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The New Evangelisation and the Sacrament of Penance

Philip Tartaglia
Archbishop of Glasgow

Meeting of the European Doctrinal Commissions
(Esztergom, 15 January 2015)



If my memory serves me well, it was Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York who, during the 2012 Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelisation, made a point of saying that the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation should be regarded as the Sacrament of the New Evangelisation.

This observation was applauded for its positive spiritual and pastoral intention. The core of the new evangelisation was emerging as a reality based on a new encounter with the person of Jesus Christ and with his Church. The sacrament of penance and reconciliation seemed ready-made for such an encounter. As a result, Proposition 33 asked that the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation should again be put at the centre of the pastoral activity of the Church. Here is the text of that proposition:

The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is the privileged place to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness. It is a place for both personal and communal healing. In this sacrament, all the baptized have a new and personal encounter with Jesus Christ, as well as a new encounter with the Church, facilitating a full reconciliation through the forgiveness of sins. Here the penitent encounters Jesus, and at the same time he or she experiences a deeper appreciation of himself and herself. The Synod Fathers ask that this sacrament be put again at the center of the pastoral activity of the Church.

I am not sure to what extent the Synod Fathers’ recommendation has become reality. Practice is mixed. It is true that many Catholics no longer go to confession or hardly ever go. And those who do approach the sacrament do so with less regularity than was the case once. In a letter, a parishioner who wanted me to approve general absolution for normal pastoral use said simply: …many people are not willing to go to confession. It is possibly also true that some priests may be unwilling to devote much time and energy to the ministry of the confessional and to participate in pastoral planning which aims to regenerate the sacrament. On the other hand, where the sacrament is given importance, where it is made readily available, and where there is a reasonable choice of priest-confessors, people do seem to come to confession in encouraging numbers.

This more positive aspect of the current situation should perhaps tend to persuade us that the way forward lies not in accommodation or surrender to a hostile or unpromising cultural situation, but instead to continue patiently, faithfully, and compassionately to explain, teach, promote and celebrate what we understand to be the gift of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins of those who believe in him. If the personal encounter of Jesus with the human person is the key to the new evangelisation, then bishops and priests really need to value and promote the Sacrament of Penance in its essential integrity.


1. The Mystery of Reconciliation in the History of Salvation

As the Introduction to the Rite of Penance outlines (1-3), Jesus Christ is the centre of the Father’s salvific plan of reconciliation and mercy. Jesus began his work on earth by preaching repentance and saying: Turn away from sin and believe the good news (Mark 1:15). Jesus welcomed sinners and reconciled them to the Father. Above all, Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose again for our justification. On the night before his passion and death, he instituted the Eucharist as the sacrament of the new covenant in his blood for the forgiveness of sins. After his resurrection, the risen Lord sent the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, empowering them to forgive or retain sins and sending them forth to all peoples to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins in his name. And since the beginning, the Church has never failed to call men from sin to conversion and by the celebration of penance to show the victory of Christ over sin.

This victory over sin is first achieved sacramentally in baptism. Peter gave voice to this mystery in his preaching of the kerygma: “Repent and let every one of you be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38). And so, in the Creed, the Catholic Church proclaims her faith in “the one baptism for the forgiveness of sins”. In the sacrifice of the Mass, the passion and death of Christ for the forgiveness of sins is made present. Christ himself is present and is offered as “the sacrificial Victim” whose death God willed to reconcile us to himself (Eucharistic Prayer 3) in order that “we may be gathered into one by the Holy Spirit” (Eucharistic Prayer 2).

And furthermore, Jesus Christ instituted for his Church the sacrament of penance, giving to his apostles and their successors power to forgive sins. In this way, through the sacrament of penance, the members of the Church who fall into sin after baptism may be reconciled with God and renewed in grace.

The renewal of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation in the pastoral activity of the Church for the promotion of a new evangelisation will depend to a large extent on how these fundamental themes of Catholic faith can be communicated to the faithful, showing that the forgiveness of sins is an essential dimension of the salvation of which Jesus Christ is the unique bearer and of which his Church is the sacrament.

