Doing It Right: Benedict’s Penitential Service

VATICAN CITY — If you happen to be near St. Peter’s Basilica on Tuesday of Holy Week, the chances are you’ll have an unusual opportunity to go to confession. That’s because Pope Benedict XVI has longed a unique penitential service in the Vatican basilica April 11 in which up to 60 priests will be on hand to celebrate the sacrament of penance.

According to the Office for Liturgical Celebrations of the Sovereign Pontiff, the service will consist of readings, prayers and the singing of psalms, organized on similar lines as many Lenten penitential services that take place across the world — particularly in the United States.

U.S. Cardinal J. Francis, head of the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary, will preside at the service on behalf of the Pope.

Called a “second form” or “second rite of general absolution” (in contrast to “communal general absolution,” which should be given only in exceptional circumstances), the service will feature a large number of priests coming from Rome and nearby dioceses to hear confessions on an individual basis.

Such penitential services have been arranged in response to the fall in numbers, mostly in the West, of Catholics who go to regular confession. They are intended to encourage Catholics not only to receive the sacrament regularly, but also bring back those who, for various reasons, have not confessed for a long period of time.

“It’s a positive and very public way of promoting a legitimate alternative to communal general absolution,” said Legionary Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum University. “It’s been done already with great success in other places and is a solution to the abuse of general absolution.”

Pope John Paul II addressed concerns surrounding such abuses in his 2002 apostolic letter Misercordia Dei (By the Mercy of God). General absolution, he stated, was an “extraordinary means to be used in wholly exceptional situations.” There are basically two “exceptional” circumstances: when the “danger of death is imminent” and there is not time for the priest or priests to hear the confessions of individual penitents; and when “a grave necessity exists” when penitents would be deprived of sacramental grace or holy Communion for a long time through no fault of their own.

Making communal general absolution available in place of individual confessions merely for convenience or for other less serious reasons, John Paul warned, results in a “lessening of fidelity to the divine configuration of the sacrament, and specifically regarding the need for individual confession, with consequent serious harm to the spiritual life of the faithful and to the holiness of the Church.”

Widespread Abuses

The apostolic letter was published at a time of widespread abuses, highlighted in 1999 when the Vatican publicly admonished the bishops of Australia for their “indiscriminate use” of general absolution. The Congregation for Divine Worship warned at the time that such violations contributed to a “crisis in the faith” and were “punishable in accordance with the sacred canons – that is, canon law.”

According to Vatican officials and observers, the “second rite of general absolution” is aimed as much at priests and liturgists as at lay Catholics. Its intention is to provide a good example of the value of the sacrament of confession, and how it should be practiced.

“Communal general absolution is still a problem despite the heroic efforts of the Vatican in dealing with the Australian bishops,” said one Vatican official. “But there has been a turnabout — the way that discipline and doctrine work is to keep hammering away, making it clear where there is abuse and making repeated interventions.”

The official said there is “only one thing worse than this abuse, and that is the lackadaisical approach by some priests towards the sacrament.” Many priests, he added, “don’t understand the importance of the confessional.” But according to the Vatican official, Benedict’s own roots in Germany, where confession has fallen into widespread disuse in recent decades, makes the current Pope “very acutely aware of the need of the people to return to the sacrament.”

Some observers suggest that the Holy Father might have been inspired to hold his Holy Week penitential service because of the success of a similar rite of penance held during World Youth Days. Since the 2000 gathering, large numbers of priests have been on hand to hear confessions — a move that has proven highly popular with the young Catholics in attendance.

Father McNamara said this is the right way to address the problem.

“Rather than working on prohibitions, the Church needs to move forward by giving valid alternatives, facing up to pastoral necessities,” he said. “There aren’t always enough priests but this kind of service enables many people to go to confession in a short period of time.”

St. Peter’s Basilica

Another possible motive of holding the Holy Week service is to remind Catholics St. Peter’s Basilica is not just a church but also a pastoral center. The last time it was the site of something similar was during the Great Jubilee Year, when a whole wing just outside the main basilica was given over to hearing confessions.

This year’s service, in contrast, will probably be held within the basilica itself. 

This may pose some problems, however. Confessors in the Vatican basilicas have to have special faculties to be allowed to hear confessions in the confessional boxes, allowing them to lift excommunications and to dispense private vows. Priests without such “Vatican canons” are forbidden to do so.

Another possible difficulty will be assembling enough multilingual priests to hear confessions in different languages, although many Rome priests are able linguists.

Assuming these minor obstacles can be overcome, the service should deliver a powerful message.

“If priests are working together in such a way, making a concerted effort to get people back to the sacrament, it takes away the aura and fear that some people might have,” said Father McNamara. “Also seeing so many other people participating in the sacrament is very much an encouragement for people.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.