RP 36-37: Penitential Services

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Leaving aside form III we come to non-sacramental penance services. These aspects of the rite are just about totally ignored. First a definition:

36. Penitential services are gatherings of the people of God to hear God’s word as an invitation to conversion and renewal of life and as the message of our liberation from sin through Christ’s death and resurrection. The structure of these services is the same as that usually followed in celebrations of the word of God [See SCR, Instr. Inter0ec, 26 Sept. 1964, nos. 37-39.] and given in the Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents.

These liturgies are intended as communal services of the Word. The framers of the rite saw that non-Biblical readings may have a place, but not within the corpus of the Scripture proclaimed:

It is appropriate, therefore, that after the introductory rites (song, greeting, and opening prayer) one or more biblical readings be chosen with songs, psalms, or periods of silence inserted between them. In the homily these readings should be explained and applied to the congregation. Before or after the readings from Scripture, readings from the Fathers or other writers may also be selected that will help the community and each person to a true awareness of sin and heartfelt sorrow, in other words, to bring about conversion of life.

Do these services seem rather like Communion services outside of Mass? That include the elements of communal celebrations of form II or III:

After the homily and reflection on God’s word, it is desirable that the congregation, united in voice and spirit, pray together in a litany or in some other way suited to general participation. At the end the Lord’s Prayer is said, asking God our Father “to forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us . . . and deliver us from evil.” The priest or the minister who presides concludes with a prayer and the dismissal of the people.

I’m curious as to the intent of the framers of these penitential services: what purpose would they serve? I could see it celebrated for a catechumenate in advance of Lent. Possibly for children, though given the early age at which we hear confessions, I can hear clergy objections before I finish typing the sentence. Possibly to develop a sense of sin in the laity. As it happens, all of those reasons are given in section #37:

37. Care must be taken to ensure that the faithful do not confuse these celebrations with the celebration of the sacrament of penance. [See SCDF, Pastoral Norms for General Absolution, Norm X.] Penitential services are very helpful in promoting conversion of life and purification of heart. [See SCDF, Pastoral Norms for General Absolution, Norm X.]

It is desirable to arrange them especially for these purposes:

a. to foster the spirit of penance within the Christian community;

b. to help the faithful to prepare for individual confession that can be made later at a convenient time;

c. to help children gradually to form their conscience about sin in human life and about freedom from sin through Christ;

d. to help catechumens during their conversion.

Penitential services, moreover, are very useful in places where no priest is available to give sacramental absolution. They offer help in reaching that perfect contrition that comes from charity and that enables the faithful to receive God’s grace through a desire for the sacrament of penance in the future. [See Council of Trent, sess. 14, De sacramento Paenitentiae cap. 5: Denz-Schon 1677.]

Lay presidency is foreseen in these services where no priest is regularly present in the community. I’m not aware of American priestless parishes taking time for this. Perhaps some readers have some insights or experiences.


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About catholicsensibility

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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