CONGREGATION FOR DIVINE WORSHIP
THE DISCIPLINE OF THE SACRAMENTS
REDISCOVERING THE «RITE OF PENANCE»
The interest stirred up by the Jubilee of Mercy has found expression
in many ways. Notitiae also wishes to make its contribution with a
series of articles designed to bring out the importance of the Mercy of God
announced, celebrated and lived in the liturgical actions.
If the whole of the sacramental economy is pervaded by divine mercy,
beginning with baptism “for the forgiveness of sins”, the reconciling work of
God is particularly bestowed and continuously manifested in the Sacrament of
Penance. Precisely for this reason, Pope Francis in
Misericordiae vultus, the
Jubilee’s Bull of Indiction, asks that the Sacrament of Reconciliation be placed with conviction at its centre so that
«it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own
hands» (MV 17).
Celebrating the Mercy of God helps usto placeourselves with honesty
before our own conscience, to recognise our need to be reconciled with the
Father, who with patience knows how to wait for the sinner in order to give an
embrace that restores our dignity. Recognising and repenting of one’s sins is
not a humiliation. Rather, it is a recovery of the true face of God and an
abandonment of self with confidence to his loving plan while at the same time
rediscovering our true human face, created in the image and likeness of God. In
rediscovering Him who is the origin and end of our life we experience the most
beautiful fruit of mercy in the Sacrament of Penance.
In this spirit the desire here is to offer some reflections on the
Ordo Paenitentiae, focusing above all on some theological-liturgical
aspects and then, more broadly, on the celebrative dynamic of the rite itself.
It is instructive to revisit this liturgical book, to re-read the
Praenotanda, to become accustomed with the texts and gestures, to take on
board the suggested attitudes and, in short, to understand how the
Church, through rites and prayers, dispenses the Mercy of God.
1. CONTRITION AND CONVERSION OF HEART
The Ordo Paenitentiae was promulgated on 2 December 1973, in accordance
with the conciliar mandate which revised the Rite and formulas «so that they
more clearly express both the nature and effect of the Sacrament» (SC
72). At the distance of some decades, however, one notes that the Rite and
formulas have not always been respected. Maybe, this is because some of the
celebrative suggestions were judged inopportune or too excessive. While not
being essential for the valid administration of the Sacrament they nevertheless
constitute a richness for a celebration in which that full, conscious and active
participation of the minister and the lay faithful is accomplished, which «in
the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, […] is the aim to be
considered before all else» (SC 14).
The Loss of the Sense of Sin
In every part of the world, as has been confirmed during the course of ad
limina visits, many bishops report with concern an ongoing disaffection of
lay faithful and priests with the Sacrament of Reconciliation. At the root of
this, beyond a generic recognition of being sinners, there is without doubt
confusion and a lack of recognition about the individual nature of sin and
therefore in confessing it in order to seek the forgiveness of God. More than
fifty years ago, Blessed Paul VI in one of his homilies observed that, «in the
language of respectable people today, in their books, in the things that they
say about man, you will not find that dreadful word which, however, is very
frequent in the religious world – our world – especially in close relation to
God: the word is ‘sin’. In today’s way of thinking people are no longer
regarded as sinners. They are categorised as being healthy, sick, good, strong,
weak, rich, poor, wise, ignorant; but one never encounters the word sin. The
human intellect having thus been detached from divine wisdom, this word ‘sin’
does not recur because we have lost the concept of sin. One of the most
penetrating and grave words of Pope Pius XII, of venerable memory, was, “the
modern world has lost the sense of sin”. What is this if not the rupture of our
relationship with God, caused precisely by ‘sin’».
The Jubilee Year of Mercy should be the favourable time to recover the true
sense of sin in the light of the Sacrament of forgiveness, keeping in mind that
it forms part of the dialectic between the mystery of human sin and the mystery
of the infinite Mercy of God which pervades the whole biblical narrative.
Conversion of the heart
Alongside other considerations something of the theological background of the
Sacrament as found in the Praenotanda of the Rite should be re-evaluated
in order to rediscover the full value of the Rite of Penance.
