Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 33: Third Form, Part 2: Extraordinary Cases

Let’s finish section 33, Celebration of the Sacrament with General Absolution:

Then there is a reason of the pastoral order. While it is true that, when the conditions required by canonical discipline occur, use may be made of the third form of celebration, it must not be forgotten that this form cannot become an ordinary one, and it cannot and must not be used-as the synod repeated-except “in cases of grave necessity.”

This would be an update from the early 70s reform of the Rite of Penance. The Rite differentiates between an abbreviated form III of necessity and an “ordinary” observance which scholars and liturgists remark was designed for venial sins and a communal setting.

This caution is certainly well-taken:

And there remains unchanged the obligation to make an individual confession of serious sins before again having recourse to another general absolution.

Not unlike Traditionis Custodes, this document places responsibility with the bishop to moderate the use of this form:

The bishop therefore, who is the only one competent in his own diocese to assess whether the conditions actually exist which canon law lays down for the use of the third form, will give this judgment with a grave obligation on his own conscience, with full respect for the law and practice of the church and also taking into account the criteria and guidelines agreed upon- on the basis of the doctrinal and pastoral considerations explained above-with the other members of the episcopal conference.

If form III were used as a convenient get-out-of-hell card for grave sin, I could see cause for the seriousness of this. For many observers in the laity, we might well wonder if the same attention were given to criminals in the clergy who, as we watched, continued to preside at Mass, receive honors and even promotions to the upper hierarchy. The absolution for venial sins seems rather bland compared to free pass after free pass for grave sinners who have damaged the mission of the Gospel repeatedly over the past three decades or more.

Equally it will always be a matter of genuine pastoral concern to lay down and guarantee the conditions that make recourse to the third form capable of producing the spiritual fruits for which it is meant. The exceptional use of the third form of celebration must never lead to a lesser regard for, still less an abandonment of, the ordinary forms nor must it lead to this form being considered an alternative to the other two forms.

The local pastor lacks the competence to discern:

It is not in fact left to the freedom of pastors and the faithful to choose from among these forms the one considered most suitable. It remains the obligation of pastors to facilitate for the faithful the practice of integral and individual confession of sins, which constitutes for them not only a duty but also an inviolable and inalienable right, besides being something needed by the soul. For the faithful, the use of the third form of celebration involves the obligation of following all the norms regulating its exercise, including that of not having recourse again to general absolution before a normal integral and individual confession of sins, which must be made as soon as possible. Before granting absolution the priest must inform and instruct the faithful about this norm and about the obligation to observe it.

With this reminder of the doctrine and the law of the church I wish to instill into everyone the lively sense of responsibility which must guide us when we deal with sacred things like the sacraments, which are not our property, or like consciences, which have a right not to be left in uncertainty and confusion. The sacraments and consciences, I repeat, are sacred, and both require that we serve them in truth.

This is the reason for the church’s law.

Liam continues to challenge me personally on my views. A detailed response to his comment from 24th January:

What was specially more reliably fruitful about it as compared to Form II (Over time, your comments concentrate on the negatives of the clamp-down on Form III without much detailed discussion of what was lost – understanding that individual confession with a priest being still being required in either Form for anyone with grave sin to confess and the proximate time to do so, but perhaps less easy to neglect in Form II.)

  • I think a decade of use was insufficient.
  • Picking up on this, I’d say the implementation of RCIA in the same period remained woefully incomplete. The “Tan Book” was already in consultation and revision, and proper training for catechumenate ministry was really just beginning. Parishes were not yet “sorting fish,” working the liturgies fully, or developing a comprehensive and Lectionary-based catechesis.
  • I think the clergy who continue to use form III are mostly stuck in the 70s, and in my experience have failed to utilize it as a true liturgy of the word with a genuine sacramental experience. In other words, Vatican II with a preconciliar methodology.
  • Admittedly, a pragmatic sense of reserving form I for serious matters (as the penitent judges), form II for serious as well as venial sins, and form III as perhaps a monthly experience for venial sins.
  • I also think the lack of ministerial contact in the rite is an oversight. I did see form III once with an “unauthorized” individual absolution–the penitents processed to the priest who laid on hands and absolved each person after the general confession.

I never experienced Form III as such, as I never was in an emergency situation where it it would have come to mind to seek it.

Form III was not designed in the early 1970s entirely for emergency use. This was a development of the 1983 edition of canon law. Two versions of the form exist in the Rite of Penance.

My experiences with Form II have been decidedly mixed due to unfortunate creative migration from the form on a few occasions. I’ve had occasional unfortunate experience with Form I in the more distant past, but the one-on-one nature of it allowed me space to deal with that immediately, whereas the group dynamic of Form II (including the ruddering of creativity-by-liturgy committee) made it much harder to address in real time without being disruptive to others.

That communal liturgies of Penance are generally poorly done in the experience of many Catholics does not surprise me.

  • Clergy and musicians generally do not read, study, and implement the praenotanda.
  • Many of today’s pastors practice liturgy based on their personal experience, rather than study and collaboration with competent colleagues. So improvement is random, and backsliding is more common.
  • If a liturgy isn’t obligatory, the ministries of lector and music are often minimized. I’d check myself and my colleagues with this question: If I’m using just one songleader (let alone a choir), how much preparation did I put into the proclamation of the psalm?

I’d say if form I and II were existing in good health and practice, then perhaps other forms are not needed. But the Church’s own emphasis in many dioceses suggests bishops are concerned. Perhaps it is time to reconsider the admittedly earnest and sincere guidance from St John Paul II as something to revisit. Not for the sake of a carte blanche on a single form that is likely not being done well as a liturgy, but for a greater need of sanctity in the Church–clergy as well as laity.

This document is Copyright © 1984 – Libreria Editrice Vatican. The link on the Vatican site is here.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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