Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Children's Confessions and Communal Absolution

For many priests the ministry of “hearing children’s confessions” is a sweet and sour experience.

Bring into church 150 second, third and fourth graders together with five priests and over the next hour administer the rite of reconciliation –private confession by “the penitent child” and individual absolution by “the shriving confessor.”

Imagine bringing fifty second-graders into church for a brief “penance service” (a welcome, prayer, reading of Scripture, homily, examination of conscience, communal act of contrition) and then individual confession. Even many adults find it difficult to be quiet and prayerful for thirty or forty  minutes; imagine the struggle for seven-year-olds. No wonder they find church “boring.”

It seems to me that the third option in the Rite of Penance is the ideal solution for the time and tedium of children’s confessions.

The usual way of receiving the Sacrament of Penance, the first ritual, is called the “Rite for Reconciliation of Individual Penitents.” The ritual calls for the priest to welcome the penitent, read a passage of Scared Scripture (optional), call for the penitent’s confession of sins, impose “satisfaction” (a penance), and ask the penitent to express sorrow (an act of contrition), offer the words of absolution, proclaim praise of God  and dismiss the penitent. This ritual or some form of it is used in most settings.

When we bring children together for confession, the second ritual, the “Rite of Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution” is usually chosen. This ritual is popularly known as “a penance service.”  

The third ritual is the “Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with General Confession and Absolution.” This form begins like the second ritual (the “penance service”) but calls for general confession of sin and general absolution, that is, the whole group of penitents is absolved as a group. Individual confession and individual absolution are not used.

Application of this third ritual, the communal confession and communal absolution, could be used for “hearing children’s confessions.” It engages the children for the whole time they are gathered in church and it provides a non-threatening experience of God’s forgiveness and reconciliation. Use of this form does not leave the children sitting in church waiting (with the expectation they will be quiet, not squirm, and will pray or read for the next forty minutes).

When the rite for the Sacrament of Penance was studied and revised following Vatican II, the three-fold ritual was approved, but restrictions were put on the use of the third option (communal absolution). Canons 960-964 of the Code of Canon Law restrict its use.

It was expected that use of the third option would include the provision that those who were guilty of mortal sins would confess them in private confession (using the first option) as soon as they could.

It has been unsettling for many of  us to learn that the committee which revised the rite of Penance expected the third option to be the one used most often.

The secretary of the revision committee, Franco Sottocornola, commented that the third option allows a more frequent reception of the sacrament. In his book Reconciliation (Liturgical Press, 2001) David M. Coffey, STD, noted, “His (Sottocornola’s) statements about the third rite will come as a surprise. The rite that now (because of official restrictions) is scarcely celebrated at all was perceived in 1974 as the one that would be celebrated most often!” (p. 167).

Coffey continued, “The frequency which Sottocornola anticipated for the celebration of the third rite in the average parish was once a month…By postponing the confession of grave sins to a later time, it placed the emphasis firmly on the most important element of the sacrament, that is, on reconciliation with God and the Church” (p 168).

I suspect that parish penance services during Advent and Lent would be enhanced by the use of that third ritual, but I am convinced its use would be a blessing and a practical application of the sacrament when it comes to children’s confessions.

I wonder if I should write Pope Francis.

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