On the first day of Lent 2010 it might be beneficial to reflect on the following letter originally published in the Catholic New Times 2/23/03
We, as Catholics, have just begun to realize that we will no longer be able to celebrate a form of reconciliation known as general confession and absolution. Recent liturgical directives issued from Vatican offices and an apostolic letter from the pope in April 2002, prohibit communal absolution except under extreme situations or circumstances.
General absolution will no longer be permitted due to concerns that individuals conscious of serious sin may mistakenly assume that they have received the full benefits under the general application of this rite. Canon Law (961) requires penitents who have committed such a sin to make an individual confession within the year.
This unfortunate ruling probably means that even fewer Catholics will take advantage of the sacrament of reconciliation. To take away this form of general absolution indirectly punishes and denies forgiveness to those individuals who have indicated a preference and a need for this public form of absolution. The practice of individual reconciliation has fallen into serious decline in recent years. Communal celebrations of this sacrament, on the other hand, have seen a growing and healthy attendance.
The rite of reconciliation (penance), based on criteria proposed by Vatican II from the document, "The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy," states: "The rite should clearly express both the nature and the effect of the sacrament. The role of the church community must be emphasized. The reading of the word of God should be central. A public form of worship should predominate over a private form. And, the rite should be short and clear, free from useless repetitions and not requiring extensive explanation."
Accordingly, the rite, until recently, was presented the sacrament in three different ritual forms: Rite for Reconciliation of Individual Penitents, also know as Form Number 1; Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution, also known as Form Number 2; Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with General Confession and Absolution, also known as Form Number 3.
For the last 400 years, and prior to Vatican II, Catholics observed the weekly rite of examining their conscience, sorting out greater and lesser sins and entering the confessional box to anonymously whisper them to the priest who sat on the other side of a tiny screen door. Today, few Catholics celebrate the weekly rite of individual or private confession.
When our Canadian bishops disallowed the celebration of general confession and absolution, we lost the all-important community aspect of this rite. There is no greater sign of unity than when we celebrate our faith together. Sr. Sandra DeGidio, O.S.M., noted Catholic lecturer and author, writes: "Sacramental celebrations are communal because sacramental theology is horizontal. Sacraments happen in people who are in relationship with each other and with God. In the area of sin, forgiveness and reconciliation this is particularly evident. Our sinfulness disrupts our relationship in community as well as our relationship with God." Furthermore, she states: "There is no room for the attitude that forgiveness comes 'only when you have recited your list of sins, agreed to suffer a bit for them and proven yourself worthy to join the rest of us who haven't been so foolish.'"
In no way am I suggesting that the church should abandon the practice of individual reconciliation. This meets the needs of many, but we need to examine our hearts and souls and search for an answer at a deeper level.
Jesus' Parable of the Prodigal Son reminds us of the father who stood at the end of the road each day anxiously waiting for the return of a son who had already claimed his inheritance and left. And when that son finally returned, filled with remorse and shame, the father did not even give him an opportunity to express his sins, but immediately embraced him, forgave him and celebrated his return.
We must urge our Canadian bishops, to enter into full collegial agreement and the spirit of Vatican II on this issue. And to, once again, permit regular communal confession and general absolution under this healing sacrament so that we, in turn, may continue to experience the feast of forgiveness of the Christian community and of God with increasing joy and thanksgiving.