In the early church the process of receiving forgiveness from the Church for someone guilty of serious sin (adultery, murder, denying the faith) was very public, strict and lengthy. The penitent would confess their sin to a bishop; a penance would be given and carried out publicly by the sinner; when considered ready, the sinner would be absolved and welcomed back to the eucharistic table; reconciliation took place in the cathedral with the bishop presiding.
The Celtic, or monastic, form of penance which was brought to Europe by Irish monks in the 7th century was private, repeatable and simple. It most often took place in the confessor’s study. It also rearranged the order of the elements so that absolution was given before the penance had been carried out.
For many years both public and private forms of penance were practised, but at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 private penance became the rule.
After Vatican II the sacrament of penance was revised and three new rites of reconciliation replaced the one Tridentine ritual. Many Catholics are still unaware of the changes to the practice of individual penance. Some have not celebrated ‘confession’, as they knew it, since their school days because they remember it as an unhelpful and irrelevant ritual.
Unfortunately individual reconciliation is rarely celebrated according to the new official rite and in the post-Vatican II spirit of liturgy. This is how it is meant to happen:
The individual rite may be celebrated face-to-face or anonymously. It begins with a warm welcome and kind greeting from the priest. Priest and penitent together make the sign of the cross. The priest then invites the penitent to have trust in God using words such as: “May God, who has enlightened every heart, help you to know your sins and trust in his mercy”. As with all liturgical celebrations since the reforms of Vatican II, the word of God is central. The penitent or the priest reads a passage of scripture from those suggested in the Rite or another appropriate text.
The Liturgy of Reconciliation begins with the priest helping the penitent to confess his or her sins and offering suitable counsel. He reminds the penitent of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection. Then the priest proposes an act of penance which the penitent accepts as a sign of inner conversion. As far as possible the penance corresponds to the seriousness and nature of the sin.
Then the priest asks the penitent to express sorrow for sin using one of several prayers given in the rite or in a similar form of words. The priest extends his hands over the penitent’s head and says the words of absolution. Finally there is a proclamation of praise for God’s mercy followed by the dismissal: “The Lord has freed you from your sins. Go in peace”.
To help people celebrate reconciliation in this meaningful way intended by the Church, The Liturgical Commission in Brisbane has produced an Individual Reconciliation brochure which sets out the rite clearly for the penitent to follow. It also offers suggestions on how to prepare for the sacrament.
Celebrated properly, penance is indeed a joyful reconciliation which enables us to leave the failures of the past behind and look forward to a future to be lived in confidence and faith.