Individual Reconciliation (First Rite)

Priests often express dismay at the number of people who present for individual reconciliation and still begin by immediately saying: “Bless me Father for I have sinned”. It’s interesting that it’s almost always shown this way in films or on TV, usually with the penitent kneeling behind a screen in a dark confessional box. It might look good, but it’s outdated!

When I speak to groups of parents whose children are preparing to celebrate their first reconciliation, I discover that many of them are also unaware of the changes to the liturgy of penance. Indeed some have not celebrated individual reconciliation since their school days because they remember it as an unhelpful ritual which they feel they have “grown out of”.
The celebration of the sacrament of penance was revised after Vatican II so that it would better reflect the positive nature of this encounter with Christ.

The individual rite, which may be celebrated face-to-face or anonymously as desired, begins with a warm welcome and kind greeting from the priest. Together they 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”. Like all liturgical celebrations since the reforms of Vatican II, the three rites of reconciliation include the word of God as a key element. Either the penitent or the priest reads a passage of scripture from those suggested in the Rite or another text that proclaims God’s mercy and calls sinners to conversion.

The Liturgy of the Word is followed by the Liturgy of Reconciliation. The priest helps the penitent to confess his or her sins and offers 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. It may take the form of prayer, self denial or works of mercy. The latter emphasises that fact that sin and its forgiveness have a social aspect.

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.”

Conscious that people need help to celebrate reconciliation in this rich, 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. Many parishes have already made these brochures available to parishioners to good effect.

Celebrated properly, penance is indeed a joyful reconciliation which leaves the failures of the past behind and looks forward in confidence to a future to be lived in fidelity and harmony.

Elizabeth Harrington