One of the propositions that came out of the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith held in Rome last November calls for the Sacrament of Penance to be “put again at the centre of the pastoral activity of the Church”. It is certainly true that there has been a marked decline in the number of people celebrating this sacrament in the past 40 years or so.
The Sacrament of Penance is often referred to as “Reconciliation”. In the past, it was usually called “Confession”. These different titles are all aspects of the meaning of the Sacrament. The Sacrament of Penance is a celebration of God’s love and mercy.  It celebrates the call to repentance after a process of conversion of heart.  This includes confessing our sins and receiving the forgiveness of God through the ministry of the priest.  Through this process, a person is reconciled with the Church and continues to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

There are three forms of the celebration of penance. 

Reconciliation for Individual Penitents, or “First Rite of Reconciliation”, is celebrated by an individual in the presence of the priest.  The place where this happens is usually a Reconciliation Room (what used to be called a “Confessional”). A bible, a crucifix and candle are placed on a table in the centre of the space. The person may choose to sit facing the priest or to sit behind a screen and remain anonymous.  

The liturgy begins with a greeting followed by words of encouragement from the priest.  After short reading from scripture, the person reflects on his/her circumstances and confesses his/her sins and seeks reconciliation.  The priest offers advice and gives a penance that is meant to help in starting a new life and to remedy any weakness.  The priest pronounces absolution and the rite concludes with a short thanksgiving. 

The “Second Rite of Reconciliation” is often celebrated in parishes during Advent and Lent. This communal form of the Sacrament of Penance begins with a celebration of the Word – readings from scripture, hymns, prayers, a homily and an examination of conscience, followed by a call to repentance.  Private confession and reconciliation follow.  The Rite concludes with a short thanksgiving and a blessing and dismissal of the gathered assembly. 

The “Third Rite of Reconciliation” follows the same pattern as the Second Rite but does not include individual confession and reconciliation.  Instead there is a communal prayer of confession and general absolution. The use of this form is restricted to emergencies and other special circumstances. 

Baptised members of the Roman Catholic Church who feel called to be reconciled with God and with the faith community can take part in the Sacrament of Penance.  This call to conversion and reconciliation occurs when one considers, judges and changes one’s life in the light of God’s love revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.  

Prayer and participating in the Eucharist are the regular means of asking for forgiveness and being reconciled with God and the community. However, there are times when the faithful need the Sacrament of Penance/Rites of Reconciliation in their struggle to be forgiven and forgiving, to discover anew the gift of God’s saving action in their lives and to be strengthened to continue living as disciples of Jesus.

Elizabeth Harrington