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Reconciliation: Catechesis and Liturgy  
Darren Henson  

(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 reconciliation rooms.

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 confession.

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.

Formation for the Faithful
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.

Formation for the Confessors
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.

Reconciliation as Liturgy
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, or redemption.

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.

Darren M. Henson, STL,
is the pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Emporia, Kansas. He holds a licentiate in sacred theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and is a member of the Catholic Academy of Liturgy.

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