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!