«Since every sin is an offence against God which disrupts our friendship with
him, “the ultimate purpose of penance is that we should love God deeply and
commit ourselves completely to him”» (RP 5). On the other hand the sin
of one causes harm to all thus, «penance always entails reconciliation with our
brothers and sisters» (RP 5). Above all one cannot forget that the
sacramental experience requires the same welcome invitation with which Jesus
opened his ministry, «The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand;
repent, and believe in the gospel» (Mk 1: 15).
The Council of Trent listed four acts of penitence. Three acts of the penitent
themselves (contrition, confession, satisfaction). Then the absolution given by
the minister which Trent considers the most important part of the Sacrament.
The Rite of Penance takes up the doctrine of Trent, highlighting
particularly the acts of the penitent, among which the primary and most
important is contrition or «inner conversion of heart» (RP 6). The model
for this is the prodigal son who decides to return to his father’s house with a
contrite and repentant heart. The Sacrament is shown to be in direct continuity
with the work of Christ given that he proclaimed that metanoia is the
condition of entering the Kingdom. In the absence of metanoia/conversion
the fruits of the Sacrament are diminished for the penitent because; «the
genuineness of penance depends on this heartfelt contrition» (RP 6).
Note that the Praenotanda in mentioning the text of Trent, which
understands contrition as heartfelt sorrow and aversion to the committed sin,
interprets contrition in a richer and more biblical sense of conversion of
heart: «For conversion should affect a person from within so that it may
progressively enlighten him and render him continually more like Christ» (RP
In the comprehensive and concrete anthropology of the Bible the human heart is
the very source of an individual’s personality which is conscious, intelligent
and free. It is the centre of their decisive choices and of the mysterious
action of God. The just walk with «integrity of heart» (Ps 101: 2), but «out of
the heart of man, come evil thoughts» (Mk 7: 21). Accordingly, God does not
despise «a broken and contrite heart» (Ps 51: 17). The heart is the place where
we encounter God. In biblical language, the heart points to the totality of the
human person, rather than the individual faculties and acts of the person. The
heart is a person’s inner and unrepeatable self, the centre of human existence,
the meeting place of reason, will, spirit and feeling. It is the place where the
person finds their unity and the inner direction of mind and heart, of will and
affectivity. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms, «the
spiritual tradition of the Church also emphasises the heart, in the
biblical sense of the depths of one’s being, where the person decides for or
against God» (n. 368). The heart is therefore an undivided self with which we
love God and our neighbour.
Conversion of heart is not only the principle element it is also the one which
unifies all the acts of the penitent which constitute the Sacrament given that
every single element is defined as leading to conversion of heart: «This inner
conversion of heart embraces sorrow for sin and the intent to lead a new life.
It is expressed through confession made to the Church, due satisfaction, and
amendment of life» (RP 6). Therefore conversion of heart is not to be
understood as a single, stand-alone act accomplished once and for all, but
rather as a resolute detachment from sin in order to make a progressive and
continuous journey of adherence to Christ and of friendship with him. The
sequence of the Rite of Penance is, so to speak, the expression of the
various moments or stages of a journey that does not end with the celebration of
the Sacrament but shapes the whole life of the penitent.
In this context, non-sacramental penitential celebrations are to be valued.
Indeed, if conversion of heart is at the core of the Sacrament of Penance it is
necessary to give such celebrations the greatest importance for, as we read in
the Praenotanda, they «are gatherings of the people of God to hear
the proclamation of God’s Word. This invites them to conversion and renewal of
life and announces our freedom from sin through the death and resurrection of
Christ» (RP 36). These non-sacramental celebrations are placed before
and after the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance, because conversion of
heart presupposes an awareness of what sin is and therefore of the sins
committed. Let us recall the role that the Word of God played in the conversion
of Saint Augustine: «… Domine, amo te. Percussisti cor meum verbo tuo, et amavi te»(«Not with doubting, but with assured consciousness, do I love Thee, Lord. Thou
hast stricken my heart with Thy word, and I loved Thee»). The response to the merciful love of God is love.
