ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
72. The rite and formulas for the sacrament of penance are to be revised so that they more clearly express both the nature and effect of the sacrament.
When you consider how little working time the Vatican II bishops had at the Council—October through December in the years 1962, 1963, 1964, and 1965—it is a wonder that so much was achieved. Unfortunately, many Church matters were of necessity treated in the most generic ways due to language limitations, time restraints, and some intentional bureaucratic obfuscating; the collective wisdom of the Council fathers and the Pope and Curia at the time held that much study, experimentation, and ultimately authorization would follow the Council after its final session in 1965.
Penance, strangely, is the Vatican II orphan, at least in terms of floor discussion. Aside from the text of para. 72 of Sacrosanctum Concilium above, there is remarkably little discussion of the Sacrament of Penance in Vatican II documents. The standard English translation of the Council decrees compiled by Father Austin Flannery cites only nine citations on Penance in the nearly one-thousand pages of Vatican II texts and decrees. The fact that para. 72 calls for a revision of the rites and formulas “so that they more clearly express both the nature and effect of the sacrament” does suggest that a majority of the bishops believed that the Sacrament of Penance was not clearly understood nor was it celebrated in a fruitful pastoral style.
This is entirely understandable. I cannot think of another sacrament with a more complex history than Penance; at the very least, development of a freestanding rite of forgiveness was neither direct nor straightforward. In the first century of the Church, the unique “sacrament of forgiveness” was Baptism, celebrated once in a lifetime. St. Matthew’s Gospel [18: 15-18] describes what may be a blueprint for local churches in his guidance on how disputes among the baptized might be settled or adjudicated, but this is not a directive for a formal, sacramental rite. By the third century the Church had come to recognize major sins that would sever the bond with the baptized assembly: adultery, apostacy [publicly abandoning the faith], and murder. Readmission to the Eucharist was supervised by the bishop and involved a lengthy period of fast, prayer, and alms-seeking, which concluded at the Holy Thursday liturgy when the bishop laid hands upon the penitents and invited them to fellowship in the solemn holy days to follow.
In truth, however, few Christians committed such grave sins, and thus few would experience an intense rite of forgiveness. One can guess that several rites and practices developed whereby reparation for commonplace sins might be made. One obvious place is the Mass itself. The Roman rite has long contained a penitential observance to begin the Mass, a practice that continues even to this day. Few Catholics fully appreciate that the absolution given to the congregation by the celebrant at the opening rite is a true absolution, forgiving all but mortal sins. The latter must be forgiven in the rite of private confession. The “I confess…” prayer at the opening of Mass is parallel to the Act of Contrition in the confessional.
Ironically, the form of Penance we most recognize today did not originate in Rome, but rather among the missionary monks in Ireland, as early as the sixth century. At the end of each monastic day every monk knelt before the abbot and confessed a fault before retiring. Over time three critical developments unfolded:  the abbot’s blessing took upon itself an actual [as in “legal” or “canonical”] power of forgiving sin;  the monks, and soon the laity, were given the opportunity to receive again baptismal forgiveness; sacramental pardon was now repeatable.  In order to assist confessors in assigning proper amends for sins, the art of moral theology began in Ireland, where scholars began to catalog and weigh sins by their severity. Books of penitential “weights and measures” were written for clerics’ use, called Penitentiaries. This model of analysis of guilt and appropriate reparation would become the template for the discipline of moral theology; after the Reformation such an approach would be called “the manualist approach” to moral theology, and it is still quite common to see this method employed in Catholic catechetical resources to this day.
That said, not every saint or theologian embraced the strictness and legal precision of moral theology and the confessional that marked the Catholic era after the sixteenth century Reformation. The remarkable St. Alphonsus Liguori [1696-1787], founder of the Redemptorist Order, battled the Jesuits on behalf of a confessional experience with greater emphasis upon mercy and compassion. Ligouri’s heritage passed on to the twentieth century where Scripture scholars were rediscovering the mercy of Jesus in the Gospels, notably in St. Luke’s Gospel which is currently being proclaimed at our Sunday Masses in 2019. So, the debate over the rites and effects of the Sacrament of Penance had a long history prior to the Council and would continue long after the Council.
For Catholics of my generation, to be sure, we grew up with a sixth sense about confessors. Some were strict, some were kind, and a precious few were engaging and interested in listening to us and our circumstances and problems. While precious little went into print during Vatican II about this sacrament, it was safe to assume that a reform of the sacrament would follow the course of the other six: that the legal prescriptions might be mitigated by more emphasis upon the scripture and the spiritual involvement of the penitent. I was engaged in working with teenagers’ retreats around this time, and I remember telling the young folks that they need not be afraid to go to confession. Radio comedians Hudson and Landry capture penitential anxiety in their 1970’s routine, “Ajax Liquor Store.” [3 min.]
The new rite of the Sacrament of Penance was released by the Vatican on February 7, 1974, just a few months before I was ordained. Penance was the last of the seven sacraments whose post-Council rites were approved. I found a very accurate description of the release in The New York Times from that February day. The biggest surprise was the multiplicity of approved rites: a rite for individual confession, a rite for a congregation with individual confession, and—remarkably—a rite for a congregation with general absolution without individual confession. [This third format was not exactly new; a form had been used on the Titanic before the final plunge, and in multiple battles such as Gettysburg in 1863 when individual confession would have been impossible.]
The third rite, which came to be known in parochial shorthand as General Absolution, was immensely popular. Although intended by the Church as a ritual for emergencies and rural mission settings, many pastors—me included—employed the rite on college campuses and during special occasions such as parish missions. I can recall that when my parish held its first General Absolution Service, so many people turned out that half of them could not park or get into the building, and I am told that many of them crowded into our local Denny’s and Waffle House, boosting the local economy.
The second formula, a group service with individual confession and absolution, was often held during Lent and Advent. Parishioners seemed to like the opportunity to confess to an “out of town priest” [as I do myself today]. However, it became clear that Pope John Paul II preferred the traditional format of confession and disliked the General Absolution format. Gradually local bishops prohibited the use of the third format, and as the century came to an end there was a general drift away from confession in all forms that is probably visible in your own parish today.
It is probably worth noting that several Church Councils prior to Vatican II had addressed the frequency of confession. The Fourth Lateran Council [1215-16] and the Council of Trent [1545-63] legislated that every baptized Catholic make a confession of sin annually. Laws in general are enacted in response to a particular contemporary need; in our context it would seem that there was, to put it mildly, a reluctance to embrace the Sacrament of Penance throughout the history of the Church. Such was also true regarding reception of the Eucharist; Pius X urged more frequent reception of communion in 1910.
What does seem clear, too, is that the liturgical and catechetical strategies that resulted from Vatican II did not fully address the heart of Catholic attitudes regarding confessional experience. Around 1983 I went fishing with my dad up in Canada, and one night he admitted over his Canadian Club that he only went to confession every two weeks because my mother made him go. My dad was a devout Catholic who got through the horrors of World War II by near constant praying of the rosary [he was buried with his war rosary years later.] I was a young pastor at the time, and when I reflected upon his sentiments later, it dawned on me that the post-Vatican II reform of Penance still had a long way to go to enrich the sacramental experience for even its core members.