Penitential Liturgy

The Penitential Liturgy in the video above was celebrated at the Vatican during the course of the recent summit conference on clergy sexual abuse. I watched it with interest, both because of the unusual nature of the gathering, and because I wondered what it might tell us about penitential celebrations generally.

After sharing my observations, I would invite you to add your own, but not only with an eye toward this one case. Please consider how this example of a Penitential Service either affirms or challenges your own pastoral practice. Toward this end, here are seven questions to consider:

#1  Do you hold Penitential Services in your parish?

#2  Does the celebration reflect the fullness of the ritual text in the Rite of Penance, or is it hasty and abbreviated?

#3  How much care do you put into crafting an Examination of Conscience and / or adapting the Act of Repentance? Preparing the ministers? Selecting appropriate music?

#4  Does the liturgy lead people into an awareness of solidarity in sorrow for sin and gratitude for grace, or is it a purely privatized experience?

#5  Who are the ministers?

#6  Is there a place for silence?

#7  How do you give due emphasis to sorrow and yet also ritualize the joy of being reconciled and forgiven, toward which the rite moves us?

The following outline shows the time frame of each step of the Vatican service, the language, the ministers, and the posture:

57.58 minutes total

0:00—3:05          Silence, with everyone in place, seated

3:05—7:00          Attende Domine . Latin .  sung by congregation and schola . all standing

7:00—7:04          Greeting . Italian . Pope Francis .  all standing

7:05—10:55        Psalm 129, sung responsorially with schola. Latin . all standing

11:00—11:29      Prayer . Pope Francis . Italian . all standing

11:45—16:25      Gospel reading (Luke 15:11­–32). Italian . unnamed woman lector . reader standing, assembly seated

17:17—26:15      Homily. English . Archbishop Philip Maameh of Tamale, Ghana . preacher standing, assembly seated

27:30—32:50      Witness . Spanish . unnamed (male) abuse survivor . speaker standing, assembly seated

33:20—39:05      Violin solo . played by same abuse survivor (postures the same)

39:48—41:28      Invitation to repentance . Italian . Pope Francis . all standing

41:35—46:29      Examination of Conscience . Spanish (in the form of a litany, spoken text punctuated by organ) . Cardinal Ricardo Blazquez of Valladolid, Spain . all standing

46:35—49:10      Act of Repentance . English (spoken – “We confess” – with sung Kyrie response) . Cardinal John Atcherly Dew of Wellington, New Zealand . all standing (incense placed on coals in stationery incense burner)

49:18­—50:19      Pater Noster (sung by all) . Latin . all standing

50:19­—50:30      Conclusion and invitation to exchange the signs of peace (spoken) . Latin . Pope Francis

51:20—53:57      Magnificat (sung by all) . Latin

54:10—54:40      Closing blessing . Latin . Pope Francis

54:40—55:47      Concluding chant . Latin . sung by all

56:20                    The pope leaves by a side door and the assembly disperses


There was a long period of silence before the service began. The silence contextualized the service. It was not an empty or restless silence, but appeared to be a recollected period of waiting.

Concerning the ministries, the first thing I’d like to note is the role of Pope Francis. Throughout the service, he was seated with the assembly. He did not sit in a separate presider’s chair. He had no attendants, although someone held a microphone for him when he spoke. He did not face the congregation at all until the closing blessing. He spoke at critical moments, but he spoke very little: a total of 114 seconds of air time – less than 2 minutes in a service lasting almost an hour! Clearly, he was confident in his role and was pivotal to the service without dominating the event either verbally or visually.

I’d also like to note, with a mixture of joy and sadness, that a woman read the gospel. We seldom hear the gospel proclaimed in a woman’s voice, and she read it beautifully—that was a joy. The sadness was that I was unable to find a single news report that told us her name. The abuse survivor who spoke was anonymous by choice, but it seems that no one even tried to find out the name of that woman who so movingly proclaimed the Word in this liturgy.

The witness talk and violin performance by an abuse survivor were very powerful. This is not the sort of thing that is going to happen in a general penitential celebration, but it reflected the fact that this was an extraordinary assembly focused on a specific mission. His courageous and emotionally affecting personal witness could not have been more eloquent in its realism. Could other kinds of witness be used in a parish celebration? This would have to be discerned, based on specific circumstances.