The Minister of the Sacrament
It is also important to consider the role of the minister of the
Sacrament who, according to
Misericordiae vultus, should be «authentic
signs of the Father’s mercy» (MV 17). Being sinners themselves, they
should not forget to be penitents who experience the joy of forgiveness in the
Sacrament. Catholic tradition has singled out four figures or characteristics
to express the task proper to the priest confessor. He is Teacher and Judge –
in order to indicate the objectivity of the law –; but he is also Father and
Physician – in order to recall the need for pastoral charity towards the
penitent. Different historical eras and different theological trends have
underlined now one, now another of these figures. The Council of Trent affirms
that priests exercise the function of remitting sins «as ministers of Christ»,
fulfilling their task in «the pattern of a judicial act» (ad instar actus
iudicialis). The Rite of
Penance also speaks of the confessor as Judge and Physician when it says,
«In order to fulfil his ministry properly and faithfully the confessor should
understand the disorders of souls and apply the appropriate remedies to them.
He should fulfil his office of judge wisely» (RP 10). Later on it
underlines that «the confessor fulfils a paternal function: he reveals the heart
of the Father and shows the image of Christ the Good Shepherd» (RP 10).
The confessor is a witness to the Mercy of God towards the repentant sinner.
In the Old Testament mercy is the compassionate and maternal sentiment of God
for his creatures despite their infidelity (cf. Ex 34: 6; Ps 51: 3; Ps 131; Jer
12: 15; 30: 18). In the New Testament Jesus is presented as the «merciful and
faithful high priest in the service of God to make expiation for the sins of the
people» (Heb 2: 17).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarises well all these tasks of
the confessor when it affirms, «When he celebrates the Sacrament of Penance, the
priest is fulfilling the ministry of the Good Shepherd who seeks the lost sheep;
of the Good Samaritan who binds up wounds; of the Father who awaits the prodigal
son and welcomes him on his return; and of the just and impartial judge whose
judgement is both just and merciful. The priest is the sign and the instrument
of God’s merciful love for the sinner» (n. 1465). The merciful presence of the
Father, the self-giving gift of the Son, the purifying and healing love of the
Spirit are made transparent in the formulas and ritual gestures of the
sacramental celebration. The confessor must become the expression and the human
means of this love which through him is poured out upon the penitent and leads
the penitent once again to life, to hope, to joy.
The reflections set out above find their concrete effect in the celebration of
the Sacrament itself which per ritus et preces leads penitents and
ministers into an experience of the Mercy of God. Every celebration of the
Sacrament is indeed a “Jubilee of Mercy”.
There are other areas of a spiritual, disciplinary and pastoral character
connected to the celebration of the Sacrament which are not considered in these
reflections but which merit attention. One thinks, for example, of the care to
be taken in the ongoing formation of the clergy, as well as the initial
formation in seminaries and in institutes of formation. Important also is
compliance with the discipline surrounding general absolution (cf. CIC can.
961-963), and paying attention to the risks regarding discretion and privacy, to
the protection of anonymity and secrecy, which are threatened today by facile
and sacrilegious tapping, recording and diffusion of the content of confession
(cf. CIC can 983).
2. TOWARDS A MYSTAGOGY OF THE ORDO PAENITENTIAE
In drawing our attention to a mystagogical reading of the «Rite for the
Reconciliation of Individual Penitents» (chp. I) one must bear in mind the
ecclesial dimension of the Sacrament, which is highlighted in chapter II: «Rite
for the Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and
Absolution». The profoundly personal nature of the Sacrament of Penance is, in
fact, closely associated with its ecclesial dimension given that it is an act
which reconciles the penitent with God and with the Church (cf. CCC
1468-1469). In this regard the Praenotanda affirm that the «communal
celebration shows more clearly the ecclesial nature of penance» (RP 22).
In fact, as the Council stated, «Liturgical services are not private functions,
but are celebrations of the Church […]. Therefore liturgical services pertain
to the whole body of the Church; they manifest it and have effects upon it» (SC
The Jubilee Year of Mercy represents a significant opportunity for diocesan and
parish communities to rediscover the «Rite for Reconciliation of Several
Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution».
The ritual sequence which we find in the second chapter of the Rite of
Penance helps to throw light on two important aspects of the ecclesial
nature of its celebration. Above all listening to the Word of God takes on the
structure of a Liturgy of the Word, indeed of a proper act of worship (cf. SC
56). Here the gospel proclamation of mercy and the call to conversion ring out
in an assembly in which «the faithful listen together to the Word of God, which
proclaims his mercy and invites them to conversion; at the same time they
examine the conformity of their lives with that Word of God and help each other
through common prayer» (RP 22). Indeed the apostle James invites us to
«confess your sins one to another, and pray for one another, that you may be
healed» (Jms 5: 16).
