But despite these distractions I was able to celebrate the sacrament of Penance in a fashion that Canon Law would have recognized as valid in its form. I confessed to the church’s pastor, an old friend whom I know to be a good confessor from past experience. (He was also the celebrant, and still wore his wireless mike, which I prayed was in the “off” setting.) Overall the service was a lift: the rapid approach of Good Friday, the tradition among at least some Catholics to confess at this solemn time, the spirituality and compassion of a good confessor—certainly the impact of the rite was a spiritual enhancement of the celebration of the Triduum next week.
For some time, though, dating back to my years as a pastor, I have had the impression that the Sacrament of Penance needs studious attention by the Church today. For the moment I am setting aside the issue of limited participation, and turning instead to the pastoral penitential landscape. Some history here might be helpful. While the post-Vatican II Roman Missal for the Eucharist was promulgated in 1970, the official rite for the Sacrament of Penance was not released until 1975. Several conflicting forces were in play: the long-standing and still binding canonical directive that every serious (or mortal) sin be confessed with precision; the liturgical norm that all Sacraments be celebrated around the proclamation of Scripture; the Biblical reemphasis that sin is collective as well as individual; and finally, developments in twentieth century moral theology (in which my generation was schooled) that looked at sin as an attitude, or more appropriately, a fundamental option in a person’s life. (In fairness, this fourth point, most frequently associated with Father Bernard Haring, has come under significant criticism; I myself have some issues with its pastoral implications.)
Attempting to serve many masters here, the Vatican released three different formats for the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance. A full documentation is available here from England/Wales. Formula One (not to be confused with European auto racing) is the celebration of the sacrament by a priest and single penitent, as in the common Saturday afternoon confession. However, the order of the interaction was revised and included, first and foremost, a proclamation of scripture and a rich array of penitential prayers. While the secrecy of the confessional makes it virtually impossible to know if confessors were and are compliant with the Vatican directive, I can say that back in the 1980’s my then bishop, Thomas J. Grady, issued a letter instructing all confessors to use the Vatican rite when hearing individual confessions. We wondered at the time if it was possible to use the full rite with penitents in the “Saturday hour before Mass” traditional time slot.
Formula Two (probably better named Formula 1.5) is the Advent and Lenten Penance service you may be accustomed to (though it may be celebrated at any time a group is gathered, as on retreat, for example.) Formula Two assumes a group of penitents gathered together who, led by the celebrant, essentially follow the program of Formula One, though with congregational singing, an expanded Liturgy of the Word, and homily. Formula Two attempts to awaken an awareness of collective sin and Christ’s death “for all.” However, confession of sin is undertaken individually to the celebrant and other priests invited to accommodate the large numbers of penitents. Practically speaking, the actual individual confession is of necessity quite brief, as is the confessor’s input.
Formula Three is just about identical to the previously described rite, except for one truly notable exception. In this rite there is no individual confession, but rather a “general absolution” of all those gathered with the appropriate intention to seek forgiveness. This General Absolution was identical to that administered in the confessional; mortal sin as well as venial was forgiven. Granted, the Vatican directives for this rite came with more asterisks than the tax code, but to many priests of the time—myself included—the official acceptance of an absolution rite without confession opened a great many doors to evangelization and restoring lapsed Catholics to the practice of the faith. GA removed the obstacle of “face-to-face shame.” In the 1980’s the GA format was immensely popular in my diocese, though not with the new pope John Paul II, who maintained that individual confession of sin should enjoy status as the normative way of celebrating Penance, and in my diocese the use of the GA format was forbidden in the early 2000’s.
It would seem then that at this juncture we presently work with structures that do two things well: (1) canonically and effectively forgive sins confessed, and (2) arouse a personal compunction or emotional/spiritual catharsis in the preparation and execution of the penitent. What we are not doing well is celebrating this Sacrament in full communion with the Church community, making the essential connection between Penance and Scripture, and providing opportunities for the confessor to assist penitents in coping with habitual or attitudinal sin (such as racism) or in developing spiritual direction and growth in virtue. Or put another way, Penance is presently celebrated toward the immediate past rather than toward a flowering future.