The structure of the service was composed with great freedom, drawing elements from Appendix II of the Rite of Penance (penitential celebrations without the sacrament) but also adding and subtracting from the normal features of a penance service so as to adapt to this particular assembly and occasion.

  • There was the Word proclaimed and preached, an examination of conscience, an act of repentance, and the Lord’s Prayer – all core elements of Penitential Services.
  • At the same time, the liturgy of the Word was truncated: only one psalm and a single reading.
  • There was no communal gesture, such as a reverence for the cross, or a sprinkling with holy water, which are options suggested for the adult rite (the rite for children suggests they light a candle).
  • There were other elements added however, such as the witness talk (which was highly appropriate given the nature of the gathering), the use of incense with the Act of Repentance, the sharing of the Sign of Peace, and the singing of the Magnificat.
  • The texts of the Examination of Conscience were written for the occasion, and the Act of Repentance was adapted.

I thought it was interesting that the photo montage provided by the Vatican showed someone reaching up to touch the foot of the cross – that’s precisely the sort of thing people want to do, and the ritual text anticipates this; but it did not happen in the service. It happened afterwards.

For all that was good about the service, I thought that the decisions about liturgical space missed an opportunity. The arrangement of the space was so rigidly face-front that it gave the impression of a room full of individuals relating only to what was in front of them, with no lateral relationships. This held true until the very end, when they finally “broke ranks” to exchange the Sign of Peace. The homily was low-key but very good, and gave due attention to the fact that we are responsible for one another, yet the overall impression was not a very communal one.

To be fair, it’s a problem that besets penitential services: we are so accustomed to the privatization of sin and repentance that even when the facts show glaringly that sin and its effects are a communal matter, we return to a default setting that emphasizes introspection to the exclusion of everything else. Not to dump on just one person, but it’s a fact that the Cardinal who read the examination of conscience promptly went back to his home country and announced that no national commission to address the sex abuse scandal would be pursued as it has been in other countries; it is up to each individual bishop! Mutatis mutandis . . .

Now, of course, no one can be against individual responsibility or personal repentance. Heaven forbid! But a collective response to evil and sin strengthens the individual, and building up a real sense that we share in the mystery of sin and grace together is the whole purpose of gathering for communal rites of penitence. If our rituals don’t aide us in that, they simply reinforce the individualistic presuppositions of our culture. We also need strong musical expressions, i.e. the singing assembly, to lift us into a more communal experience. This may have happened here, but it was not very evident, at least from the tape. We did have a microphone feedback moment at 39:35 which was kind of charming — so much like the parish!

In the parishes, we generally see penitential services that follow Rite 2, rather than Appendix II. In other words, the sacrament (via individual confessions) takes place within the context of a communal celebration. The sacrament has enormous value. But I’ve often observed the very same “loss of the communal” take place: We totally privatize what is intended to be a common, and community-strengthening, celebration.

The chief way this distortion expresses itself in Rite 2 is that people drift out of church one by one after they have received their individual absolution. The rite, however, envisions everyone who has been forgiven re-gathering to take part in one last action together: an expression of praise for God’s mercy—usually the singing of a psalm or hymn—before they are dismissed. A “change of position” makes the difference. This proclamation of praise can be a powerful moment. If it happens!


  1. Excellent analysis
    Agree about Rite 2
    Unfortunately, we have the typical individual focused ceremony always in Lent (once) and Advent (once). Never during other times – how about the week of prayer for Christian Unity, already designed services that could parallel what you have described.
    Sad – but the communal focus has been completely overshadowed and lost.

    1. Thanks, Bill.
      What a good idea about the week of prayer for Christian unity. I will remember that.

  2. I was just thinking of 50 years ago this week, when I underwent Reconciliation for the first time on the Ember Saturday of Lent (with acute, awful, tonsillitis, I was rushed ahead of all the others, to confess to an aging pastor) and a week later, First Holy Communion, concerned if I’d be able to swallow easily IIRC. It was the Saturday of the second week of Lent.