If listening to the Word of God which “strikes the heart” and mutual support in
prayer are important, no less so is the praise and thanksgiving with which the
rite concludes (cf. RP 29). In fact «after each person has confessed
their sins and received absolution, all praise God together for his wonderful
deeds on behalf of the people he has gained for himself through the Blood of his
Son» (RP 22).
These brief remarks about chapter II of the Rite of Penance highlight the
social as well as the personal dynamics of sin and conversion. The ecclesial
and the personal coalesce in a very particular way in this Sacrament underlining
the fact that, «penance should not be understood as a mere private and innermost
attitude. Because (not “although”) it is a personal act, it also has a social
dimension. This point of view is also of importance for the justification of the
ecclesial and sacramental aspects of penance».
Let us now go through the ritual sequence of chapter I: «Rite for Reconciliation
of Individual Penitents» not just in order to facilitate a renewed understanding
of the Sacrament but above all to facilitate its more authentic celebration in
the awareness that in the actions of the penitent and the priest, in the
gestures and in the words, the grace of forgiveness is communicated. Precisely
because mens concordet voci a worthy celebration is necessary, in the
conviction that the ritual form is of capital importance, because in the liturgy
the word precedes listening, action shapes life.
Reception of the Penitent
The rubric in n. 41 instructs the priest on how the penitent is to be received:
«When the penitent comes to confess his sins, the priest welcomes him warmly and
greets him with kindness». Here we are at the threshold of beginning the ritual
act, and the Rite of Penance is anxious that the minister of the
Sacrament, who represents Christ, makes this moment one into which the penitent
can step with as much hope and ease as possible. We all know that it can be
difficult for a person to come to confession. But if one has arrived at this
point, then grace has already been at work. For this reason the priest should
receive the one who comes with a welcome similar to the father of the prodigal
son, who ran to meet his repentant son when he saw him already at a distance.
Priests should prepare themselves for celebrating this ministry by being aware
that they represent the Christ who, in this parable, revealed the face of the
heavenly Father who throws a feast and rejoices over the one who returns to him
(cf. Lk 15: 11-32). This instruction for how the ritual should begin reveals
that God the Father celebrates a “Jubilee” whenever any sinner presents
themselves for this Sacrament: «There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner
who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance» (Lk
After being received, the penitent makes the sign of the cross, saying, «In the
name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit» (RP 42). It
is an act of faith distinctive to the Christian.
Such a beginning is important both for practical and theological reasons. The
familiar ritual sign and words mark the moment in which the liturgy truly
begins. The sign of the cross will also be present at the central moment of
sacramental absolution. While the Trinitarian formula recalls our baptism, in
which we were reborn to divine life, it directs us towards the Eucharistic
celebration which guards, increases and renews the life of grace in us.
The ritual space slowly intensifies in what comes next. The priest does not
simply say to the penitent something like, “Now tell me your sins.” His words
of invitation quickly establish an atmosphere of great seriousness in this
encounter, while at the same time evoking the penitent’s trust in God. The
priest says, «May God, who has enlightened every heart, help you to know your
sins and trust in his mercy» (RP 42). How strong and sweet such words
will sound in the penitent’s heart if the priest utters them with conviction and
from deep within the role his ordination has equipped him to perform!
Numbers 67-71 of the RP offer alternative formulas for the beginning of
the ritual, all of them theologically eloquent and very rich with biblical
resonances. Each in a different way revives trust in the Mercy of God offered
in the Sacrament. These formulas could be used in catechesis and preaching to
invite the faithful to celebrate the Sacrament with joy, seriousness and
serenity. Imagine the force, for example, on the penitent who hears the priest
say with firm conviction the words of the prophet Ezekiel, «I have no pleasure
in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live» (cf.
33: 11). Here the priest speaks with the authority of God’s word and not some
merely commonplace expression of his own.