In this way, the faithful will learn that the compassion of Jesus is much more than the contemporary secular super-virtue of tolerance which merely accepts and accommodates and excuses behaviours which are currently fashionable while absolutely refusing to forgive the unmentionable transgressions against the dominant canons of correct speech and action. Rather the compassion of Jesus in the sacrament of penance forgives all sin of which the sinner is truly repentant. The compassion of Jesus heals and renews. The compassion of Jesus truly re-creates the holiness and innocence of the soul. The compassion of Jesus brings a renewal of true friendship with God and man. The compassion of Jesus is at the heart of the absolution which is imparted by the priest to the contrite penitent in the Sacrament of Penance in which Jesus the Lord says what he alone can say: “My child, your sins are forgiven. Go in peace and sin no more.”

2. The Reconciliation of Penitents in the Life of the Church

Because of Christ’s love and his gifts and because the Church is Christ’s body, the Church is holy. But at the same time, the Church is always in need of purification. The baptised are exposed to temptation and unfortunately often fall into sin. As a result the Church constantly pursues repentance and renewal.

In the first place, baptism forgives all sin, both inherited (original) and personal. However baptism is only received once. The sacrament of the Holy Eucharist was instituted in the blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. In the course of time, through theological reflection and doctrinal clarification, the Church established that the Holy Eucharist forgives venial sin and is a protection against mortal sin, and that anyone who is conscious of mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion without first making a sacramental confession (if a confessor is available).

While forgiveness of sins can be gained in other ways, it remains the conviction of faith of the Catholic Church that “Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as "the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace." (CCC 1446)

The Code of Canon Law puts this in more succinct terms: “Individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the only ordinary means by which a member of the faithful conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and the Church. Only physical or moral impossibility excuses from confession of this type; in such a case reconciliation can be obtained by other means “(CIC 960).

The reference in this canon to “other means” of reconciliation is helpful because it points to the important fact that penance and conversion (whether sacramental or other) is essentially interior, and also to the many forms of penance in Christian life (CCC 1434) which may favour the process of conversion and reconciliation, above all from the harm and gradual corrosion of the spiritual life caused by everyday faults.

But the major insight of faith in terms of the forgiveness of sins is that the sacrament of penance was instituted for the forgiveness of serious sins committed after baptism. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, referring to the Council of Trent’s Decree on the Sacrament of Penance: Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance: All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession.

And answering the implicit question – when must we go to Confession? – the Catechism summarises the precepts of the Church for different categories of the faithful:

· According to the Church’s command, “after having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year.”

· Anyone who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion, even if he experiences deep contrition, without having first received sacramental absolution, unless he has a grave reason for receiving Communion and there is no possibility of going to confession.

· Children must go to the sacrament of Penance before receiving Holy Communion for the first time.

In these days when many of the faithful go to Confession rather infrequently, the doctrine of the confession of everyday faults needs to be freshened up in catechesis and pastoral practice. There is a good balance and wisdom about the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on this matter:

Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit. By receiving more frequently through this sacrament the gift of the Father’s mercy, we are spurred to be merciful as he is merciful (CCC 1458).

And as Pope Benedict XVI observed in his 2007 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis, it is the duty of bishops to encourage frequent confession among the faithful: The Synod recalled that Bishops have the pastoral duty of promoting within their Dioceses a reinvigorated catechesis on the conversion born of the Eucharist, and of encouraging frequent confession among the faithful (SC 21).


(Adaptation of an Ad Clerum Instruction for Lent 2014)

1. Hearing Confessions is not a burden

The success of the Sacrament of Penance depends a great deal on the pastors of the Church. The ministers of the Church need to banish from their minds any thought that hearing confessions is a burden whose irritating effect should be limited by cutting to the bone the time that is given to the humble ministry of the confessional.

