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Scott P. Richert

Reader Question: Reconciliation Services

By December 17, 2009

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"SAMR130" asks a question that is a blast from the past:

What is a reconciliation service? Does it meet the requirement for Confession during Advent and Lent?

In the 1970's and 1980's, "reconciliation services" were all the rage in the Catholic Church in the United States. In part a response to a decline in Catholics participating in the Sacrament of Confession, reconciliation services unfortunately ended up accelerating that decline, to the point where the Vatican had to step in and make it clear that such services could not substitute for the sacrament itself.

When Catholic churches first started holding reconciliation services, the idea was that the half-hour or hour-long service would prepare those who attended for Confession, and allow those who had been reluctant to go to Confession to see that many others were in the same boat. Such services generally took the form of Scripture readings, perhaps a homily, and a priest-guided examination of conscience.

In the early days of reconciliation services, priests from neighboring parishes would cooperate: One week, all the priests in the area would come to one parish for the service; the next week, they would go to another. Thus, during the service and afterward, multiple priests were available for Confession.

The problem began when some priests began to give "general absolution." There is nothing wrong with this, properly understood; in fact, in the introductory rites of the Mass, after we recite the Confiteor ("I confess . . . "), the priest gives us a general absolution ("May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life").

A general absolution, however, can only absolve us from the guilt of venial sin. If we are conscious of mortal sin, we must still seek out the Sacrament of Confession; and, in any case, we should prepare for our Easter Duty by going to Confession.

Unfortunately, many Catholics did not understand this; they thought that the general absolution offered in the reconciliation service forgave all their sins and relieved them of any need to go to Confession. And, sadly, the fact that many parishes began to offer reconciliation services without providing priests for private Confession added to the confusion. (Not to mention that some priests simply told their parishioners that the general absolution sufficed.)

After the Vatican addressed this issue, the use of reconciliation services waned, but they are becoming more popular again today. Again, there is nothing wrong with such a service, as long as it is made clear to those in attendance that it cannot substitute for Confession.

If such services help prepare Catholics for the reception of the Sacrament of Confession, they are all to the good. If, on the other hand, they convince Catholics that they do not need to go to Confession, they are, to put it frankly, endangering souls.

One final note: While it is a very good idea to take advantage of the Sacrament of Confession during Advent, Catholics are not required to go to Confession during Advent.

If you have a question that you would like to be featured as part of our Reader Questions series, please send me an e-mail. Be sure to put "QUESTION" in the subject line, and please note whether you'd like me to address it privately or on the Catholicism blog.

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December 18, 2009 at 11:45 am
(1) Tina says:

Thankfully I have never encountered a “reconciliation service” like the kind you mentioned. At all the ones I have been to, local priests are available to hear private confessions. However, I think there are some problems here too. I remember one parish where there was only one “reconciliation room.” Priests were just sitting in chairs in different corners of the church hearing confessions. Being out in the open like this would probably discourage a shy person from making their confession.

Also, when did the Church rename the sacrament as “reconciliation?” This has always struck me as rather a politically correct term that downplays the requirement for private auricular confession. It seems the Church is at cross-purposes with itself in this renaming.

December 18, 2009 at 5:10 pm
(2) Sophia says:

Our church holds Reconciliation services during Lent and Advent. We have a Scripture reading, a short homily and background music. Several area priests are invited to hear private confessions because some parishioners are reluctant and shy to go to our own priest.
The name was changed to Reconciliation because confession and penance are just part of the sacrament.

December 19, 2009 at 3:03 pm
(3) Lee says:

For clarification, the ritual for the Sacrament of Penance offers a Third Form, with General Confession and General Absolution. This General Absolution is a sacrament (unlike the penitential rite at Mass) and absolves all sin, mortal and venial. However, this is administered by a priest only in rare circumstances, such as on the battlefield or in natural disasters.

December 19, 2009 at 3:12 pm
(4) Scott P. Richert says:

Lee, thanks for that clarification.

December 20, 2009 at 1:35 am
(5) Michael Ezzo says:

I’m with Tina : confession is confession. I wish the name had been kept, and I still can’t bring myself to start changing a name that was already perfectly and accurately descriptive of what one was doing — confessing. Even if our church had the reconciliation service I wouldn’t go to it. Too old-fashioned. And along with Lee, I have read the same about the general absolution — something to the effect that it is only validly administered in emergency situations where private confession is impossible. Of course I am glad that it is available in such cases.

January 5, 2010 at 1:44 pm
(6) Robyn says:

As a rather conservative catechist, I used to question the reason for renaming the sacrament “Reconciliation” instead of using the old names of “Confession” and “Penance.” But I now realize that the word “Reconciliation” better captures the whole meaning of the sacrament. It’s far more than just listing sins or doing penance, though those acts are implicit (especially if you are well-catechized, which is always my goal, LOL). Even “absolution” can be deceptive if you do not have a good understanding of the gravity of sin. Every sin, even a venial (minor) one, is an act of war against God. (Think about that next time you tailgate someone.) If you are in a state of venial sin, you have “strained relations”; if you are in mortal sin, you have completely alienated yourself from God. Through this sacrament, God heals those strained and broken relations and re-establishes union with Him. Instant, unconditional* forgiving and forgetting. Literally, like the sin never happened. Penance is used because we do not forget as easily as God, and often retain some attachment to the sin (this is why Purgatory exists, as well: a soul still attached to sin is not pure enough to enter heaven even if God has forgiven all). The word “Reconcilation” captures the essence of the sacrament better than the previous terms used, though they still have their place too, to remind people that it’s not a kum-ba-yah feel-good event, but a serious, soul-altering experience.

*By “unconditional,” I mean that God does not attach any human conditions to forgiveness and absolution. By definition, of course, one cannot be reconciled to God if one still intends to make war upon Him, so having remorse and a purpose of amendment are necessary.

March 27, 2012 at 10:18 pm
(7) Tony Vasinda says:

All of the names mentioned above (Confession, Penance, Reconciliation) are appropriate, and useful. Each is mentioned in the current CCC and each highlights one of the many dimensions of this amazing Sacrament.

August 28, 2013 at 6:51 pm
(8) fiorella says:

This is so not in scripture where do you find this stuff because it does not say to do this in the bible.

December 4, 2013 at 12:19 am
(9) Jeanb says:

In a nutshell from catholic.com…

“God had sent Jesus to forgive sins, but after his resurrection Jesus told the apostles, “‘As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (John 20:21–23). (This is one of only two times we are told that God breathed on man, the other being in Genesis 2:7, when he made man a living soul. It emphasizes how important the establishment of the sacrament of penance was.)”

The apostles in-turn chose successors who continue this practice…and who are bishops of the church.

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