Reading of the Word of God
Even though the different options of the invitation to confess are based in
varying degrees of intensity on the words of Scripture the rite continues with
the reading of the Word of God. Although the ritual itself indicates this part
is ad libitum, omitting it should only occur in the case of a true
obstacle. In the structure of the Rite of Penance the proclamation of
the Word of God is an important dimension of the celebration (cf. RP
17). The scriptural passages which the ritual offers are characterised as words
which announce the Mercy of God and call us to conversion (cf. RP 43).
The ritual offers twelve biblical passages (cf. RP 72-84), or another
passage may be used that either the priest or penitent deems suitable.
In the ritual structure, the precedence given to the proclamation of the Word of
God recalls the fact that here and now what is proclaimed is being fulfilled in
the sacramental celebration. What is proclaimed is experienced by the penitent
with absolute newness and freshness, because the Word rings-out enriched with
new meaning thanks to the concrete sacramental moment that is lived with faith.
The Jubilee of Mercy is a propitious moment for priests and faithful to truly
enhance the use of the Word of God. In each of the biblical passages proposed
by the Ritual priests can rediscover the grandeur of the ministry entrusted to
them and penitents can stand in awe of the light which leads them to an
encounter with Christ in the Sacrament.
For example, if Ezekiel 11: 19-20 is chosen (cf. RP 73), it is directly
to this penitent that the divine oracle is addressed: «And I will give them one
heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will take the stony heart out of
their flesh and give them a heart of flesh…». When the penitent realises that
in this very moment the promise is made to him, then his heart can open in
relief and trust, and sins can be confessed. Or if the passage from Mark 1:
14-15 is used (cf. RP 75), then both the priest and the penitent must be
mindful that Christ himself is present here and now and forcefully announcing to
the one confessing: «The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the
Gospel». The response to this presence of Christ and his words will be the
confession of sins. Or if the passage from Luke 15: 1-7 is chosen (cf. RP
77), the penitent should understand that for his sake Jesus defends himself
against the complaint of the Pharisees and Scribes that he eats with sinners.
In effect, in this sacramental moment, Jesus stands beside this penitent – a
sinner – and declares himself willing to re-establish communion with him, to go
after him as the shepherd goes after the lost sheep. Is not the Word of God
announcing to us here a Jubilee of Mercy and giving us the courage to confess
our sins with hope and confidence?
Confession of Sins and Acceptance of Satisfaction
The next moment in the rite forms an essential part of the sacramental
celebration: the confession of the penitent’s sins and acceptance of an act of
satisfaction proposed by the priest (cf. RP 44). A few points deserved
to be underlined about the ritual placement of confession and the form it
takes. Unlike all the other parts of this rite, there are no set texts or words
to be said, but the penitent is called upon to confess his sins. But what has
preceded this in the rite, especially the proclamation of the Word of God, shows
that the confession of sins does not have its origin solely in the penitent’s
initiative. Rather, confessing sins is rooted in the grace of having heard
God’s Word and being moved to repentance and contrition as a result of it.
If there are no set liturgical texts for this moment, nonetheless, rubrics are
also part of the liturgical rite; and the rubrics at this point are carefully
crafted. Indeed, they express the deep theological significance of this
moment. It is not simply a question of the penitent speaking out a list of sins
as if into the air or to no one. One confesses to the priest. The priest, for
his part, is instructed to engage in a careful interaction with the one
confessing: «If necessary, the priest helps the penitent to make an integral
confession and gives him suitable counsel». This back and forth between
penitent and priest is nothing less than the ritual form that enacts the
penitent’s encounter with Christ himself in the person of the priest. For this
reason the priest is instructed to help the penitent to understand the deepest
meaning of this encounter. «He [the priest] urges him [the penitent] to be
sorry for his faults, reminding him that through the Sacrament of penance the
Christian dies and rises with Christ and is thus renewed in the paschal mystery»
(RP 44). This is an essential theological point for understanding the
Sacrament rightly. All that happens in this Sacrament is rooted in the Paschal
Mystery. The penitent is renewed in the original pattern of his baptism, where
one dies with Christ to sin and rises with him to new life.