It has been my experience as a parish priest that time spent in the confessional is never wasted, even if people do not at first come in as many numbers as we would wish. If they know you are there, they will come when they need you. And if you are there, and if you tell them you will be there, and if they know you will be there, that in itself constitutes a kairos, a time of grace, for your people and they will be drawn to Confession.

Confession should not be treated like a Cinderella sacrament. Along with the most Holy Eucharist, Reconciliation is the only other sacrament we receive repeatedly through our lives. In our ministry, priests should value this sacrament for what it truly is, the sacred and efficacious sign and instrument of personal encounter between the Lord and one of his sinful disciples in which we expose our soul to him for his gracious touch of forgiveness and mercy. What could be more beautiful or more wonderful or more worth celebrating devoutly and well? What could be more worth a priest’s attention and effort and time?

Priests need to examine their consciences and consider if they give enough time and effort in their ministry to this precious Sacrament of forgiveness, if they commend it seriously enough to their people, and if they make themselves available to their parishioners often enough and for long enough in the confessional.

In a word, as Pope Benedict XVI advised: All priests should dedicate themselves with generosity, commitment and competency to administering the sacrament of Reconciliation. (Sacramentum Caritatis, 21).

2. Rite 3: For Reconciliation of Several Penitents with General Confession and Absolution

As has been mentioned, many contemporary Catholics find it difficult to go to Confession. In one of his Wednesday Audiences (19th February 2014), Pope Francis suggested why. He mentioned laziness or embarrassment, a loss of the sense of sin, and the tendency to make oneself the centre and the measure of right and wrong. For whatever reason, many people do not want to confess their serious sins to the priest. If they do not abandon the sacrament altogether, the solution that some adopt is to seek out questionable forms of the Sacrament which allow them in one way or another to receive absolution without an integral confession of sin. And where these practices become customary, it has a deleterious effect on the Sacrament of Penance in that community and in surrounding communities, and it can be very difficult to convince the community not to change its ways.

In these circumstances, priests need to resolve not to concede to temptations to take shortcuts with the Sacrament of Penance with dubious initiatives which may impinge not just on liceity (whether it is allowed or not) but on its validity (whether it confers grace or not).

It seems that, although the vast majority of priests respect the norms regarding the sacrament of penance, not everyone does. And there may be a lingering feeling among some priests and some lay people that the norms regarding the sacrament of penance are simply bureaucratic rules and regulations of a sort that the bishop must publicly uphold as a matter of routine but in fact can be legitimately put aside or creatively circumvented for penitential liturgies in Advent and Lent prior to Christmas and Easter.

I refer in the first place of the use of Rite 3 for the Reconciliation of Several Penitents with General Confession and Absolution. It must be stressed that Rite 3 is designed for exceptional circumstances which rarely or ever manifest themselves in our circumstances. In particular, the condition which refers to the impossibility of going to confession and receiving the sacraments for a “lengthy” time (Latin, diu) completely takes it out of our normal pastoral situation. In our situation, there is almost always time and opportunity to go to confession before very long.

A careful reading of the norms governing the use of Rite 3 clearly shows this (See the Rite of Penance 31; and 32-34; CIC 961-963; and see especially the Apostolic Letter of Pope St John Paul II, Misericordia DeiOn Certain Aspects of the Celebration of the Sacrament of Penance [7 April 2002]).

And it is to be noted that the conditions regarding Rite 3 bear not just on liceity, but on validity (cf. CIC 962/1). We would not want to mislead people into thinking they have received sacramental absolution when in fact they have not. We would not want to turn a penitential act of worship into a charade.

We do well to pay serious attention to the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which reminds us:

Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance: All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession…When Christ’s faithful strive to confess all the sins that they can remember, they undoubtedly place all of them before the divine mercy for pardon. But those who fail to do so and knowingly withhold some, place nothing before the divine goodness for remission through the mediation of the priest, "for if the sick person is too ashamed to show his wound to the doctor, the medicine cannot heal what it does not know (CCC 1456).

I also find the case very persuasive that the Catechism makes for the disclosure of sins to another person, in terms of good practice from a human point of view, especially in a time when the art of counselling is so valued.