    Then I looked back at the liturgical context, and it’s for this reason that it occurred to me to mention this on this blog. 1969 was the last year of the -gesima Sundays (the official date of issuance of Mysterii Paschalis was 14 Feb, but I can’t figure out when it was actually published); that motu proprio went into effect the following New Year’s Day (and at that point discovering that my hand missal – a hand-me-down from my father a few years earlier – was not useful any more, and it would be a few years before I could purchase my own, much thicker new hand missal). In April came the new Roman Missal, and in May came the new lectionary. A lot of other sacramental revisions came along with the flow:

    1. What actually “triggered” the disappearance of the -gesima Sundays was the publication later in 1969 of the Ordo Lectionum Missae, where all could see easily how the new calendar was going to work in practice. The first vernacular lectionaries deriving from this document with the new pre-Lent arrangement started to appear in late 1969/early 1970, ahead of translations of the Missal.

      1. Thanks. You’re quite right. The revised calendar itself was more about the sanctoral calendar.

        Of course, as a child, the -gesima Sundays seemed somewhat odd to me (as a period of preparation for a period of preparation) and so their absence the next year was more a curiosity than a source of irritation.

  3. Rita, this is an excellent commentary.

    Regarding Rite 2, this was recognized as a problem from the very beginning — i.e. that after a communal Liturgy of the Word the community is effectively fragmented for individual reconciliation.

    The solution to that in a number of places was Rite 2b, where penitents confessed individually but were not absolved, returning to their places in the church until the last penitents had been heard. Then a communal absolution was pronounced by all the priests present, followed by a hearty song of praise and thanksgiving by all. This lasted for a number of years in some places, in parallel with services of general absolution (which still persist in more places than you would think), but foundered because people were kept waiting for long stretches of time if the number of penitents was large, however prayerful the accompanying music might be.

    Another variant was Rite 2c, where penitents were told only to confess a single sin, with the aim of speeding Rite 2b up. Anyone who wished to come along on another occasion after the service was welcome to do so.

    I am aware that vestiges of this practice also persist in what might be termed Rite IId, confession of a single sin followed by absolution and imposition of a penance, after which the penitent is free to depart. Again, the aim is to speed up what might otherwise be a lengthy service.

    Much of this could be avoided if services of general absolution were as widespread as they once were. The change was brought about by Jean Paul II, who in effect said that, although the Church might have provided three methods for reconciliation, only the first form was the real one. This occasioned much comment along the lines that only a seriously dysfunctional church would put an end to the one thing that was bringing people back to church in large numbers.

    1. “Another variant was Rite 2c, where penitents were told only to confess a single sin, with the aim of speeding Rite 2b up. Anyone who wished to come along on another occasion after the service was welcome to do so.

      I am aware that vestiges of this practice also persist in what might be termed Rite IId, confession of a single sin followed by absolution and imposition of a penance, after which the penitent is free to depart. Again, the aim is to speed up what might otherwise be a lengthy service.”

      Both of which practices serve to tell penitents that they and their consciences are parasites on the priest’s more valuable time.

      1. “Both of which practices serve to tell penitents that they and their consciences are parasites on the priest’s more valuable time.”

        LOL — Thank you, Karl!

      2. “Both of which practices serve to tell penitents that they and their consciences are parasites on the priest’s more valuable time.”

        Let’s turn this the other way, shall we? How about liturgy planners and clerics who think that working people, busy parents with children, elderly and infirm, etc. have hours to spend on a weeknight or Saturday morning sitting in church for a ‘communal’ penance service and then must wait till the bitter end for everyone to get done so that they can be shriven, sing a jolly song of praise, and then be on their way: because that’s what’s best for them.

      3. John

        “Let’s turn this the other way, shall we?”

        I hope that doesn’t mean you’d resent fellow penitents actually confessing their sins without an artificial limit imposed on them by the planners, but are more focused on the planners and their expectations, right?

    2. [continued, because the editing time window closed much sooner than normal]

      For Jean Paul II, read John Paul II. The document was Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, Dec 1984. “The first form — reconciliation of individual penitents — is the only normal and ordinary way of celebrating the sacrament” (para 32)

      The fear was that general absolution, which would be better termed “communal absolution”, would be perceived as “an easy way out”. With a well-constructed service, and a hard-hitting and powerful sung Litany of Sorrow as the examination of conscience, this is certainly not the case. And it would be made very clear to penitents that anything major would have to be talked through with a priest on a subsequent occasion before absolution would be deemed to have taken effect.

