Doing It Right: Benedict’s Penitential Service
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
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
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
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.”
The apostolic letter was published
at a time of widespread abuses, highlighted in 1999 when the
“Communal general absolution is
still a problem despite the heroic efforts of the
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
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
Another possible difficulty will
be assembling enough multilingual priests to hear confessions in different
languages, although many
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.”
- April 9-15, 2006