Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Communal Absolution and the Mercy of God

The Year of Mercy is underway, and among Pope Francis’ hopes for this Jubilee Year is “placing the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the center once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands. For every penitent it will be a source of true interior peace” (Misericordiae Vultus, #17).

He also proposed that “The initiative of  '24 Hours for the Lord'  (an opportunity for celebrating the Sacrament of Penance) to be celebrated on the Friday and Saturday preceding the Fourth Week of  Lent, should be implemented in every diocese” (17).

“Bishops,” he continued, “are asked to celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation with their people so that the time of grace offered by the Jubilee Year will make it possible for many of God’s sons and daughters to take up once again the journey to the Father’s house” (18).

I had hoped that the Holy Father’s invitation to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation would include permission to use the third form of the sacrament more freely, that is, “The Rite For Reconciliation of Penitents With General Confession and Absolution,” or more popularly known as “Communal Absolution.”

The Second Vatican Council called for a revision of the rite and formulas of Penance “so that they more clearly express both the nature and effect of the sacrament” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #72).

The final revision offered three sacramental possibilities: 1) private confession and absolution; 2) communal service with private confession and absolution, and 3) the communal service with general absolution.

In his book The Sacrament of Reconciliation (Liturgical Press, 2001) Father David Coffey, STD, refers to a commentary by Father Franco Sottocornola, secretary of the second commission charged with revising the sacrament, which indicates that the committee expected the third form of the rite (communal celebration/general absolution) would be the one used most often.

Coffey provides his translation of Sottocornola's assessment of the three forms: ""The first better favors personal conversion...The second permits the development of a critical conscience in the community as such, a communal engagement...The third permits a more frequent reception of the sacrament than would otherwise be possible..." Sottocornola's article appeared in 1974, "Les nouveaux rites de la penitence commentaire," Questiones liturgiques 55.

Coffey notes, “The frequency which Sottocornola anticipated for the celebration of the third rite in the average parish was once a month" (p. 168).

However, the  new Rite of Penance was promulgated with rubrics which  insisted that individual, complete confession and reception of absolution was the sole, ordinary means for reconciliation with God and the Church. The only exceptions to this rule were if there existed some moral or physical impossibility to use the sole, ordinary means.

The Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship in protocol number 800/73 decreed that, “Unless there is a good reason preventing it, those who receive pardon for serious sins through general absolution are to go to individual confession as soon as they have the opportunity before any further reception of general absolution” (Rite of Penance, #34). Thus if conditions of moral or physical impossibility should exist, the penitent must have the resolution to confess in due time any serious sins according to the sole, ordinary means.

Coffey writes, “At a time when the number of clergy was already dwindling, and when, as a result of the reform, personal confession had become more demanding than it had been before, it was envisaged that the majority of people would settle for the third rite as their normal way of receiving the sacrament, with the first (private confession) received occasionally according to spiritual desire or need and preceded by a more intense period of preparation” (p. 167).

I had hope that Pope Francis would allow the use of the third form during this Year of Mercy. In the very least the third form, I believe, would be appropriate for youngsters who are expected to go to confession before First Communion.

If we wish to give expression to Christ’s mercy in this Jubilee Year, the third form of the rite would joyfully demonstrate the prodigality of  God’s forgiveness, mercy and love.

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