      1. Thank you, Paul.

        You are right about the role of John Paul II in halting the renewal and development of our practice concerning the sacrament — and by freezing it killed it, I might add. The thinking behind communal celebrations remains critically important, however, and deserving of reflection despite all that.

        At the ante-preparatory phase of the Council, the liturgists did not want to include Penance in the liturgical reform, because they were convinced the fathers didn’t understand it. They were right. The reform went ahead, and was approved, but then it was undercut. It was too far ahead of where the clergy were, and was interpreted as a threat.

        Still, I have hopes that this setback is temporary — because the reform represents a pastoral and historical perspective that, if we read the signs of the times, is desperately needed today.

  4. #1, We did, for the Year of Mercy and a few times afterward. We drew 70-100, but planners got a bit discouraged, as they thought we could do better. The practice died out, alas, about a year ago.

    #2, We added more Scripture, but cut back on other ritual texts.

    #3, We usually had 3-4 prep meetings for it, and the music was carefully prepared and led by a combined music ministry.

    #4, not sure. Probably both.

    #5, lay people, but some clergy fussed

    #6, yes

    #7, the music and preaching seem to do this most effectively

    It is a sad thing we haven’t developed the penitential liturgies. Many parishes seem to draw well for mission speakers, and if regular penance liturgies were well-preached and had great music (think a parish’s combined choirs) I think it would be a draw–attraction rather than promotion as the 12-step groups often say. I’d have to concede Vatican leadership has short-circuited reform of the Rite of Penance. People talk about a loss of a sense of sin. I disagree. Maybe the clergy have lost their bearings, but that Ash Wednesday, Mass or not, continues to draw well, suggests many casual believers know something is wrong. Ritual and liturgy would help them. Our clergy seem ill-equipped to move this along.

  5. Thank you, Todd. Great idea to experience a penitential liturgy in the context of a parish mission — not just “confessions will be available” but to do a strong communal celebration. Could be formative.

    1. And as I remember a Notre Dame survey from the 80’s (?) on why people weren’t “going to confession,” 2/3ds of the bishops attributed it to a “loss of the sense of sin,” 1/2 the parish clergy thought so, and 2/3s of the laity disagreed because they had come to experience forgiveness in other ways. Meanwhile Dozier in Memphis was filling an arena for communal penance services.

  6. ‘I hope that doesn’t mean you’d resent fellow penitents actually confessing their sins without an artificial limit imposed on them by the planners, but are more focused on the planners and their expectations, right?’

    I am perfectly happy to wait in line (and have done so) for as long as it takes fellow penitents to confess and receive what counsel a priest can provide, because I pray that others would have the same indulgence with me. Ultimately, is one using that quiet time of waiting to reflect, examine himself, and preparing to meet Christ in this sacrament? And for those who can’t prepare themselves or are having trouble, have the planners graciously provided a useful guide to do the same?

    1. We’re good. I’ve lived through the “confess only one sin at a time” thing and my instantaneous internal reaction was something like:

      Then there was another variation I mercifully missed, that of people not even allowed to confess but instructed to write down their sin(s) on paper and present the folded paper to be burned before communal absolution was granted. (The planners of this variation were likewise fortunate that I missed this.)

  7. My parish previously did a Rite 2 Penitential service during Advent and Lent. The problem was that the people we noticed coming year over year tended to already be actively involved in the parish beyond Sunday mass. It didn’t appear to do a good job of attracting seekers, and the preaching especially seemed redundant for participants who were almost without exception already convinced of the practice of regular confession.

    What our parish does now is a “Day of Reconciliation” (in addition to normal confession times), where probably over two dozen area priests hear confessions in shifts in the church from 7am to 10pm, concurrent with perpetual Adoration. People stop in for confession and a five minute service project. At any given time of the day there are usually at least a dozen people either in confession, waiting, or adoring. It’s been a big success and other local parishes have begun similar “liturgies” there.

    1. Patrick — Forgive me for saying that I wonder about the wisdom of attempting to combine the sacrament of reconciliation with perpetual (or indeed any) adoration. It is certainly not envisaged by Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist outside Mass — see paras 65 and 66 of the British Isles edition (paras 95 and 16 in some other editions), which seem to indicate that the focus of adoration should be somewhat different: “a better understanding of the eucharistic mystery” and “extending the praise and thansgiving offered to God in the eucharistic celebration”.