The confession (or disclosure) of sins, even from a simply human point of view, frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others. Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible (CCC 1455).

It is widely recognised that the unburdening of our consciences to a sympathetic confidant is of considerable personal therapeutic value. This should be all the more so in confession when the penitent can, if he or she wishes, have the advantage of anonymity and is protected by the confessional seal which guarantees an absolute confidentiality.

It is also the case that those who feel most aggrieved by the wrongful use of Rite 3 are priests in neighbouring parishes whose plans for special times for Confession and for Penitential Liturgies before major feasts get derailed because many of their parishioners choose to participate in a ceremony which cancels or severely restricts the integral confession of sin which is an essential part of the sacramental event. It is hardly surprising that where Rite 3 is used contrary to the norms, Catholics just don’t want to go to confession any more.

Priests will do well to consider a passage from Misericordia Dei where Pope St John Paul II challenges the temptation to contrive the conditions for general absolution:

It is not acceptable to contrive or to allow the contrivance of situations of apparent grave necessity… and still less because of penitents’ preference for general absolution, as if this were a normal option equivalent to the two ordinary forms set out in the Ritual”.

In fact in any future revision of the Rite of Penance, it would be advisable to take Rite 3 out of the Ritual and publish it separately as a Rite for Emergencies and Exceptional Situations of Grave Necessity. This would guard against the temptation to consider Rite 3 as an option to be used in normal pastoral circumstances.

So it is time to let go once and for all of the well-intentioned but questionable use of Rite 3. The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation in the form of Rite 3 (for Several Penitents with General Confession and Absolution) is only to be used in exceptional circumstances according to the norms. It is especially to be noted that the condition of the impossibility of receiving the sacraments for a considerable period of time effectively takes Rite 3 out of most normal pastoral circumstances.

3. Rite “Two-and-a-Half”

I refer now to what has come to be known colloquially among priests in Scotland and Ireland, and perhaps elsewhere in the English-speaking world, as rite “two and-a-half”. In fact it is not any kind of rite for sacramental reconciliation that the Catholic Church recognises. It is a pure innovation without any authoritative foundation. Because it has no basis in liturgical norm and is not a recognised or approved liturgical form, the shape of this ritual may vary, but perhaps the common elements are these: a penitential act of worship in which at least there is an examen, a general confession of sin, a communal act of sorrow, a ‘going before’ a priest, an individual expression of general sorrow for undisclosed sins (or perhaps 1 sin), and individual absolution.

You can easily see that this structure is hardly more than what happens in the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass: In the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass, the priest invites the assembly to acknowledge their sins. There is a pause for reflection and then everyone recites the “I confess”, expressing sorrow for their sins and asking forgiveness. What happens next is a kind of “absolution”. The priest prays: “May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins and lead us to everlasting life”.

But this is not the form of sacramental absolution. We might well ask, “Why ever not?” Why should not the priest then say: “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”? The reason is that the Church believes and teaches that a general confession of sin is not a sufficient basis for sacramental absolution. At least some attempt to make an individual and integral confession of sins to the priest acting in the person of Christ is required.

Once again, we do well to take note of the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which reminds us:

The Church’s faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere to it. When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith received from the apostles – whence the ancient saying: lex orandi, lex credendi…The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays. Liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition(CCC 1124). For this reason no sacramental rite may be modified or manipulated at the will of the minister or the community. Even the supreme authority in the Church may not change the liturgy arbitrarily, but only in the obedience of faith and with religious respect for the mystery of the liturgy (CCC 1125).

So once again, I think it is time to let go of such defective and misleading rituals. It is irresponsible to take the risk of presenting the ritual described above, or variations of the same, as a licit and valid form of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. It is salutary for us all to remember that none of us, bishops included, is exempt from obedience to the Church’s discipline or from the consequences which could ensue from deliberate or neglectful disobedience.