With the aid of the Jubilee Year it is to be hoped that priests and penitents
alike may celebrate this Sacrament with greater awareness of how profound is
this moment of encounter between priest and penitent. We recall the striking
words of Pope Saint John Paul II in his first encyclical,
«In faithfully observing the centuries-old practice of the Sacrament of Penance
– the practice of individual confession with a personal act of sorrow and the
intention to amend and make satisfaction – the Church is therefore defending the
human soul's individual right: man's right to a more personal encounter with the
crucified forgiving Christ, with Christ saying, through the minister of the
Sacrament of Reconciliation: "Your sins are forgiven"; "Go, and do not sin
again"» (n. 20). It is unusual and very forceful that the Pope calls the
encounter between penitent and priest a human “right”. By this he is referring
to something that lies deep inside the wounded heart of sinful humanity. In
speaking of the Redemptor hominis he claims that every individual is
longing for an intense, personal encounter with Christ, «with the crucified and
forgiving Christ». The liturgical structure of the Sacrament is giving form to
this very longing and to its satisfaction.
After the penitent’s confession of sins, «The priest proposes an act of penance
which the penitent accepts to make satisfaction for sin and to amend his life» (RP
44). In this way the rubric underlines anew the meaning of the intense
encounter and exchange between priest and penitent. And in all that he does,
the priest is urged to «adapt his counsel to the penitent’s circumstances» (RP
44). Here and now the penitent meets the «crucified and forgiving Christ» who
also shows the way to amendment and a new way of life.
Prayer of the Penitent
The priest continues his dialogue with the penitent, inviting him «to express
his sorrow» in a prayer (RP 45). The rite requires this clear expression
of contrition in the form of a prayer, but it offers a wide variety of possible
ways of doing this. Some ten different possible prayers are offered (cf. RP
45, 85-92). Even if, as with the biblical passages, only one is used in any
given celebration, making all ten of these options the object of meditation will
help people to behold the many facets of the jewel that this sacramental moment
encapsulates. Such meditation will help people to prepare for confession and to
utter such deep words of contrition with all their heart during the actual
celebration of the Sacrament.
The first formula offered at RP 45 is a traditional prayer that many know
as the “Act of Contrition.” It has stood the test of centuries and perhaps
needs no comment. The Jubilee is, nonetheless, an occasion to highlight the
words and the theological density with which this prayer in its Latin form
ends. The one praying pleads: «Per merita passionis Salvatoris nostri Iesu
Christi, Domine, miserere». The Mercy that we celebrate is rooted in the merits
of the Passion of Jesus Christ.
The other options offered (cf. RP 85-92) all take their inspiration
directly from Scripture. In fact the first two options (cf. RP 85, 86)
put verses from the psalms directly on the penitent’s lips: «Remember that your
compassion, O Lord, and your love are from of old…» (Ps 25: 6-7). Or: «wash me
from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me…» (Ps 51: 4-5). In response to the
priest’s invitation to the penitent to express contrition, the penitent simply
utters the very words that Israel and the Church have used through the ages.
Praying such prayers penitents today experience that their personal story of sin
and God’s forgiveness is part of the great drama depicted in the pages of the
Bible. That drama of sin and forgiveness continues now in our lives, and the
same Spirit-given prayers are perfectly adapted to the moment.
Something similar is true in the option that puts on the penitent’s lips the
words the prodigal son says to his father upon returning home: «Father, I have
sinned against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Be merciful to
me a sinner» (RP 87). To manifest their conversion of heart penitents,
encouraged by the parable to not be afraid and moved to contrition, pronounce
the words of the son who returns with confidence to the father’s house.
Another beautiful formula is a prayer addressed to each person of the Trinity,
echoing New Testament scenes in such a way that penitents can recognise
themselves in them (cf. RP 88). This prayer addresses first the «Father
of mercy» and says to him the same words of the previous option borrowed from
the prodigal son, except that here the words are introduced with a specific
reference to the parable: «…like the prodigal son…». Then «Christ Jesus,
Saviour of the world» is addressed, and the penitent asks him to do now for him
the same that was done for the good thief when the gates of paradise were opened
as Jesus was dying. The penitent uses as his own the very words of the
repentant thief: «Lord, remember me in your kingdom». The last invocation is
addressed to the Holy Spirit who is called the «fountain of love». The penitent
asks the Spirit: «Purify my heart, and help me to walk as a child of light».
