Restore the Third Rite of Reconciliation?

by Richard Leonard, SJ

Within a year, I expect that every state in Australia will have enacted legislation against the seal of confession in regard to child sexual abuse. In the future, on hearing a confession of child sex abuse I will be legally bound to immediately proceed to the police station where, almost certainly, I would not be able to name the offender, give an address or describe him or her.

I can easily imagine that some activists might falsely confess to criminal abuse in order to entrap a bishop or priest. Since confessors are simply mandatory reporters, they wouldn’t have any role in discerning if a claim of abuse was true or not. The police and the courts would reach a judgement on that in due course.

The first response I have heard from one bishop is to bring back completely anonymous confessionals, where, short of the penitent giving his or her name, the priest would have no way of identifying the one confessing. Maybe, for identification purposes, the state will demand closed-circuit cameras outside reconciliation rooms.

The other option is restore the Third Rite of Reconciliation.

The Third Rite of Reconciliation enjoyed a great reception in many places in Australia until November 1998. That month seven metropolitan archbishops together with the chairman and secretaries of several national bishops’ conference committees held a ‘Synod’ at Rome with various prefects of Vatican dicasteries. At the end a document was produced and signed entitled the ‘Statement of Conclusions’. The tone of it was generally negative, and the lax administration of the Sacrament of Penance received very special attention.

The bishops were told that first and second rites of penance were the “sole ordinary means” by which Catholics are sacramentally forgiven by God and that general absolution (the Third Rite of Reconciliation) was “illegitimate” and had to be “eliminated”.

Recently in another journal, I suggested that the Third Rite of Reconciliation should become the parish norm so as to protect vulnerable priests and bishops. It set off a minor firestorm. Some of my correspondents rightly said that the communal rite should return full stop; and not as means to avoid being charged by the police. Others took me to task for even suggesting that this form of Christ’s forgiveness was remotely equal in efficacy to the other two rites. From my own graced experience of the first and second rites, as well as the privilege at presiding over both forms for decades, I need no convincing of their beauty and power when they are celebrated well. However, questioning the motivation of those who seek the third rite and even suggesting it is does not deliver on its Sacramental promise of Christ’s forgiveness, is dangerous stuff.

The reality is that for all our preaching, teaching, demands and encouragement, since the third rite was eliminated after November 1998, the vast majority of Australian Catholics do not access any form of Penance, ever. Even Lenten and Advent penance services have noticeably shrunk in recent years. If we believe in the sensus fidelium, then the People of God have not received the teaching that the communal rite of penance is “illegitimate”. For almost thirty years we have chosen form over substance, and the Body of Christ is weaker for it.

Though it is only anecdotal, I believe that if we restored the more ancient communal rite of penance, we could regularly see again a church-full of confessing Catholics repenting of their sins and of celebrating God’s unbounded mercy. Other than an institutional back down, where would the downside be?

Richard Leonard SJ is the author of Hatch, Match & Dispatch: A Catholic Guide to Sacraments (Paulist Press), which has just been published.


  1. It’s not at all clear to me that me that one can properly characterize the Third Rite of Reconciliation as a “restoration” of the “ancient communal rite of penance”. The latter wasn’t anonymous: it was public and specific, and it was limited for quite some time to once and involved substantial (even lifelong or multi-year) harsh penances (the residue of the later evolution of which perhaps may be seen in Shrovetide as a period of reconciliation before Lent-long penance). Cherry picking our way with sacramental restoration – or knawing on bones from more recent disputes – is not necessarily going to be the best frame for considering this. If the Third Rite of Reconciliation is going to be successfully and fruitfully explored, it should be without invoking any of that.

    Face-to-face reconciliation requires opt-in by both penitent and priest, if memory serves (that is, if either does not consent to that, the anonymity of the “grille” is the default), at least for scheduled rather than impromptu confessions on the fly, as it were.

  2. Another approach would be to adapt what might be called the interrogatory approach to Reconciliation – where, instead of the penitent “controlling” the agenda of the confession conversation by iterative recital of sins without interruption, the confessor-priest essentially conducts an active examination of conscience by asking questions of the penitent, to which the penitent responds (this is perhaps a “judicial forum” approach). I’ve never experienced this in person, but am aware of it (1) from reading about the historical practice, and (2) from friends who’ve encountered in places popular with penitent pilgrims (St Peter’s in Rome, for example), so I defer to those that have personal experience of it. I am *not* recommending it, but the reason it occurs to me to mention it is that approach could possibly be adapted for the confessor priest to focus information being provided by the penitent.