4. Theology of the Sacraments

I suspect that the misuse of the Sacrament of Penance comes down to forgetfulness about what sacraments are and how they are efficacious signs and instruments of Christ’s grace. The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarises centuries of theology and doctrine when it teaches as follows:

Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify.They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies (CCC 1127).

Augustinian sacramental theology spoke of the sacrament as a sacred sign (signum sacrum) with a verbal element (Accedit verbum ad elementum et fit sacramentum) in a Neo-Platonic context in which the sign was a participation at the level of being in the sacred reality. This was teased out originally by St Isidore of Seville in more western categories as “sign/sacrament alone, sign/sacrament and reality, and grace of the sacrament” (sacramentum tantum, sacramentum et res, res sacramenti), which became a classic way of accounting for the essential elements of what was called a sacrament. The canonical shorthand became form (words) and matter (the physical sign). More modern sacramental theology, influenced by the liturgical renewal, speaks of a “core symbolism” which referred to both the liturgical word and action.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way:

The liturgical word and action are inseparable both insofar as they are signs and instruction and insofar as they accomplish what they signify. When the Holy Spirit awakens faith, he not only gives an understanding of the Word of God, but through the sacraments also makes present the "wonders" of God which it proclaims. The Spirit makes present and communicates the Father’s work, fulfilled by the beloved Son (CCC 1155).

The point is this: the efficaciousness (the grace-bearing quality) of the sacrament has always been linked to the presence of the sacred sign, or the sacramentum et res, or the core symbolism, together with a word which proclaims the grace of salvation which is signified. These constitutive elements are different in each sacrament.

  • Baptism: The grace of the new life of Baptism is tied to water and the invocation of the Trinity. You could have a very meaningful and joyful birthing or naming ceremony without the use of water and without mentioning the Holy Trinity. This might even be very spiritual, but it would not be Baptism.
  • Confirmation: In Confirmation, the seal of the Holy Spirit is tied to the anointing with the oil of chrism and the form of words, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” If those elements, that core symbolism, is not there, what happens may well be a spiritual and joyful event, but it is not Confirmation
  • Eucharist: At Mass, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the reality of the Eucharistic Sacrifice depend on the use of bread and wine, (the epiclesis) and the words of institution. If the bread and wine are not used, if the words of institution are omitted, you could still have a worthy and spiritual act of worship, but whatever has been going on, it’s not the Mass.
  • Orders: In Ordination, we know that the Sacrament is conferred when the bishop lays hands on the ordinand and prays the prayer of consecration. Without this core symbolism, there may be a very worthy rite of institution or commissioning or appointment, but at the end of it there is no new bishop, priest or deacon.
  • Matrimony: Again, in Marriage, the sign is the consent of a man and a woman making them husband and wife. If that does not happen, what happens might be very charming and joyful, but it is not Marriage.
  • Anointing: In the Sacrament of the Anointing, the sign is the action and words with sacred oil. If that is not there, whatever occurs might be a consoling and prayerful action, but it is not the Sacrament of Anointing.
  • Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation: In the Sacrament of Penance, finally, the Church has established that the sign is the penitent confessing all their sins to the priest who gives absolution in the person of Jesus Christ. If that is not there, whatever happens might be spiritually consoling and joyful, but it is not sacramental forgiveness of sins. (In exceptional circumstances, when the conditions are verified, and always according to norm, these elements may be transposed but not suppressed.)

So, in the sacraments instituted by Jesus Christ, God has seen fit to link his saving love to certain signs and words which proclaim what is celebrated and signified. If the sign is not there, whatever occurs might be spiritually very worthy and even joyful, but it is not the sacrament.

Of course, grace and forgiveness can be given by God outside the Sacraments and outside the Church. But the Sacraments which Christ gave us “work” (i.e. confer grace) through the use of certain signs which signify the grace of the Sacrament, and if these signs are not used, we are not celebrating Christ’s Sacraments.