      We have been through a period in the life of the Church where we quasi-automatically “had Mass” on every conceivable occasion, thereby risking devaluing it through over-use and routine. Now we seem to be entering a period where people want to combine everything with adoration, with the possibility of similar attendant risks.

      Reconciliation is a very different kind of sacrament from the Eucharist, and it may be better to keep it separate. (I recall the preconciliar days when confessions were often being heard all during Mass, a practice which is now discouraged [Order of Penance, para 13)].)

      1. Paul, I’m unaware of any implied prohibition on hearing confessions during adoration. Pope Francis himself has encouraged this practice, and even initiated a 24 Hours for the Lord event across the diocese of Rome back in Lent 2015. Mass is a different story, since the individual nature of confession greatly conflicts with the communal active participation as envisaged in the Pauline Mass. There’s less tension with adoration, since they’re both very individual forms of prayer, which is why many places pair them as tools for evangelization.

        I’ll grant you that there’s a real danger of Adoration becoming the next fad in the Church. Hastily inserting adoration into everything will cheapen both. But it’ still very much something Catholics need to actively seek out if they want it, and Sunday mass-goers could easily go years without knowing what it is if they only go to Sunday mass (as many do).

    2. Now we’ve gone down the rabbit hole.
      The problems of a communal service are solved by not having one.
      It sounds to me a lot like a filling station. Open all day, 12 pumps.
      Pick up a packet of eucharistic devotion and a 5 minute service project while you’re there. No wonder it’s a success. It’s just like a convenience store.
      Thank you, Patrick for this window onto what a success worth emulating looks like. Am glad you put “liturgy” in scare quotes.

  8. I know the following is not strictly ‘ad rem,’ and I was impressed with the service described.

    However, I think Rita’s comments on the way the assembly was arranged apply more broadly to our liturgy as a whole.

    Our churches look like classrooms, halls where political party conferences or corporate shareholder meetings take place. There is a platform, with a table in the middle and a stand to one side for the speaker. There will also be chairs behind the table for those in charge of the meeting (there may even be flowers on the table – the only thing missing is candles!).

    This sort of arrangement bears no relation to what we know about the disposition of ritual sites in churches in earlier christianities, or in Orthodox Christian practice, or indeed in many older traditional Jewish synagogues.

    In our modern church dispositions, everything happens on a podium and everyone is arranged in neat lines (the late Fr. Aidan Kavanagh pointedly compared these to lines on a printed page) in an audience mode, receptors more than participants.

    Doesn’t anyone ever think about this?


    1. Alan, I am delighted you picked up on this. I think it’s a foundational issue and very relevant to the rest of our liturgical practice as well as to penitential services. Thank you for noting Kavanagh, and recalling that this arrangement of space is not historically inevitable.

  9. Will this rite have to evolve into a communal form and migrate from the individual confession?
    1.) The sanctity has been blemished with sexual abuse and then the coverups by the priest and up chain to the Diocesan and Vatican level.
    2.) The presence of gold diggers that have/will seek monetary rewards at any cost. How many lawsuits /investigations can a Diocese endure before going bankrupt? Why needlessly expose a good man to harm by having a private encounter?
    3.) The new legal consequences for priests to reveal sex acts confessed about happening to children presents the question where will the legal discovery process stop?
    The pressures are real and the consequences significant enough to stop the personal cleansing for decades?

    1. This is precisely what Australian Jesuit Richard Leonard has been writing about recently. It appears that if the Australian legal code changes, compelling priests to disclose what they have heard in confession, then there is a high chance that clergy will decide for themselves that services with General Absolution are safer than hearing individual confessions — not the best reason for going with that option..

    2. The sacramental system has evolved in the past due to pressures from the outside world, political shifts, changes in mentality, violent upheavals. I hadn’t thought of this, but the sexual abuse crisis may be a powerful enough tectonic shift to change this discipline. Thank you for bringing this up.

  10. It has been law in Michigan (effective March 1,2003) Under the Child Protection Law 722.631 “a privileged communication… is abrogated and shall not constitute grounds for excusing a report to be made pursuant to this act.”

    The new Michigan AG is fiercely enforcing this and is seizing documents as far back as the 1950s. All will be held accountable.

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