    1. Such an approach strikes me as an abuse. The penitent after an examination of conscience confesses the sins of which he/she is conscious at that time. The confessor might ask “Is there anything else now?,” but to run through an interrogation, based, for example, on the Ten Commandments, is not, it seems to me, allowed. With children who are anxious and may need some help in expressing their failures, the priest can give some examples suitable to the age of the child of how we might offend God. But not an interrogatory list., “Did you do this, “this, and this?” For someone who has not been to confession in a long time, the confessor may guide the uncertain penitent by focusing on the person’s state of life and its obligations. but a fishing expedition, no!

      1. I’ve heard stories of the interrogation approach (how I would characterize the worst of it) and most clergy botch it badly. First, it is non-Scriptural. And more importantly, it places too much onus on the personal qualities of the confessor rather than God’s grace. A person is forgiven because of grace. Not because a form was used or used properly. Or even that the penitent got all the words out right. Luke 15:11-24 is the manual.

  3. “Other an institutional back down, where would the downside be?“

    Maybe this is naive but since when are we as a Church letting secular governments tell us how to practice our faith? Nevermind that these ridiculous proposed bans on the seal of confession will only encourage more secrecy by discouraging offenders from telling anyone at all, I’d hope our priests and bishops would follow the example of St. John Nepomuk and stand up for the people’s right to an individual confession (Cn 960) (similar proposals are being put forth in the U.S. but with little chance of surviving a First Amendment court challenge).

    I have similar doubts that communal confession will result in more use of the Sacrament. My parish did such a service for many years and abandoned it after years of steady declines (we replaced it with an all-day confession drive with a dozen or so area priests). It simply lacks the personal experience of individual confession that IMHO is crucial to why people still confess at all. In any case, “because the state said so” is NEVER a good reason to take on such a sacramental shift in the first place (especially for such self-defeating reasoning).

    1. Unfortunately the leaders of the Catholic Church in Australia abdicated their responsibilities in this area and yes, after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse here, the secular government had to step in and tell the Church how to practice their faith.

      The third rite was very popular in Australia, maybe not so in the US. It’s restriction was a matter of regret for many Catholics here. Fr Leonard is correct in that even the 10% of Australian Catholics who have continued to attend Mass have largely abandoned Reconciliation. Many of our most important sins are communal in any case and the rites as we have them are relatively recent accretions that arose to address concerns in the culture of their time and will need to be adapted to ours. If its use also protects priests as suggested by Fr Leonard fine, but that is not the major driver from the lay perspective.

      After the Royal Commission I really don’t know if we can safely and legally preserve access to the the first rite while acknowledging that the need to protect children is paramount.

      1. The problem with the Third Rite as a “solution” to this problem is that the sins implicated would be, objectively, grave to begin with, so that Third Rite still would require individual confession of them…..

  4. The third rite was practiced for a while in the diocese of Memphis, Tennessee while Carroll Drozier was the bishop. He attracted thousands of Catholics to a large stadium to celebrate God’s forgiveness.
    Unfortunately the Vatican was threatened by this enthusiastic practice of the faith and around 1970 the bishop was forbidden to continue this very effective liturgical celebrations.

      1. Maybe he understood better than most that there have to be remedies for guilt and shame that make people feel unworthy to even ask — or afraid of what the priest might say if he knew what they had done.

  5. Yes, restore the 3rd Rite utilizing exactly the principles that the liturgical renewal set out.

    Why – because re-implementing the 3rd Rite using those principles would shape a response that would show the inaccurate suppositions of this writer. He appears to not understand the 3rd Rite, when it is to be used, what is required of each participant as follow up, etc.

    Find the first three paragraphs to be opinion bordering on conspiracy thinking – geez.

  6. Fr Leonard’s experience of the 3rd Form of the Rite mirrors experience in England, where such celebrations can still be found in some places.

    This form was enthusiastically adopted on a wide scale when the revised Ordo Paenitentiae was issued in 1974. People attended in very large numbers (which would have made celebration of forms I and II impossible in any case). The service was not an easy option, and those in a state of grave sin were reminded that they had not received absolution by this means but needed now to go and see a priest on a one-to-one basis. The point was that this was a gateway into the Church for people who, in many instances, had been absent for years.

