Cleansing Fire

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Tackling the Subject of “Communal Penance Services” Once Again

December 20th, 2010, Promulgated by Dr. K

The Communal Penance Service, which is common in many parishes around this time of year, does not take the place of regular sacramental Confession. Time and time again, we find priests, deacons, and laypersons who are erroneously convinced that the Communal Penance Service is some kind of easy substitute for private Confession. The Communal Penance Service is meant to be a way for Catholics to gather together, examine their consciences, pray for forgiveness, and then confess their sins in the form of individual Confession. Just the service itself, without the individual Confession at the end, does not provide a person with absolution for their mortal sins as one is required to Confess their sins to God through the priest in both kind and number. Many churches do indeed provide individual Confessions at these services, but sadly not all.

Why am I bringing this up again? The following is from the St. Louis (Pittsford) bulletin:

“On Monday we will offer our Penance Services at 1:30 and at 7:30pm…this is a wonderful way to sweep the house clean and to prepare the way of the Lord…it is a great experience of the loving forgiveness that God holds out to each of us and to us as a community…there is in each of us a dark side, a sinful side that closes us to what God invites us to become…some people look at this experience of the Sacrament of Penance as ‘cheap grace’ because it is so easy and does not require the same disclosure that the Individual celebration of the Sacrament offers [WRONG — One must still make an individual Confession as their mortal sins are not forgiven through such a service! This “disclosure” is still required. You will notice that Fr. Murphy never corrects this error in his response. All he does is say we shouldn’t look for easy and quick. ]…if we are looking at ‘easy and quick’ ways to be forgiven, then we may not be in the right disposition for any form of the Sacrament…the base of this celebration is that we stand before God and are true to ourselves, recognizing that we have sinned and ask for the help and grace of God to live differently…like any way that we celebrate any of the Sacraments, there are ways to make it ‘cheap’ but if we really want to be touched by God we have to take it to heart and begin to live and act
more in the way of Christ”

I think that Fr. Murphy, and everyone who is confused about this matter, could use a little education on the subject. Below are various citations from Church law about how the Sacrament of Penance is to be celebrated, how Communal Penance Services are to be conducted, and when it is, or rather when it is not appropriate to employ general absolution.

1. The Code of Canon Law states that individual Confession is the only ordinary method of Penance for mortal sin:

“Individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the sole ordinary means by which a member of the faithful who is conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and with the Church. ” (CIC 960)

2. Code of Canon Law on what are the suitable grounds for employing general absolution:

Ҥ1 General absolution, without prior individual confession, cannot be given to a number of penitents together, unless:

danger of death threatens and there is not time for the priest or priests to hear the confessions of the individual penitents;

2° there exists a grave necessity, that is, given the number of penitents, there are not enough confessors available properly to hear the individual confessions within an appropriate time, so that without fault of their own the penitents are deprived of the sacramental grace or of holy communion for a lengthy period of time. A sufficient necessity is not, however, considered to exist when confessors cannot be available merely because of a great gathering of penitents, such as can occur on some major feastday or pilgrimage.”  (CIC 961 §1) [This means that just because this is Christmas that one can not use that as an excuse for granting general absolution. There needs to exist some serious danger that people will be deprived of Sacramental Confession for a lengthy period of time. I will address Canon 961 §2 later in this post]

3. Catechism of the Catholic Church on General Absolution (similar to the above):

“In case of grave necessity recourse may be had to a communal celebration of reconciliation with general confession and general absolution. Grave necessity of this sort can arise when there is imminent danger of death without sufficient time for the priest or priests to hear each penitent’s confession. Grave necessity can also exist when, given the number of penitents, there are not enough confessors to hear individual confessions properly in a reasonable time, so that the penitents through no fault of their own would be deprived of sacramental grace or Holy Communion for a long time. In this case, for the absolution to be valid the faithful must have the intention of individually confessing their grave sins in the time required [Read that last part very carefully. For our sins to be validly absolved, one must make an individual Confession as soon as possible after partaking in a Communal Penance Service, even when the priest gives general absolution!]. The diocesan bishop is the judge of whether or not the conditions required for general absolution exist. A large gathering of the faithful on the occasion of major feasts or pilgrimages does not constitute a case of grave necessity.” (CCC 1483)

4. The Rite of Penance details how a Communal Penance Service is to be conducted by the priest. It is especially important in this situation that priests remember the following rubric:

“After the Lord’s prayer the priests go to the places assigned for confession. The penitents who desire to confess their sins go to the priest of their choice. After receiving a suitable act of penance, they are absolved by him with the form for the reconciliation of an individual penitent.” (Rite of Penance #28) [Basically, the rubric calls for the priests to hear Confessions as part of the  Communal Penance Service. The priest can’t just grant general absolution out of convenience without offering individual Confessions. Read the above items for clarification on when general absolution is permitted]

