The Armchair Liturgist: Reconciliation, Form II

Leaving aside the theological, political, and pastoral issues involved with the three forms of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I’d like to ask you about your handling, if you were sitting in the big chair, of the form of the sacrament that involves many penitents, one liturgy, and individual confession and absolution.

My parish will celebrate it Tuesday night. A subset of the women of our larger adult choir will lead the music. We’ll have about ten confessors and it will last about sixty to seventy minutes.

Perhaps your parish’s “communal penance service” has already taken place and your memories are fresh. If so, share with us how yours might be organized, were you making the call.

How would you promote either this service or form I? What would the liturgy of the word look like? Do you invite people to remain for the conclusion or send them on their way after receiving absolution?

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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5 Responses to The Armchair Liturgist: Reconciliation, Form II

  1. Eric says:

    Our archdiocesan worship office (Los Angeles) provides a suggested order of service every Lent and Advent for penitential services, provided as a Word document (so it’s easy to edit) available for download on the archdiocesan site. Usually it’s quite good and I make only a few changes, but this year made more changes because the order provided was a bit klunky in places.

    We ask people to stay till the end. Most do. Now if only we could get the priests not to walk out before the end…

    We invite a guest homilist, just to provide a little different experience than the usual homilists.

    Penitents are invited to perform some action after their individual confession — light a candle, put some incense in a censer — varies for each season. For Advent we had little slips of paper, each with the name of one nation of the world, and each penitent was invited to take one and pray for the people of that nation during Advent.

    One thing we do differently than most: we ask the priests to sit at the back of the church during the service. Then they are led up in procession during the litany to form a semi-circle around the altar. At that time we point out the priests who speak various languages before they go to their stations.

    As the deacon, I lead the service from the chair. At the end the pastor comes to the chair for the final prayer and blessing.

  2. Here’s my “standard” penance service, although I’m open to some variation:

    Opening hymn, priests process to front of altar, then to seats. Greeting, opening prayer (I sing it), invite everyone to remain standing for the Gospel. One of the other priests proclaims the Gospel, then I or another priest preaches. Hopefully briefly.

    Then a lay reader presents a series of questions as an examination of conscience, calling for a response such as “Lord, hear our prayer” or “Lord, have mercy. I usually have everyone kneel for that, then we conclude that with the Confiteor as the Act of Contrition. Then stand and pray the Our Father.

    Then everyone sits, while the celebrant introduces the priests and identifies where they’ll be, and which stations will not have an anonymous option — finding seven and eight locations for confessors isn’t easy! Then priests go to their stations. Music played during confessions. Individual penances.

    I usually plan a closing prayer, blessing and hymn, but don’t make a big thing of folks staying. About half do. Some parishes hereabouts make it clear that once you’ve gone to confession, except for any penance prayed at church, you’re free to go. That seems to work well, and I don’t have a big problem with that, except that giving a blessing before folks receive the sacrament seems odd.

    No offense to Eric, but I’m cool to the idea of the extra action, such as lighting incense, or a candle, or worse, burning a piece of paper. Some of these things invite some confusion or misuse of the sacrament: the write-and-burn thing invites reducing the confession to only some, or “one or two main” sins, and I think people should not have even the slightest nudge to write down their sins!

    Then there is the practical difficulty of a fire in church, with burning fragments of paper flying about (I know, I’ve seen it, and had charge of the fire, which was in a Weber grill!). Symbols are marvelous things, but very hard to get just right, and without realizing it, one may hit upon a symbol that doesn’t quite express what you want. If in doubt, my thought is to let the sacrament speak for itself. Of course, the sacrament of penance doesn’t have much in the way of clear symbols. The best symbol is that of baptism, which can certainly be highlighted in many ways.

  3. Eric says:

    Fr. Fox,

    I agree with you about burning paper. In addition to the dangers you mention, it has no real connection to our tradition — liturgically, fires are generally about starting things rather than ending things. We try to stick to symbols that have some Catholic sensibility about them.

  4. Liam says:

    Oh, that confected symbolic gesture thing drives me completely batty. Absolutely inappropriate in the liturgical context.

    How many anonymous stations do y’all provide for? Are all set up that way? Or just some or only one?

  5. Liam:

    At St. Mary this year, we had seven stations, four of which had an anonymous option. The others didn’t, because of the space where we located them was too tight. At St. Boniface, we had eight stations (church is bigger), with six having anonymous, if memory serves.

    For anyone who doesn’t know, it’s easy to do: three chairs, two facing each other, and the third is behind the one that faces away from the door (duh).

    One more piece of advice: do not set the chairs directly facing each other, but rather, alongside each other. Reason? If the chairs are facing directly, the penitent will sit back in his, forcing the priest to lean way forward. That gets pretty old on about the third penitent.

    The other way, the penitent can speak close to the priest’s ear, both can speak softly.

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