    John Paul II was alarmed by this. His advisors told him, quite erroneously in my opinion, that people were “losing a sense of sin”. Thus in 1984 he issued Reconciliatio et Paenitentia which effectively banned the 3rd Form. It was said at the time that only a seriously dysfunctional institution would attempt to put a stop to the one thing that was bringing people back to the Church in droves. The Anglicans openly laughed at the Roman Catholic Church. John Paul II was evidently still alarmed because he later reiterated his position in 2002 in the letter Misericordia Dei.

    I think one of the problems that Rome has always had is the term itself: “General Absolution”. It would be more helpful to change this to “Collective Absolution” which would also have the advantage of reflecting our theological understanding of the communal dimension of sin and reconciliation.

    1. “The service was not an easy option, and those in a state of grave sin were reminded that they had not received absolution by this means but needed now to go and see a priest on a one-to-one basis. ”

      Which is one reason why it’s no silver bullet for the problem of mandatory reporting, and consideration of the 3rd Form shouldn’t be mixed up with that issue if it’s going to be fairly considered afresh.

  7. I would underscore Karl Liam’s point that, given the grave nature of sexual abuse, we should expect that individual confession will be delayed rather than dispensed with entirely (general absolution being received validly only if the penitent has the intention of confessing all grave sins in kind and number once able to do so).

    I also question how we should expect habitual general absolution to provide the same level of pastoral care as individual confession. The confessor as judge can, admittedly, mediate the same sacramental grace in each form (what penitents were told in Paul’s experience was false – the third form imparts valid sacramental absolution even for grave sin), but can a physician without an individual examination achieve a precise diagnosis and treatment plan to encourage that grace to bear fruit?

    1. I think the answer to both Karl and Aaron is that priests would testify that in the weeks following these services (which generally took place just before Holy Week and Christmas) they had large numbers of people coming to see them. These one-to-one encounters with people who wanted to talk about their lives, and confess their grave sins, would often end with the priest asking them if they would like to receive sacramental absolution. The answer was almost always Yes.

      When I said that services with collective absolution were a gateway into the Church, this is what I was referring to. For those penitents, it was the beginning of a journey that certainly did not cease at the end of the communal service. I can’t see that reintroducing these services now would be any different. Indeed, perhaps in the light of our greater knowledge of child sex abuse, and our understanding that there are probably many more people in our midst than we realize who are guilty of this, it could be the beginning of a time of healing for churches and for the Church itself. If only Pope Francis had thought to do this during the Holy Year of Mercy!

      1. Which suggests that one way to signal a sincere intention on part of the church about that gateway is to expand the scheduled hours for individual confession (on mid-week evenings as well as weekends – for example, before Masses on Saturdays and Sundays) for an extended period of time after the 3rd form is offered.

      2. “Indeed, perhaps in the light of our greater knowledge of child sex abuse, and our understanding that there are probably many more people in our midst than we realize who are guilty of this…”

        This though is where Rite 3 would still run afoul of these proposed bans on the seal of confession, because Rite 3 still requires penitents to confess serious mortal sins (like child sexual assault) in person at a future date, by which the state in turn would expect the priest to rat them out. Rite III was never intended as a hypothetical substitute to in person confession (nor should it), only as an extraordinary stopgap. Both priests and penitents would still be in legal danger, and since fugitive penitents would no doubt know this, an entire class of Catholics would still be effectively excluded from the Sacraments, probably at the moment they need them most.

      3. And at this point one would ask whether an in-depth conversation, following a rite with collective absolution, at the end of which sacramental absolution happened to take place (although this would not necessarily be a sequel), would technically count as confession, or as a conversation followed by individual absolution.

        The point at issue is the confidentiality of the conversation. There is no point in asking people to come along afterwards to talk with a priest, if they are conscious of being in grave sin, if they don’t feel that the ensuing conversation is not going to be confidential. I suspect that neither Canon Law nor Civil Law have yet realized a need to distinguish between a private conversation and a formal confession of sins.

  8. Patrick Freese: Rite III was never intended as a hypothetical substitute to in person confession (nor should it), only as an extraordinary stopgap.

    Patrick, you simply cannot say that. Extraordinary stopgap was not the intention. The Rite provided three forms, all of equal merit. It was only JPII who said that actually only Form I was the real and valid one, contradicting not only what the Rite provides but also what people had already sensed for themselves.