5. The Sacrament of Penance and the Eucharist, and the Practice of Indulgences

It is a principle of classic Catholic sacramental theology that all the sacraments tend towards the Eucharist as their centre. The Sacrament of Penance tends to the Eucharist in so far as it offers the gift of reconciliation with God and with the Church which is celebrated and expressed in the Eucharist as the sacrament of the redemption. Pope Benedict XVI observed: Reconciliation, as the Fathers of the Church would say, is ‘laboriosus quidam baptismus’; they thus emphasized that the outcome of the process of conversion is also the restoration of full ecclesial communion, expressed in a return to the Eucharist (Sacramentum Caritatis 20). This in fact corresponds to practice since, according to the law of the Church, in general terms penitents who are conscious of serious sin are obliged to go to Confession before receiving Holy Communion. And in fact, again in general terms, Catholics go to Confession in order to be free of their sins and be less unworthy to receive the Eucharist. When we go to Confession, the Eucharist is in our minds. It is somehow for the Eucharist that we go to Confession, even if we are not conscious of serious or mortal sin. It needs to be said that any disruption of this relationship through questionable innovations, even for the best of intentions, would tend to render the Sacrament of Penance obsolete.

For instance, it has been suggested that the situation of the divorced and re-married (without canonical annulment) is similar to that of the lapsi of Christian antiquity who, after a time of canonical penance could be re-admitted to full ecclesial communion and thus also to the sacraments.

However, it must be said that the two situations are not comparable. In the situation of the lapsi, it was a case of re-integrating Christians who had abjured their faith under the pressure of persecution, but who had repented later, making a new and full profession of their faith, thus re-establishing ecclesial communion and access to the sacraments. In the case of the divorced and re-married of the present time, the proposal is to admit them once more to the sacraments without changing their state of life and intimate behaviour which are objectively contrary to the indissolubility of a pre-existent sacramental union which has not been annulled. Therefore, the situation of the divorced and re-married of today does not bear comparison with the lapsi of the early Christian centuries.

Moreover, in this connection, it is worth bearing in mind that, according to the teaching of the Church, the forgiveness of sins involves certain acts of the penitent. These acts are contrition, confession of sin and satisfaction (cf. CCC 1450-1460). The most important of these is clearly contrition or sorrow for sin which, following the Council of Trent, is defined in the Catechism as “sorrow of the soul and detestation of the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again” (CCC 1451; cf. DS 1676). In English, the Short Act of Contrition which all Catholics learn in their childhood concludes with the words, “And I will not sin again.”

This understanding of contrition draws on the relationship between forgiveness and repentance clearly established in Sacred Scripture. The First Letter of John provides us with a very striking text: “If we say we have no sin in us, we are deceiving ourselves and refusing to admit the truth; but if we acknowledge our sins, then God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and purify us from everything that is wrong” (1 John 1,9; cf. Acts 3,19; 5,31; 11, 18; 26,18; Luke 24,47; 1 John 1,9). This biblical witness makes it impossible to propose a forgiveness of God which does not involve the conversion of the sinner.

In regard to the Penance-Eucharist connection, I would like to quote further what Pope Benedict XVI said in Sacramentum Caritatis about the wise use of indulgences as a way of promoting the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. I would also note that if Pope Benedict XVI’s advice is to be taken, there would have to be some work done in most local churches on recovering the meaning of indulgences.

Finally, a balanced and sound practice of gaining indulgences, whether for oneself or for the dead, can be helpful for a renewed appreciation of the relationship between the Eucharist and Reconciliation. By this means the faithful obtain "remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven." The use of indulgences helps us to understand that by our efforts alone we would be incapable of making reparation for the wrong we have done, and that the sins of each individual harm the whole community. Furthermore, the practice of indulgences, which involves not only the doctrine of Christ’s infinite merits, but also that of the communion of the saints, reminds us "how closely we are united to each other in Christ ... and how the supernatural life of each can help others." Since the conditions for gaining an indulgence include going to confession and receiving sacramental communion, this practice can effectively sustain the faithful on their journey of conversion and in rediscovering the centrality of the Eucharist in the Christian life (SC 21).