The Ritual offers other prayers to the penitent for which we offer no
commentary. However it is desirable that, motivated by the Jubilee Year, they
become better known and used. With them we learn to pray with the very words
and images of Scripture, expressing our contrition and asking for forgiveness.
With them we learn that we too are caught up in the marvellous deeds of mercy
that the Scripture proclaims. Like the tax collector whom Jesus praised in his
parable, we too beat our breast and pray: «Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on
me, a sinner» (RP 92 based on Lk 18: 13-14).
In the Rite of Penance the prayer of the penitent and the absolution by
the priest are treated under one title heading. We have divided them here
simply to facilitate commentary without, however, forgetting that it is
important that we understand the profound ritual connection between the one
moment and the other. In prayer to God the penitent expresses contrition and
asks for mercy. There is an immediate response to this prayer as God acts
through the ministry of the priest.
The liturgical atmosphere intensifies. The priest extends his hands or right
hand over the penitent’s head as he begins to speak. This should be done as
carefully and deliberately as any other such similar gesture performed in a
liturgical celebration. The penitent should be able to sense by means of the
change in bodily posture and gesture of the priest that a solemn sacramental act
is about to be performed. The extended hands mean to indicate that all the
Mercy of God – invisible but immensely powerful and present – is being poured
upon the contrite penitent.
The words that the priest says in absolution likewise deserve proper attention.
Brief as they are, they are extremely rich theologically and express the very
heart of this Sacrament’s meaning. The Rite of Penance lists clearly the
essential theological ingredients of the formula (cf. RP 19). First of
all, its clear Trinitarian structure is noted. The reconciliation effected in
this Sacrament comes from God, who is called «the Father of mercies».
The formula declares what God has already done; namely: «God, the Father of
mercies, has reconciled the world to himself». And God has done this «through
the death and resurrection of his Son», which the formula sets in
immediate relationship with the sending of «the Holy Spirit among us for
the forgiveness of sins». Up to this point in the formula it is a question of
liturgical anamnesis. That is, the death and resurrection of Jesus is
remembered, declared, announced. This anamnesis is done in Trinitarian
terms and with language that immediately indicates the relevance of this mighty
act of God to what God is about to do now for the penitent. God has reconciled
the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of
Then the language of the formula shifts to the present moment, and the priest
addresses his words directly to the penitent. This shift from past to present
means to indicate that God’s huge deed in the Paschal Mystery is being applied
through the words of the priest here and now in all its fruits to this
particular penitent. The formula likewise makes clear that what God is
effecting has a strongly ecclesial dimension «because reconciliation with God is
asked for and given through the ministry of the Church» (RP 19).
So, speaking to the penitent the priest prays first «may God give you pardon and
peace». This kind of language is a type of invocation or blessing; the verb is
in the subjunctive (tribuat) which characterises the style of so many of
the Church’s invocations and blessings, which are always efficacious. But then
the style of language changes and the priest then says what the Ritual calls
«the essential words» (RP 19). Still speaking directly to the penitent,
he says: «and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the
Son, and of the Holy Spirit», making the sign of the cross over the penitent.
The priest who says «I absolve you» is speaking here in persona Christi.
By means of these gestures and words of the priest, in virtue of the power given
by Christ to the Church to forgive sins (cf. Jhn 20: 23), the sinner has been
restored to original baptismal purity. The penitent has had satisfied his
longing for an intense, personal encounter with Christ, with the crucified and
forgiving Christ. The Lord has come and has meet that sinner in that key moment
in his life constituted by the moment of conversion and forgiveness. Such an
encounter would be the very essence of a Jubilee of Mercy, a jubilee for
repentant sinners and a jubilee for Christ himself!
Proclamation of Praise and Dismissal of the Candidate
Ritual instinct knows that a moment as intense and rich as absolution needs a
denouement. It would be improper to move from so holy a space quickly out the
door and back to normal life without any transition. And yet sometimes, if a
clear liturgical sense is not observed, the Sacrament’s celebration can finish
with a sense that expresses nothing more than: «It’s over; you can go now». The
Rite of Penance says clearly what is needed: «After receiving pardon for
his sins the penitent praises the Mercy of God and gives him thanks in a short
invocation taken from Scripture. Then the priest tells him to go in peace» (RP
This short ritual is arranged in RP 47. Again, priest and penitent speak
not their own words but the words of Scripture. Quoting words inspired by Psalm
118: 1, the priest exclaims: «Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good». The
penitent concludes with the next line of the same psalm: «His mercy endures
forever» (cf. also Ps 136: 1). These words of praise used by Israel and the
Church throughout the ages have been fulfilled once again very concretely with
startling freshness and irreducible newness.