    1. The original edition of the reformed rite, the 1974 Ordo Paenitentiae, remains AFAIK the typical edition. I don’t own a copy, but the internet is a treasure trove, and those who consult that text will see clearly that general absolution was flagged as an extraordinary means from the get-go. Those who thought otherwise never took the time to read the introduction. Paragraph 31 as it then stood and continues to stand is not some retrofitting of JPII’s reactionary design; it is Paul VI’s original intent.

      31. Individualis et integra confessio atque absolutio manent unicus
      modus ordinarius, quo fideles se cum Deo et Ecclesia reconciliant,
      nisi impossibilitas physica vel moralis ab huiusmodi confessione

  9. Paul et alii – allow me to interject from 30 year old experiences. To the above point, we always stated publicly and in program print a *disclaimer*. Thus, (from memory) that there was general absolution but anyone in serious sin had both an obligation and responsibility to follow up with individual reconciliation in order to complete the sacrament (or something like that).

    Some other thoughts – we utilized the 3rd rite in the way that Paul and others have described and highlighted the sacrament as addressing social, church, and common good sin. (rather than an unbalanced outlook completely focused on individual behaviors) We deliberately used *sin* rather than *sins* – our current world has too much *individualism* as it is – why reinforce via this sacrament. In fact, in my training this sacrament and its history and VII reforms were put in a context that the sacrament needed to be reformed to recapture and express its communal nature.

    Finally, to get back to the original post by this Australian priest, would suggest (in terms of an abuser confessing) that absolution is always *contingent* on the person’s decisions to follow through with repentance, firm purpose of amendment, etc. Without that, there is no absolution – it is a two way street – not just from confessor to penitent. IMO – if a clerical abuser came to me, I would have withheld absolution based upon my understanding that the penitent needed to come forward and out of the shadows; needed to work with appropriate parties to remedy the damage to victims, etc. Without that, we truly have *cheap grace* and a belief that the sacrament works like *magic*. That is why I do not react with fear when civil authorities talk about confession and abuse.

    Face it – what happens between the penitent and God is above my pay grade but the Church and its servant ministers do need to protect the common good of the people of God.

  10. Worries over the seal are perhaps a concern under Australian law. But every situation speaking of confession would be hearsay. And unless hearsay is permitted in law, then what’s the point, except for a gesture against the institutional Church? In the US, such threats are scary bedtime stories for bishops, perhaps. But not really serious matter.

    That said, I do think priests have responsibilities to one another. If a confession involves something gravely serious, then in addition to the rite, something more must be done with and for the penitent. As a matter of pastoral care, if nothing else. Someone above spoke of the interrogation approach to hearing confessions. I think outside of the sacramental celebration it might merit consideration.

    I do think forms I and II are botched in many places, at least as badly as III supposedly was. Many parishes conduct form II as a hybrid with I, essentially adding a public liturgy of the Word to an “hour” of individual confession. Any community that doesn’t conclude with appropriate rituals of praise and thanksgiving (no matter if they think people won’t “stay” for the end [and I find they do]) has blundered the rite. And any form I practice which doesn’t include even an abbreviated reading from Scripture is likewise thinking with the mind of 1570 rather than 1963. We probably have more serious liturgical errors connected with the Rite of Penance than any other sacrament.

    1. True. I can’t even remember the last time that “Do The Red, Say The Black” concerning Form I was a topic post at the Usual Suspects at St Blog’s…. (On the other hand, one must be careful about doing that in a gotcha reaction, because one who deploys that gambit better be ready to submit to it in turn on terrain that might not be as favorable.)

      While I would be delighted as a penitent to encounter it, I don’t take the lead in the regard, but leave a spacious pause in case a confessor were inclined to start (it’s been years since I’ve encountered one who did). I reserve any questions for the confessor about the form of the right for the occasions when he freelances the absolution in ways that would bring validity into doubt (and that most definitely happens in my experience) – and my technique is simply a question, not an accusation. Otherwise, I don’t want to keep the line waiting, as it were. YMMV.

  11. Frank Haack. I certainly am no expert on the third rite. But would it not be possible to dispense with the need, in the case of serious sin, to go to later individual confession? After all, the matter of sin, remorse and forgiveness is between God and the individual . To bring back the third rite would seem to me a means of getting around the interference by government and also having many Catholics return to the practice of confession.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *