(In this article, the sacrament will be referred to either as the
Rite of Penance, for that is how the ritual describes it, or by its
more common name, reconciliation. By this latter term, I intend
sacramental reconciliation to be presumed.)
The faithful who grew up prior to the Second Vatican
Council vividly remember the lines outside the confessionals on
Fridays. Many also have memories of trying to come up with
something to say to the priest, lest it be claimed that they had
no noteworthy sins. This experience stands in stark contrast
to many parishes today that report no line at all outside of
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA)
published a survey in April 2008 that examined Catholic sacramental
practices in the United States. It found that three-quarters
of Catholics report that they never participate in the sacrament
of Reconciliation or that they do so less than once a year. Nearly
one in eight Catholics (12 percent) participate in Reconciliation
once a year, and the same proportion reports participation several
times a year. Those who attend daily Mass more frequently
participate in Reconciliation (62 percent) at least once a year.
Those who attend Sunday liturgy less than weekly but more than
monthly engage in sacramental Reconciliation (37 percent)
yearly. Those who were accustomed to the weekly lines prior to
the Second Vatican Council are the most likely to utilize sacramental
Reconciliation. Forty-two percent of this pre–Vatican II
generation participate, compared to 27 percent of the Vatican II
generation, 22 percent of the post–Vatican II generation, and 27
percent of millennials participate in the sacrament once a year.
CARA's sacramental survey uncovered other revealing
attitudes and beliefs from among the faithful. Almost two-thirds
(62 percent) agreed at least "somewhat" that a person can be a
good Catholic without celebrating the sacrament of Reconciliation
at least once a year. One-third agreed "strongly." Just over half of
Catholics agree that by going to confession and making acts of
contrition and penance, they are reconciled with God and the
Church. Slightly fewer than one-half (48 percent) agree that acts
of penance such as prayer or fasting are necessary for the forgiveness
of sins. Exactly one-fourth of Catholics agree that reconciliation
is only necessary for the forgiveness of very serious
sins. Fewer than one in 10 agree "strongly." One might conjecture
that older Catholics have stronger beliefs regarding
Reconciliation. They are more likely to agree "strongly" that forgiveness
requires making a confession with contrition; 51 percent
of the pre–Vatican II generation compared to 33 percent of millennials.
Similarly, older Catholics agree "strongly" (33 percent)
that penance is required for forgiveness, compared to a steady
decline through the generations to 11 percent of millennials.
Catholic education positively affected responses. Respondents
who attended Catholic elementary, middle, or high school
"strongly" agreed, at least 10 percent more than those who
attended non-Catholic schools, that forgiveness of a confessed
sin requires contrition and repentance. Attending a Catholic
college also favorably influenced responses.
The Vatican Congregation for Sacraments and Divine
Worship has affirmed since 1977 that sacramental Reconciliation
must precede a child's First Communion. The Catechism of the
Catholic Church, #1457, states, "children must go to the sacrament
of Penance before receiving Holy Communion for the first
time." Catechists, today, have a difficult challenge educating the
faithful of all ages. They strive to help children decipher between
a mistake and an overt act of choosing wrong. They also tackle
the complexity of educating the parents, who increasingly belong
to the millennial generation. The study shows this cohort has
low attitudes regarding sacramental Reconciliation, and a real
possibility exists that a child's first confession will be their last,
at least for a long while.
The diminished practice of sacramental Reconciliation
has captured the attention of some Catholic leaders. It has invigorated
new catechesis, and in some situations, it has morphed
into marketing campaigns akin to commercialized services.
Several noteworthy examples illustrate this. In preparation for
Jubilee Year 2000, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia established a
call center hotline for people who had questions and misgivings
about individual Reconciliation. The reported aim was to reach
out to the faithful who felt alienated and wanted to talk about
their reconciliation. In 2008, the archdiocese launched a special
Lenten ministry, "Pardon and Peace," whereby every Wednesday
all archdiocesan parishes were open from 7–8:30 pm for individual
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is not alone in reaching
out to people who seek reception, as well as increased understanding
of the sacrament. Similar ministerial efforts took root
in nearby Washington, D.C. That campaign, "The Light Is On
for You," began in 2007 and has continued. To market this ministry,
a webpage (http://thelight-is-on.org) was created with a
variety of materials relating to the sacrament available in multiple
languages. One suburban parish in Chicago has offered "24
Hours of Grace," during which some 70 priests made themselves
available at rotating intervals to more than 350 people for sacramental
reconciliation. The Wall Street Journal, on Sept. 21, 2007,
reported that 5,000 people participated in a "Reconciliation
Weekend" in the Diocese of Orlando.
Taking a more dramatic approach, Capuchin friars in the
diocese of Colorado Springs opened the Catholic Center in a
shopping mall in 2001. More than 500 people visited the first
year, with the number tripling five years later.
These statistics and scenarios reveal that renewed efforts
for liturgical catechesis on the sacraments is essential. In this
essay I will propose that both the penitent and priest confessor
can benefit from focused liturgical formation. The following
provides aspects of catechesis that could benefit the sacramental
celebration of the Rite of Penance. The essay will conclude with
thoughts on employing the practice of liturgical catechesis to
this rite. Since all sacraments are liturgical, highlighting the
liturgical nature of the Rite of Penance might be a key to open
wider Reconciliation's potential as an encounter with the forgiving
and saving nature of God.
CARA's findings lead to a reasonable presumption that a limited
experience of this sacrament correlates to an inadequate understanding
of it. The statistics reveal that the majority of Catholics
have a limited experience of the Rite of Penance. Engaging a
sacrament once a year does not translate into familiarity. Familiar
things make people comfortable. The unknown produces anxiety.
When we know little to nothing about something, we distance
ourselves from it, we avoid it, and we are more likely to
perceive it as unimportant. This could be part of the undesired
dynamic occurring with the sacrament of Reconciliation.
Broadening the understanding of this sacrament is essential
to its renewal. One way to renewing Reconciliation is the
apologetic's approach: giving reasons why the faithful should
frequent this sacrament. Such an approach, however, suffers
from a lack of recognizing the varied ways that people are in
need of reconciliation and yet avoid it. Many people hold an
unspoken prejudice against the sacrament, because they perceive
it exclusively as confession. Most people feel uncomfortable
admitting guilt. Certainly, confession is one aspect of the ritual.
But many Catholics would benefit to see that it is one of several
components within the rite's fullest expression.
A January 2008 pastoral letter by Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, of Washington, D.C., highlighted
what the archbishop called "the many faces of confession." The
letter, "The Light Is Always On," announced the renewal of an
archdiocesan reconciliation ministry. The Archbishop provided
pastorally sensitive ref lections to demonstrate that while
Reconciliation is sometimes known as the sacrament of confession,
it is also the sacrament of conversion, sacrament of penance
and satisfaction, sacrament of forgiveness, and sacrament
of Reconciliation. Each of these themes draws attention to an
encounter with Christ Jesus for the penitent. By considering one
of these themes when approaching Reconciliation, the penitent
can have a fresh perspective of Reconciliation's hidden beauty.
The letter concluded by accentuating the sacrament's nature of
healing, an aspect often overshadowed by the perceived frightfulness
of admitting one's sinful guilt.
After tackling the barrier of seeing the sacrament as mere
confession, the next hurdle that confronts many Catholic is,
"What am I supposed to say?" The pre–Vatican II generation
learned this sacrament was largely, if not exclusively, about enumerating
sins. The post–Vatican II generation leapt to the opposite
pole by emphasizing the sacrament as a celebration of
forgiveness. Both attitudes are problematic for Catholics today.
The Rite of Penance includes both sins and forgiveness, yet
ultimately it entails more. The rite intends to impart grace leading
to conversion and renewal for the faithful. Through this sacramental
practice the penitent, "adopts ever more fully the
outlook of the Gospel message. Thus the people of God become
in the world a sign of conversion to God" (Rite of Penance, #4).
The rite envisions Reconciliation as a conduit for the conversion
for both individuals and society.
The initial Catholic experience of the Rite of Penance at age
seven might thwart this fuller understanding of the sacrament
as a conversion of heart and an act beyond an accounting of sin.
While not arguing against the necessity of Reconciliation before
First Eucharist, we must acknowledge the limitations. Teaching
this sacrament to second graders is one thing. Making it relevant
and applicable to adults, is quite another! As seven-year-olds,
Catholics learned to tell two or three sins that logically a child
could commit. Since childhood, the capacity to reason and
reflect has developed highly for most adults. They have grown in
an ability to comply with unjust societal structures, institutionalized
prejudices, and to know something is wrong and yet
choose it anyway. Renewing this sacrament will entail breaking
away from seven-year-old lists and assisting adults to enhance
their reflective skills and capacity to dialogue with the Gospel.
The Rite of Penance does not list sins but rather describes
an examination of conscience. Like all parts of our humanity,
the conscience is dynamic and capable of growth. Deepening the
experience of Reconciliation can occur with efforts to nurture
reflection and prayerful preparation. Then, the penitent enters
into Reconciliation to engage in a spiritual dialogue with the confessor,
who listens and receives the penitent's inner conversation.
A variety of approaches to examining one's conscience will
broaden the penitent's experience of Reconciliation. Proven
standards include reviewing the Ten Commandments, reflecting
upon the Beatitudes, assessing participation in the seven deadly
sins, corporal and spiritual works of mercy, or growth in the
virtues. Beginning with the greatest commandment to love
God and neighbor (Matthew 22:37–40) can produce a fruitful
reflection. Appendix III to the Rite of Penance offers some expansive
questions on this theme. It also includes suggestions and
focus questions aimed at helping priests and penitents with an
examination. Samples could be made available in advance of a
Reconciliation liturgy. Those who frequent this sacrament might
find new experiences by reflecting on the Sunday or daily scriptures,
and assessing how their lives imitate the scriptural vision.
While many Catholics would not admit enjoying the sacrament
of Reconciliation, likewise, some priests would not likely list
being a confessor as one of the top three things they do best in
ministry. It raises the question: if priests gained confidence in
the ministry of confessor, what positive benefit would that have
on the faithful who go to Reconciliation? We must be careful
not to put the burden of Reconciliation's decline exclusively on
one group or another. The reality swirls somewhere in the mix
of several variables. Factors such as skillful preaching, a welcoming
environment, and a visionary leader, have proved to contribute
to a vibrant and flourishing worship community. Similarly, a
skillful confessor requires a particular set of developed skills.
Continuing priestly formation can strengthen this.
Thoughtful preparation will strengthen the confessor's role
much the same way it does for the penitent. A confessor might
want to think consciously about an image to portray when celebrating
this rite. How might he be like the father who welcomes
back the prodigal son? (Luke 15:11–32) In what way will he communicate
the greater joy in heaven for one repentant sinner over
the ninety-nine who have no need for repentance (Luke 15:7)?
Connecting the sin confessed to the penitent's spiritual life
enhances the reconciliation experience. When penitents tell of
sins without any hint to their spiritual life and worshipping
practices, the confessor might consider gently probing. What is
this penitent's prayer routine? What is his/her level of participation
in weekly worship? In parish ministry? Then, the confessor
can help the penitent see possible connections.
Third, a good confessor strives for a fit penance and avoids
a penance that appears thoughtless and routine. A penance disconnected
to the sin leaves the penitent wondering how and why
this ritual was meaningful. Particularly in a time in the U.S.
Church when a large number of the faithful question the relevance
of Reconciliation, a fitful penance gains importance. A penance
that does not fit can create different problems. It can be too severe
and perceived as punitive. Or, it can be too light, causing the penitent
to think the priest did not take the contrition seriously.
Giving a good penance, like an art form, requires careful
listening and gentle application of both prayer and virtuous acts.
These intend to address the sin committed. This means asking
good questions. For example, someone confesses, "I lied a few
times." A confessor's response might include: "Was it a serious
lie?" "What problems did they create?" "Tell me what you lie
about?" The confessor wants to distinguish if a lie was about
finishing the dishes, or a corporate investment scheme that led
to federal fraud. The penance, after spiritual conversation, should
correspond to the penitent's response, and when the situation
warrants, it should include satisfaction or restitution. In one scenario
I experienced, an adult was making his first Reconciliation.
His sin warranted satisfaction. After some conversation, we clarified
a monetary value on the damage. I cautiously suggested
that he make satisfaction of a particular amount to a charitable
organization that he chose. In this case, as the confessor, I was
reluctant to recommend a particular satisfaction, yet the penitent
reacted quite happily. He embraced the need for restitution,
and he agreed that the amount was appropriate.
Sacraments have the power to transform human interaction.
When the faithful freely enter into them with a sincere disposition
to their powerful grace, sacraments have an effect on
who we are and how we act. Penance directly demonstrates this
connection between sacraments effecting the action of the faithful.
On leaving the reconciliation room, penitents have received
an instruction to act in a new way that will lead them into the
further embodiment of living the Gospel. The penance invites
them to leave behind the sin they committed as well as the
actions that led to committing the sin.
One last thought, penance is the only sacrament that does
not utilize a tangible object like water, bread, wine or oil. In this
sacrament, the faithful do not "get" something. At Confirmation
the minister smears oil. In Marriage couples exchange rings. In
Eucharist we take bread and wine. Other non-essential objects
accompany these sacramental celebrations. In Baptism the family
leaves with a white garment, a candle, and a certificate. In
Holy Orders the ordained have a stole and vestment. When leaving
Mass, the people take a parish bulletin in their hands. Yet,
for Reconciliation, the penitent leaves empty-handed. Most exit
the Reconciliation room experiencing heartfelt joy and the reassurance
in God's grace, but they leave with nothing tangible.
One solution is for the priest to offer the penitent something
physical. This will benefit especially those who approached
the sacrament after a long period of alienation from the Church
and their spiritual lives. When a penitent expresses not going to
Mass and not praying, offering a prayerful penance without aid
will challenge the individual. Catechetical and liturgical
resources available in bulk could serve this purpose. Parishes
can easily create prayer cards. A parish also might offer a psalm
of thanksgiving or forgiveness (Psalms 23, 51, 30, 103, 145), a
traditional prayer such as the Prayer of Saint Francis or the
Anima Christi, or spiritual writings by Thomas Merton, John
Henry Newman, or Dorothy Day may be helpful tools. Offering
the penitent a printed copy of a Gospel passage with one or two
questions to aid their reflection could be helpful.
Priests can be better confessors when they listen well, ask
good questions, and have a variety of resources they can offer to
help the penitent upon leaving the sacramental experience.
To conclude this essay, I will elaborate on the truism that all
sacraments are celebrated within the context of a liturgy. The
same study, care, and pastoral sensitivity and curiosity that has
been applied to eucharistic liturgies over past decades by worship
offices and parish liturgists, can also benefit the liturgies
that celebrate the Rite of Penance.
Appendix II to the Rite of Penance demonstrates possible
ways to weave together a penitential theme within different
liturgical seasons. Readers should be clear that this appendix,
prepared by the Congregation for Divine Worship, contains
"sample penitential services" as the title reveals. These options
offer prayers, texts, scriptures, and sample homilies that can be
used in services that are non-sacramental and without absolution.
As stated in Appendix II, 1, the faithful should be reminded
of the difference between these celebrations and sacramental
confession and absolution. However, a further introductory
remark permits the addition of sacramental reconciliation to
these sample options. Appendix II, 4, explains, "When the sacrament
of penance is celebrated in these services, it follows the
readings and homily, and the rite of reconciling several penitents
with individual confession and absolution is used . . . . More
importantly, this appendix reveals that the celebration of the
sacrament will look differently depending upon the liturgical
season. This appendix contains sample liturgies, texts, and
scripture. The first sampling provides multiple options tailored
for Lent. The resources include sample greetings and introductory
remarks, choices for collects, several scripture passages,
and homily suggestions. One Lenten option uses baptismal grace
as a theme, while a second focuses on the saving mystery of
Christ's Passion. Prayers and scriptures adapted for an Advent
Reconciliation liturgy follows. Three of the other six samples
follow general penitential themes, such as sin and conversion, a
meditation on the prodigal son, and the Beatitudes. The remaining
three provide prayers, reflections, and readings for children,
young people, and the gathering of the sick.
While the sample liturgies presume a communal celebration
of Reconciliation, the images and texts can serve well to
enrich an individual celebration of Reconciliation. In the context
of a Saturday afternoon confession, the confessor might
consider using the themes of that particular season when discussing
the penitent's spiritual life. During Advent, for example,
a penitent may confess her struggle with the virtue of patience.
The confessor might highlight that Advent embodies a time of
waiting. John the Baptist waited for one mightier to come. Mary
waited to give birth to the Christ child. The Advent wreath ritualizes
a practice in patience and holy waiting. During each week
of Advent, only the number of candles representing the week is
permitted to be illuminated. The wreath pursues a devotion of
expectation of what has yet to come. These images link the penitent
to the virtue of patience that she desires and invites her to
ponder more deeply the treasures of this liturgical season. The
Easter season explodes with triumphant grace. The transformative
joy experienced by Jesus' followers is ignited by turning
away from their participation in sinful structures and following
in his mission. Penitents enter into an encounter with Christ,
living and risen, in the sacrament of Reconciliation. Like modern-
day disciples, they leave this sacrament renewed in the wonder
and glory that the risen Christ offers. Molding the season
to the rite will broaden the experience of the penitent and offer
a moment to elaborate uniquely on grace, mercy, forgiveness,
Intentional use of scripture within reconciliation will
develop it more fully as a liturgical act. Elaborating on the word
of God, especially within individual confession, can serve to
draw the person closer to the life of the community and to the
eucharistic celebration. When enacting the rite prior to a eucharistic
liturgy, such as Saturday afternoon confessions, the confessor
can use an image from the Sunday Lectionary readings in
his remarks to the penitent. Contained within the ample readings
for Sundays, an image of reconciliation, grace, forgiveness,
or unity nearly always appears. When the Gospel does not reflect
these themes, it can likely be found in the psalm or in the
Pauline reading. Uniting the penitent's spiritual conversation to
the coming eucharistic liturgy prepares them for more attentive
participation. The penitent, more likely, will enter the liturgy
with a renewed purpose and receive the proclaimed word with
increased intensity. Also, it holds the potential for a more complete
celebration of communion with God and the community.
The Rite of Penance can flourish more fully as a liturgical
act when it incorporates characteristics of the liturgical season
and amply references the scriptures.
Fresh perspectives will continue the renewal of Reconciliation.
The laudable efforts mentioned at the beginning of this
essay are a starting point for further development. They demonstrate
the hunger for a new approach to Reconciliation. The
worn practices of Reconciliation as a prerequisite to other sacraments
has its own benefit: before First Eucharist for children and
adults; at Confirmation retreats for teenagers. Similarly, relegating
Reconciliation to Advent and Lent constricts its fullest
expression, for these moments do not hold a monopoly on the
story of sin, grace, and conversion of heart. In fact, these themes
are foundational to the ordinary life of the Church. A strong
renewal in Reconciliation calls out for more. Saturday afternoons
limit the accessibility of the sacrament for many faithful.
Availability and catechesis can stimulate renewal. Furthermore,
continual formation for both penitent and priest will assist in
honoring the rite's liturgical nature. Pastoral ministers have
learned that communal renewal and unity flow from liturgy
done well. Most of the faithful seek liturgies that touch their
hearts and put them in contact with the transcendent, Triune
God. Reconciliation presents an opportune moment to create
the connection with God and community. By attending to the
relationship between Reconciliation and the liturgical life of the
Church, this sacrament can flourish anew.