

  13. Well, I have experienced Rite II services where penitents were told they could only confess one sin in the individual confession part of the service. That approach and approaches like it treat penitents as parasitical leaches of the priest’s more valuable time. It’s mind-blowingly awful.

    After I stopped attending such services at that place, my friends who continued to attend reported they stopped having an individual confession portion and substituted for it the write-on-a-piece-of-paper-and-burn-it-in-a-bowl approach, followed by communal absolution. Another fail.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #16:

      “Well, I have experienced Rite II services where penitents were told they could only confess one sin in the individual confession part of the service.”

      Same here, except we were allowed two sins. In retrospect, I now see that was exceedingly generous of them.

  14. A lot of parishes around here, plus all the schools, do penance services which consist of a liturgy of the word, which ‘concludes’ with an examination of conscience in lieu of prayers of the faithful and then moves into individual confessions. That’s also how all the parishes I know handle first reconciliation for second graders. This past year, I introduced the same thing into our pre-confirmation retreat. We advertise all the local penance services in our bulletin, for people’s convenience.

    The one parish I know of that doesn’t do this is one of the local Hispanic parishes. The pastor there told me that he tried penance services, but attendance was sparse. Increasing regular confessions times, though, did attract more people.

  15. I find it interesting that priests of the more RoTR persuasion insist on only using the “I confess” form of the penitential act and then wonder why more Catholics are not going to confession. I’m convinced that most of the faithful regard this as their preferred manner of confessing sin. And its even concluded with a general absolution. Very interesting.

  16. Our local parish “cluster” offers communal services during Advent and Lent, usually a service in the afternoon on a Wednesday, and then repeated in the evening. Parishes take turns hosting these, and most, if not all, the clergy in the area attend to hear individual confessions following a communal Liturgy of the Word and penitential litany (as prescribed in the ritual). Depending on the host parish, penitents may also share a common penance after the individual absolution, and then sing a proclamotion of praise for God’s mercy. Some penitents may also be given an individual penance depending, I would assume, on the nature of the sins confessed, or, in some cases, by request of the penitent. The Confiteor has often been used during these services as a common Act of Contrition before individual confession, which helps its use at Mass not to be confused with general confession and absolution!

    Many local parishes also offer confessions on Saturdays or by appointment throughout the year, depending on clergy availability.

    Recently, during Lent, our Deanery has also instituted a program called “The Light Is On for You”, wherein, on one day during Lent, during certain afternoon and evening hours, one can go to any parish in the Deanery and find a priest available for confession. A nice element of this program is that it can be well publicized without much extra effort, with all the parishes sharing the cost of advertising, etc. It is also not as difficult for parishes without resident priests to book a visiting/retired priest to sit in the confessional for a few hours. The main thing is coordinating schedules for this among the priests/parishes.

    All of these have proven popular, and well worth the effort. Unless, of course, they are cancelled because of snow!

  17. Two memorable experiences of communal reconciliation.
    The first goes back to the seminary, where, one particular pre-Lenten season, we decided to resurrect something of the Order of Penitents.
    On Ash Wednesday, a communal service was held, with individual confession. If one wanted, absolution was available at that time. There was also the option to “defer” absolution until Wednesday of Holy Week, when the penitent returned to the confessor, having completed the penance throughout the season. Given the nature of what was going on in that particular community at that time, it was an amazingly grace-filled season. Sadly, I don’t recall that we were all that “changed” post-Easter.
    The other was during a communal service on a high school retreat.
    During the “general part” prior to individual confession (if chosen)
    two of the participants who were classmates left the large group to go off by themselves, to “settle something” that had been festering between them. They were as much ministers of reconciliation to one another as I was to those who came to make their confession to me.
    A very moving experience, as such occasions can be. Then again, isn’t grace always a profound encounter?

  18. Thanks, Mr. Bede – have memories of some of these same types of communal reconciliation services – both high school and college settings.
    Used to do communal reconciliation services during both Advent and Lent – often, coordinating so that an appropriate number of confessors were available for the service (Form II). But, there were some circumstances where we had to prudently use Form III for a reconciliation service (mission land; only a couple of confessors for hundreds of people, etc.)