Every liturgy of the Church finishes with those who have celebrated it being
sent into the world with new divine life instilled that is meant to be life for
all the world. A sending by the Church is nothing less than the sacramental
form of being sent by Christ himself: «As the Father has sent me, even so I send
you», says the risen Lord to his disciples (cf. Jhn 20: 21). In the Rite of
Penance this is accomplished swiftly and with just one line which the priest
pronounces as a minister of Christ and the penitent experiences as being sent by
the Church: «The Lord has freed you from your sins. Go in peace».
“Merciful like the Father”
Pope Francis continually invites the Church to rediscover the joy
of the Gospel and to “go forth”, to be missionary, to dare, to take the
initiative without fear, demonstrating «an endless desire to show mercy, the
fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy».
The vocation of the Church is also that of every disciple of Christ
who has been refreshed by the Sacrament of forgiveness. In fact, the mercy
celebrated per ritus et preces commits them to put the teaching of Jesus
into practice: «Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful» (Lk 6:36).
«The Sacraments, as we know, are the locus of the closeness and the tenderness
of God for mankind; they are the concrete way that God thought and wanted to
come and meet us, to embrace us, without being ashamed of us and of our
limitations. Among the Sacraments, certainly Reconciliation renders present
with particular efficacy the merciful face of God: it is constantly and
ceaselessly made real and manifest. Let us never forget, both as penitents and
confessors, there is no sin that God cannot forgive. None! Only that which is
withheld from Divine Mercy cannot be forgiven, just as one who withdraws from
the sun can be neither illuminated nor warmed»: FRANCIS,
Audience to the participants at a Course on the Internal Forum organised by
the Apostolic Penitentiary
, 12 March 2015.
PAUL VI, Homily, 20 September 1964. Cf. also JOHN PAUL II, Post-synodal
Paenitentia, 2 December 1984, 18.
THE ROMAN RITUAL,
Rite of Penance, Catholic Book Publishing Corp, New Jersey 2009 (from
now on abbreviated as RP followed by the paragraph number).
 Cf. COUNCIL OF TRENT, Session XIV,
Doctrine on the Sacrament of Penance, chp. IV-VI: The
Christian Faith, Alba House, New York 1982, 460-463.
 SAINT AUGUSTINE,
Confessions 10,6.8: CCL 27, 158s.
 The Christian Faith, 462.
 «Let us never forget that to be confessors means to participate in the very
mission of Jesus to be a concrete sign of the constancy of divine love that
pardons and saves» (MV 17).
 «The second form of celebration, precisely by its specific dimension,
highlights certain aspects of great importance: The Word of God listened to in
common has remarkable effect as compared to its individual reading and better
emphasizes the ecclesial character of conversion and reconciliation. It is
particularly meaningful at various seasons of the liturgical year and in
connection with events of special pastoral importance»:
 INTERNATIONAL THEOLOGICAL COMMISSION,
Penance and Reconciliation, 29 June 1983, A,II,2.
 «God has given us the Word and the sacred liturgy offers us words; we must
enter into the words, into their meaning and receive them within us, we must
attune ourselves to these words; in this way we become children of God, we
become like God»: BENEDICT XVI,
Catechesis at the General Audience, 26 September 2012.
 «The Cross is a sign of the Passion, but at the same time it is a sign of the
Resurrection. It is, so to speak, the saving staff that God holds out to us,
the bridge by which we can pass over the abyss of death, and all the threats of
the Evil One, and reach God. […] Thus we can say that in the sign of the Cross,
together with the invocation of the Trinity, the whole essence of Christianity
is summed up; it displays what is distinctively Christian»: J. RATZINGER, The Spirit of the Liturgy, in
Collected Works, XI, Ignatius
Press, San Francisco 2014, 111.
 FRANCIS, Apostolic Exhortation
Evangelii gaudium, 24 November 2013, 24.