5. The Rite of Penance on general absolution and the requirement that the penitent make an individual Confession as soon as possible:

“General absolution is not lawful, when confessors are available, for the sole reason of the large number of penitents, as may be on the occasion of some major feast or pilgrimages.” (Rite of Penance #31) … “Those who receive pardon for grave sins by a common absolution should go to individual confession before they receive this kind of absolution again, unless they are impeded by a just reason. They are strictly bound, unless this is morally impossible, to go to confession within a year.” (Rite of Penance #34)

6. The Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments issued a circular letter (Protocol No. 700/00/L) speaks about the Sacrament of Penance. Here are a few passages:

a. “communal celebrations have not infrequently occasioned an illegitimate use of general absolution. This illegitimate use, like other abuses in the administration of the Sacrament of Penance, is to be eliminated.”

b. “In accord with the law and practice of the Church, the faithful must orally confess their sins (auricular confession), except in cases of true physical or moral impossibility (e.g., extreme illness or physical condition inhibiting speech, speech impediment, etc.) This disposition would exclude communal celebrations of the sacrament in which penitents are invited to present a written list of sins to the priest confessor. It should be noted that such innovations also risk compromising the inviolable seal of sacramental confession.”

I do hope that the above passages are convincing evidence that the Communal Penance Service alone does not bring about the forgiveness of our mortal sins, but rather a good individual Confession, be it included in the service or some time afterward. General absolution may only be employed when there exists some dire circumstance. A priest may not use general absolution at his leisure as many do today.

There is one item which I have left out until now that I will now address. The following passage is from Canon 960 §2:

“It is for the diocesan Bishop to judge whether the conditions required in §1, n. 2 are present; mindful of the criteria agreed with the other members of the Episcopal Conference, he can determine the cases of such necessity.”

One might chose to ignore every shred of evidence above and claim that it is possible Bishop Clark has permitted general absolution because he perceives that the conditions exist for it. As far as I am aware, this is not the case. Even if he were to permit it, it is important that bishops take into account the following as dictated by the Congregation for Divine Worship:

“With respect to the administration of “general absolution”, the exclusive authority enjoyed by diocesan bishops to determine whether a grave necessity is truly present in a given case in their diocese does not permit them “to change the required conditions, to substitute other conditions for those given, or to determine grave necessity according to their personal criteria however worthy.” Indeed, the Diocesan Bishop makes “this judgment graviter onerata conscientia, and with full respect for the law and the practice of the Church.”

What the above basically says is that Bishop Clark can’t just permit general absolution because Bishop Clark wants to, but rather he is required to adhere to Church law which lays out very specific requirements concerning when general absolution may be employed.

Additionally, it is important to note that a priest  should receive the permission of his bishop before he administers general absolution outside of already permitted, grave situations judged by the local ordinary. The following is from the Rite of Penance:

“Over and above the cases determined by the diocesan bishop, if any other serious need arises for giving sacramental absolution to several persons together, the priest must have recourse to the local Ordinary beforehand, when this is possible, if he is to give absolution lawfully. Otherwise, he should inform the Ordinary as soon as possible of the need and of the absolution which he gave.” (Rite of Penance #32)

This was a lengthy post with a lot of Church law content. I hope you all found it informative. If you would like further reading on this subject, here are a few links worth investigating:

Below is the original article from Fr. Murphy:

Click above to enlarge

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4 Responses to “Tackling the Subject of “Communal Penance Services” Once Again”

  1. avatar benanderson says:

    This was a lengthy post with a lot of Church law content. I hope you all found it informative.

    indeed! well done, DrK.

  2. avatar Mike says:

    Last Sunday Holy Cross hosted a “Communal Penance Service” sponsored by the parishes of the Eastern Greece/Charlotte Planning Group. I would estimate that about 200 people attended.

    Individual confessions were heard by the 5 pastors along with about 8 retired priests. It took about 2 hours for everyone to receive the sacrament who wished to do so.

    This is really not that hard. It just takes a bit of planning.

  3. avatar Christopher says:

    Dr. K, do you know where people can goto individual confession on Friday?

    Can we get a listing of the parish’s that offer it and what time? Perhaps there are some reading this post now and are not sure where to go since our DOR website makes it very difficult.

    It would be nice to develop a list of weekday penance locations and times as well for everyone who reads this blog to not only inform the readers but commend the priests as well.

  4. avatar Bernie says:

    Excellent. This is very helpful! Thank you.


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