    Here is an interesting link to a reflection about this question from a canon lawyer based upon personal experience:

    Some points to consider:
    – canon law actually asks the bishop to appoint confessors rather than just give that faculty to every ordained priest in the diocese
    – cites actual experience that many large parishes continue to utilize Form III
    – talks about the reality that many face in terms of *individual confession* given the current environment especially in certain dioceses

  19. Here is individual confession raised to the status of a happening: next weekend, from Friday, Feb 27th at noon thru Saturday, Feb 28th noon, my archdiocese, Chicago, is hosting a “Festival of Forgiveness”. From the website’s description:

    “For Catholics around the world, Ash Wednesday marks the start of the Season of Lent. It is a time of new beginnings. This year, Lent offers us a unique opportunity to invite people to seek healing and participate in the Festival of Forgiveness. From noon on Friday, February 27, to noon on February 28, the Sacrament of Penance will be celebrated at 24 locations for 24 hours. ”

    It seems like a fine idea, but I do have a mild quibble with the branding; “Festival of Forgiveness” doesn’t quite strike the religious chord, does it? A bit too close to “Chicago Auto Show” for my taste.

  20. Bill deHaas: “”Here is an interesting link to a reflection about this question from a canon lawyer based upon personal experience:

    Dr. Jennifer Haselberger does relate she was raised in a parish within an archdiocese where communal confession was offered DESPITE Canon Law and the efforts of two archbishops and suggests she knows better than the current archbishop how to run his archdiocese.

    A more middle-of-the-road canon lawyer, Cathy Caridi, J.C.L., an American canon lawyer who practices law and teaches in Rome, offers a somewhat more orthodox view:

  21. Alright, I will retract my barb about postmodernism. Indeed, it would be a better characterization to say that the rites of the Church past 1969 have become more humanistic. I find this to be a very distressing trend, especially in phrases such as “the assembly consecrates at Mass” and similar. Take up thy rosary and follow Me — that is all for me to say. pes meus stetit in directo.

    As I have mentioned, children and their parents might better be served by a penance service. Even so, what can be done to encourage other adults to privately confess? It appears to me that a great many people have a grave fear of the confessional and will do anything to avoid it. I’ve been yelled at in the confessional, albeit by a priest who was in great pain and dying (perhaps he also shouted because he was hard of hearing). I know of another priest who excoriates people who use birth control. Cynical and cruel “advice” to penitents will result in people who do not confess. On Pope Francis’s battlefield, there is a balance between compassion, mercy, and admonition. Not all priests are capable of this.

    The goal should be to rekindle a regular practice of auricular confession among the faithful throughout the year, and not devise “penance liturgies” which are really veiled general confession. Auricular confession is not meant to be a torture chamber, but an ability for the priest as representative of Christ to offer not only penance but advice for living a moral and Christian life. Are all priests able to provide this? Some, actually, are quite lousy at hearing confessions.

    Why this accommodationist attitude which sidelines auricular confession? Is traditional confession “scary” and therefore an impediment to evangelization? Is confession, with its direct confrontation of sin, not consistent with the humanist notion that humans are capable only of fault and not sin? And yet, traditional confession, if practiced consistently with a merciful confessor, offers a great font for living the faith. Those who just go to a once- or twice-a-year service miss this opportunity.

  22. We haven’t yet finished the planning in our parish for Lent, so I appreciate reading the various perspectives here. Let me offer a couple of thoughts.

    On one Sunday during last Advent, we had an extended time of reflective music and quiet before Mass, during which priests were available for individual confession. This was done in a way that gave everyone a sense of the communal without actually doing a reconciliation service.

    Regarding the confessing of just one or two sins … I have found this to be a more fruitful approach to actually achieving transformation in my life, regardless of the sacramental form. So I do it this way because it seems to work quite well. By focusing on one habitual sin, I receive better spiritual direction from the priest, and I experience a stronger sense of God’s forgiving and empowering grace. If this is explicitly part of the instructions given during a reconciliation service, I think it can be fruitful, rather than the “fail” that KLS experienced.

    1. @Jeff Rexhausen – comment #31:

      Under spiritual direction in an ongoing relationship between a director and client, and I see the value of that. As a commandment to all penitents present for reconciliation, it can be a form of spiritual violence.

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