Liturgy Lines: Communal Reconciliation: The Second Rite

by Elizabeth Harrington

This post originally appeared at Liturgy Brisbane on November 8th, 2016


Most parishes schedule communal reconciliation during Advent. The official title of this liturgy is “Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution” or the Second Rite of the Sacrament of Penance.

The Sacrament of Penance ritual book encourages participation in this form of reconciliation which “shows more clearly the communal nature of penance”.

Sometimes the manner of celebration of the second rite of reconciliation conveys the impression that the first half of the liturgy is a communal celebration but the second part a private one, in other words a combination of the third and first rites.

I have attended second rites where, after the introduction, liturgy of the word, and examination of conscience, the priests moved to the privacy of the church’s confessionals and sacristies. One by one, people entered these rooms, often for a considerable length of time, to confess their sins and receive absolution. In fact, from this point on they were just like Saturday afternoon confessions, but with several priests and a much bigger crowd. People were even told to leave after they had had their “turn” and not wait around for the concluding rites.

This is not at all what the second rite envisages. Such poor celebrations turn people away and deprive them of a wonderful opportunity to experience communal reconciliation which “shows more clearly the communal nature of penance”. (Sacrament of Penance #22)

The second form of the sacrament of penance is a communal liturgical celebration from beginning to end. It begins with the community listening to the word of God. The homily emphasises our need for repentance and the infinite mercy of God. During the examination of conscience, the assembly reflects together on where and how they have fallen short of their baptismal commitment to follow Christ.

The individual confession and absolution that follows is communal too in that the penitents approach the confessors in full view of all present. The priests stand at appropriate points around the worship space in such a way that penitents can be seen but not heard by others. This is easily arranged in most churches. Those who wish to confess their sins approach one of the priests. While no restriction is placed on the individual’s confession, good manners and common sense dictate that people limit the time they spend with confessors. More time for integral confession and spiritual guidance is available at the first rite.

It is a moving experience to witness fellow Christians humbling themselves publicly by approaching a confessor for forgiveness. As they do, we pray for them, that they will know the fullness of God’s grace and mercy.

After the confessions, the ceremony concludes with a proclamation of praise, a prayer of thanksgiving and a blessing. These are an integral to the celebration, not an optional extra!

To ensure that the rite is celebrated in a fruitful way, both parishioners and the priests who will take part need to be informed well beforehand about the nature and purpose of the rite and their participation in it.

“Liturgy Lines” are short 500-word essays on liturgical topics written by Elizabeth Harrington, Liturgy Brisbane’s education officer. They have been published every week in The Catholic Leader since 1999.

Copyright © 2016 Elizabeth Harrington, Archdiocese of Brisbane.


  1. Yes, I have experienced this (as a priest hearing confessions). I find the priests standing awkward and not helpful. Priests and people come in all sizes, and standing to hear and speak at confession did not seem to work when either one had to bend over, or the penitent had a soft voice.

  2. The poor form Ms Harrington describes is actually how form I could be conducted: a brief liturgy of the word at the start of the time for confessions.

    There is really no excuse for better celebrations of form II. The Rite describes possibilities, and the non-sacramental liturgies also give ample material for good ideas. These are among my favorite liturgies to prepare, an excellent opportunity for collaboration between confessors, musicians, and liturgy people.

  3. Priests standing in the worship space while the penitents approach is a true and valuable sign for this rite. I have heard confessions this way many times and I recommend this posture, but especially in a full church where there are not so many priests hearing the confessions. Perhaps a good number of our priests have never really studied the rite and just fall back upon earlier routine practices. Yet the rite can move forward in a away that is comfortable for everyone. The body posture, the understanding, and at times,
    smiling face of the priest is a strong and comforting sign for the other penitents.

  4. I’m not optimistic about communal confession. I’ve experienced it, and priests and penitents alike appeared confused or anxious about the proceedings. I would suggest that this confusion stems from the very strong tradition of individually-scheduled auricular confession.

    Communal confessions where people are told approach and “say just one sin” is faintly ridiculous. Who commits just one sin? Would a skilled doctor prescribe a synthetic analgesic (ie. ibuprofen) for every ailment, even though the underlying pathology could be life-threatening? This doctor would be a poor doctor indeed. Similarly, “say one sin” is a malpractice of the sacrament because it does not approach a priest’s holistic appraisal of the soul.

    However, a layperson who considers confession as a therapy session is also, in my view, abusing the sacrament. Confession is not psychotherapy despite any rationale. I am quite guilty of running off at the mouth in confession. It helps to mentally rehearse one’s confession before offering contrition.

    It is necessary to prepare for Christmas and Easter with penitence. Even so, a person who does not listen to his or her confessor, or offers cursory penitence, may not be good penitents.

  5. I really have an issue where the option to confess anonymously isn’t preserved. I have seen confession set up where the priest is in the sanctuary and the penitent has no choice but to confess face to face. I’m not bothered that anyone in the church can see me confessing, but we are since we are really confessing our sins to Jesus who is hidden by the person of the priest, why the push for face-to-face Confession? At least the Reconciliation Room gives you a choice but for me, the old school confessional is best.

  6. Amen to Harrington’s pushing for the thanksgiving part of the rite, but then again this is generally lacking even in the first rite (individual confession), at least in practice.

    The problem that I have with the second rite is that it is a jack of all trades and master of none kind of ritual. Case in point is confessing one’s sins to a priest. Utilizing “good manners and common sense” means that one either makes broad generalizations or provide a sampler of one’s sins to the priest. To me, this is the equivalent of having a Eucharistic Prayer that is just the institution narrative. Far from expressing the beauty of the rite or the reality that it expresses!

    I also think it would be good to examine why we using the second rite. For most parishes, I think it is a way for the parish to check off a box saying that they offered the sacrament in Advent/Lent, which I would bet is the primary motivation for the faithful to coming to the penance service.

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