Liturgy Matters — A focus on reconciliation during Lent

Dr. Judy Bullock, director of the Office of Worship for the Archdiocese of Louisville
Dr. Judy Bullock, director of the Office of Worship for the Archdiocese of Louisville

Is there a special focus on the Sacrament of Penance during the Lenten Season?

Yes, Lent is the season most appropriate for the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance since the twofold focus of Lent is on Baptism and Penance/Reconciliation. Even though at the very least the Church requires Catholics to confess serious sin at least once a year, more frequent participation in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is encouraged. The process of reconciliation includes sorrow for sin, confession, atonement, and a change in the way we live our lives.

Has the name of the Sacrament of Penance changed?

The rites for the Sacrament of Penance were revised after Vatican II to be more fully understood by the people. These revised rites use the term “rites of reconciliation” in the Sacrament of Penance. This change calls attention to the need for continual conversion and renewal, an acknowledgment of sins against God and neighbor, as well as the relationship of the sacrament to the community. This communal aspect or social dimension of sin is reflected in the Lord’s Prayer ….forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others. This sacrament is not just about forgiveness of sins but about changing hearts.

Are there still confessionals in Catholic churches?

Although the confessional “boxes” have all but disappeared, every church has a reconciliation room or chapel where the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Penance takes place. In these rooms the furniture is selected and arranged so that the person coming to confession has the option to encounter the priest, the representative of Christ, face to face or to remain anonymous behind a screen that separates the priest and the penitent. The penitent makes this choice.

What form do Catholics use for the Sacrament of Penance /Reconciliation?

There are two primary forms that may be used to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation: a) the private rite for the individual or b) the communal rite for many persons that includes private individual confession and absolution.

In the rite for an individual penitent, the priest greets the penitent warmly. The penitent makes the sign of the cross. The priest invites the penitent to have trust in God, and then may read a text from Scripture. The penitent then confesses his/her sins, may receive some appropriate counsel from the priest and is given a penance in order to make reparation for these sins and to amend his/her life. After this the penitent expresses his/her remorse for these sins using one of the forms offered to the penitent. The priest then gives the penitent absolution and engages in a concluding dialogue of praise of God and dismissal. Penitents can be reassured that all words they will need are provided for them in the confessionals.

The communal form is celebrated in most parishes a few times a year, most especially in Lent. The liturgy begins with a song, greeting, introduction, and opening prayer. Then a liturgy of the word, homily, examination of conscience, and a prayer expressing sorrow for sin is prayed, followed by a penitential litany and the Lord’s Prayer. Then the private portion of this rite, the individual confession of sins and private absolution, takes place. The penitents come back together for a prayer or song in praise of God’s mercy, a prayer of thanksgiving and the dismissal.

Dr. Judy Bullock
Director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship

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