6. Our Praxis of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation

  • Confession

Our standard practice of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is what we commonly call “Confession”. This is Rite 1 – For Reconciliation of Individual Penitents. With the relative shortage of priests, it is becoming more awkward to plan, prepare and execute Rite 2 – For Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution – with a sufficient number of priest-confessors to minister to a large gathering of penitents. So it is important to make our standard practice of Confession as convenient and as suitable as possible. Here are some proposals which could be discussed and implemented at Parish and Deanery level.

(i) Every parish should have at least one continuous hour of Confessions per week.

(ii) The “Confessional” should be clearly marked and set up for Confessions.

(iii) Times for Confession should be published with a start time and a finishing time.

(iv) Times for Confession should correspond wherever they are published: Notice-boards, bulletins and on-line sites.

(v) With only one priest in nearly all parishes, Confessions on a Saturday evening (which is the common practice in Scotland) can become inconvenient. Saturday evening does not need to be the time for Confessions. Other times in the week should be explored and used. People would get used to this.

(vi) Parishes in a deanery or local area may want to have different days and times for Confession.

(vii) In order to provide a sufficiency of confessors, from time to time priests could exchange confessionals for their weekly hour of confessions.

(viii) In the run-up to Christmas and Easter, short periods for Confession can be provided each day at convenient times, especially if Rite 2 liturgies are impossible to organise.

(ix) Deaneries or groups of parishes should discuss whether they can set up a ‘Confession Day’ in a suitable church for continuous confessions through several hours on a given day. This could happen, for instance, on the Friday before Palm Sunday, or, possibly on the Monday or Tuesday of Holy Week. Recent experience shows that these ‘Confession Days’ are surprisingly effective.

  • Rite 2: For the Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution

Rite 2 liturgies can be found in the Rite of Penance. I commend and encourage such good practice. When well organised and planned – especially with the participation of a sufficient number of priest-confessors – these liturgies are very beautiful and effective, emphasising the ecclesial dimension of reconciliation. Indeed on a human level, many penitents simply appreciate the example of other Catholics going to Confession, and the presence and support of other people in their own journey of conversion, which comes to a moment of special intensity in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.

  • Physical or Moral Impossibility

According to Canon Law, “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). However the same canon accepts that “physical or moral impossibility alone excuses from such confession.” And the legislation goes on to say, “in which case reconciliation may be attained by other means also”.

This is a most merciful and understanding solution from which we may all have benefitted at some time in our lives, and it should not be glossed over in our practice and catechesis. In such cases, when there are genuine cases of physical or moral impossibility, perhaps prayer, pilgrimage, penance and charitable giving may win for such persons the grace of forgiveness and reconciliation.


In his Wednesday Audience on 19th February 2014, Pope Francis made a warm and lively appeal to pilgrims to receive the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. His message was: “Be courageous and go to Confession.” Here is the official English-language summary of what Pope Francis said:

Dear Brothers and Sisters: Through the Sacraments of Initiation, we receive new life in Christ. This life we carry in earthen vessels, however, and we still experience temptations, suffering, and death. Because of sin, we can even lose this new life. Jesus therefore willed that the Church continue his works of salvation for her members, in particular through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which flows from the Paschal Mystery. The forgiveness we receive is not the result of our own efforts, but is the gift of the Holy Spirit reconciling us to God and to each other. While the celebration of the Sacrament is personal, it is rooted in the community of the Church, in which the Holy Spirit is present, uniting us all in Jesus Christ. When confessing our sins then, we confess to the priest who represents not only God but also the community of the Church that accompanies us on the path of conversion… The Sacrament of Reconciliation calls us back to God, and embraces us with his infinite mercy and joy. May we allow his love to renew us as his children and to reconcile us with him, with ourselves, and with one another”.

Pope Francis has shown that he has the heart of a priest-confessor, of a priest who treasures the ministry of reconciliation with which he has been entrusted. He is giving us every encouragement to commend Confession to our people. I hope we can respond generously and creatively to the Pope’s promptings for the sake of the new evangelisation.