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Rite of Reconciliation III:
the liturgy that may never happen

by Frank Karl

In the aftermath of the Seattle 6.8 earthquake the people of a small parish in northwest Washington were rightfully anxious about the possibility of aftershocks or, God forbid, “the Big One.” At the beginning of Mass the first low rumble was felt, and everyone in the assembly snapped to attention. The priest, knowing that this might be his only (and possibly last) chance to use the Rite of Reconciliation of Several Penitents with General Confession and Absolution, yelled out, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” and dived under the altar of sacrifice hoping that the sacrifice wouldn’t be his own life. After the 18-wheeler had passed, the priest reemerged from beneath the altar cloths and sheepishly remarked, “Oops … never mind.”

Most of us are familiar with the first two forms of the Rite of Reconciliation for the Sacrament of Penance: individual confession (in the box or face-to-face) and penance services with individual confession. Though the latter is preferred, it is the former that is the norm for most parishes. Yet on the books is a third form of the Rite with General Confession and Absolution — but with so many restrictions that it is doubtful whether it can, could or should ever be celebrated. In light of the history of the theology of the sacrament, maybe some restrictions might be reviewed and lifted by the local bishop.

Sacrament in Scripture

As always with all sacraments, we trace the sacrament of penance to Jesus. Forgiveness of sin is a consistent theme of the Gospel (Mt 9:2–8, Mk 2:5–12, Lk 5:20–26). According to John, it was at one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances that he gave the power to forgive sins to the church: “Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained” (Jn 20:22–23). The early church continued Jesus’ message of repentance (Acts 2:38–39).

As a ritual, Form III is exactly the same as Form II.

Going public

During the first centuries, the forgiveness of sins came to be known as “canonical penance” because many juridical canons or laws were associated with its administration. This was a very public sacrament and was reserved for only the most serious sins, sins that were known by most of the general public (for example, apostasy, murder, heresy). This canonical penance was administered only once and demanded a deep conversion on the part of the offender. The sinner underwent partial excommunication and would leave the liturgy with the catechumens; he or she would not be readmitted to the church until a suitable period of probation. Over time, the church began to impose lesser forms of penance for less serious transgressions, yet all the while retaining its very public forum. As the list of lesser sins grew, so did public embarrassment. By the end of the sixth century, canonical penance became privatized and came to be known as “confession.” The public rite of penance stayed on the books until the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.

Medieval variations

During the Middle Ages, several developments occurred in the rite and have since been disallowed. If a penance was considered too harsh, the penitent could appeal to a higher court for a lesser penance. In lieu of performing an actual penance, the person could pay a reciprocal amount of money. And, in order to help the priests discern an appropriate penance, penitential books (libri poenitentiales) were developed that listed the sins and their satisfactory penance. How many of us still believe that the priest has these posted on in the inside of his confessional?


What had begun as a sacrament of reconciliation of the sinner with God and the church became the fourfold rite: contrition (conversion of heart), confession (orally to a priest representing the church), satisfaction (appropriate penance) for sin, and absolution (the effect of the sacrament is the forgiveness of sins). All of this, of course, flowed from the definitive theological work of Thomas Aquinas that was codified at the Council of Trent. The Doctrine on the Sacrament of Penance (1551) was a response to the reformers of the day (most notably Martin Luther, who believed that the mercy of God is greater than any good works of the penitent).


The Second Vatican Council in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy called for a revision of the rite so that it clearly expressed its nature and effect. The revised rite was promulgated in 1973 and emphasized that: 1) The church is both holy and in constant need of purification; 2) The church is communal by nature; 3) Sacred Scripture is important to the rite; and 4) Reconciliation with God and the church is the purpose of the sacrament.

With Vatican II, the sacrament began to move out of the confessional box and into the body of the church. As part of our Catholic identity, most of us can tell wonderful, humorous, or frightening stories of the confessional and can tell of its true healing power. Nothing holds for greater curiosity for non-Catholics than what happens in “the box.” Most of us have attended penance services in Lent or Advent and determined which priest would be the least likely to be encountered in the grocery store and which line moved the fastest.

Comparing forms

But what about Form III, General Confession and Absolution? As a ritual, Form III is exactly the same as Form II; there are introductory rites (song, greeting and opening prayer), a Liturgy of the Word with homily and an examination of conscience, the Rite of Reconciliation with a general confession, for example, the Confiteor, a litany or appropriate song, the Lord’s Prayer, followed by individual confession and absolution. If you are one of the few to have stayed in church after confession, the rite concludes with a proclamation of praise for God’s mercy, a concluding prayer of thanksgiving and a blessing and dismissal. The differences between Form II and Form III are: the inclusion of an instruction about the ritual, a questioning of intent and symbolic gesture, and the proclamation of the general absolution. The instruction for Form III reads thus:

After the homily or as part of the homily, the priest explains to the faithful who wish to receive general absolution that they should be properly disposed. Each one should repent of his sins and resolve to turn away from these sins, to make up for any scandal and harm he may have caused, and to confess individually at the proper time each of the serious sins which cannot now be confessed. Some form of satisfaction should be proposed to all, and each individual may add something if he desires (Rite of Penance 60).

The introduction to Form III contains two reasons why general confession and absolution may be used instead of the other two forms: 1) danger of death with insufficient time for individual confession, and 2) a serious need is present, for example, if there are not enough confessors for the number of penitents.

Regarding the second condition comes a horde of “howevers.” The first “however”: This form can be used only if, through no fault of their own, the penitents cannot receive the sacrament anywhere else for a long time and cannot receive communion (which forgives sins also). The second “however”: This rite cannot be used just when there is a question of numbers of penitents, for example, at a great festival or pilgrimage like World Youth Day. The third “however”: The bishop must make the decision, in consultation with the other members of his “episcopal conference” (32), if and when it is acceptable to celebrate this form. The fourth “however”: The penitents must be instructed that Form III is not the proper norm for confession. The fifth (and probably most important) “however”: Those receiving general absolution must make an individual confession within one year for any serious sins.

When examined more closely, these “howevers” seem ludicrous. First However: You have no wheels (car, buggy, wheelchair). You live in the middle of the desert or jungle. You are the star character in the movie Castaway. Second However: How many is not too many? One hundred, one thousand, one million? Three priests facing 800 penitents at a penance service before Christmas? Third However: Does the bishop carry his cell phone everywhere he goes? “Your Eminence (or Excellency), we have a problem!” Fourth However: Form III is good … but not good enough. Fifth However: If any and all sins are forgiven, why would one need to go to confession again? For insurance? If you don’t make it within the one-year time limit, are the sins put back into your soul?

Free form

It is projected that in 10 years our supply of active priests will be trimmed by at least one third, if not more. The lack of confessors may compel us to consider using Form III of this sacrament. Will people throng to a penance service with general confession and absolution? I believe so. The horror stories and fear of a darkened confessional have kept many away. Perhaps they will come home. Hearts can change with the grace of God revealed through the church.

The bottom line is this: Either this form of the rite will never be used or we need to put greater trust in true heartfelt contrition and the mercy of God. Either remove Form III from the books or believe in the faith and power of the community gathered in the presence of a well-trained presbyter that God will hear the repentant cries of the church. The church reveals itself as the sacrament of God’s mercy. Those who sin are as much part of the church as are those who act in its name to forgive. Conversion, repentance and pardon are more important than how we structure a ritual to signify these. The challenge of the church comes from the challenge of Christ who is the reconciler, the healer and the forgiver of sins.


Frank Karl is the director of liturgy and music at St. Denis Church in Diamond Bar, Calif.

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