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You are here: Documents > The Other Sacraments and Sacramentals > Rite of Penance, Introduction  Back one page.

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Table of ContentsIII. Offices and Ministries in the Reconciliation of PenitentsV. Penance ServicesEndnotes

IV. Celebration of the Sacrament of Penance


12. The locations for the ministration of the sacrament of penance and the place of the confessor are those prescribed by canon law.


13. The reconciliation of penitents may be celebrated in all liturgical seasons and on any day. But it is right that the faithful be informed of the day and hours at which the priest is available for this ministry. They should be encouraged to approach the sacrament of penance at times when Mass is not being celebrated and preferably at the scheduled hours. [44]

Lent is the season most appropriate for celebrating the sacrament of penance. Already on Ash Wednesday the people of God hear the solemn invitation, "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel." It is therefore fitting to have several penitential services during Lent, so that all the faithful may have an opportunity to be reconciled with God and their neighbor and so be able to celebrate the paschal mystery in the Easter triduum with renewed hearts.


14. With respect to liturgical vestments in the celebration of penance, the norms laid down by the local Ordinaries are to be followed.



15. Priest and penitents should prepare themselves above all by prayer to celebrate the sacrament. The priest should call upon the Holy Spirit so that he may receive enlightenment and charity; the penitents should compare their own life with the example and commandments of Christ and then pray to God for the forgiveness of their sins.


16. The priest should welcome penitents with fraternal charity and, if need be, address them with friendly words. The penitent then makes the sign of the cross, saying: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. The priest may also make the sign of the cross with the penitent. Next the priest briefly urges the penitent to have confidence in God. Penitents who are unknown to the priest are advised to inform him of their state in life, the time of their last confession, their difficulties in leading the Christian life, and anything else that may help the confessor in the exercise of his ministry.


17. Next, the occasion may be taken for the priest, or even the penitent, to read a text of holy Scripture, or this may be done as part of the preparation for the actual celebration of the sacrament. For through the word of God Christians receive light to recognize their sins and are called to conversion and to confidence in God's mercy.


18. Next comes the penitent's confession of sins, beginning with the general confession formulary, I confess to almighty God, if this is the custom. If necessary, the confessor assists the penitent to make a complete confession; he also encourages the penitent to repent sincerely for offenses against God; finally he offers practical advice for beginning a new life, and, where necessary, gives instruction on the duties of the Christian life .

A penitent who has been the cause of harm or scandal to others is to be led by the priest to resolve to make due restitution.

Next, the priest imposes an act of penance or expiation on the penitent; this should serve not only as atonement for past sins but also as an aid to a new life and an antidote for weakness. As far as possible, therefore, the penance should correspond to the seriousness and nature of the sins. This act of penance may suitably take the form of prayer, self-denial, and especially service to neighbor and works of mercy. These will underline the fact that sin and its forgiveness have a social aspect.


19. Next, through a prayer for God's pardon the penitent expresses contrition and the resolution to begin a new life. It is advantageous for this prayer to be based on the words of Scripture.

Following the penitent's prayer, the priest extends his hands, or at least his right hand, over the head of the penitent and pronounces the formulary of absolution, in which the essential words are: I ABSOLVE YOU FROM YOUR SINS IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER AND OF THE SON AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. As he says the final phrase the priest makes the sign of the cross over the penitent. The form of absolution (see no. 46) indicates that the reconciliation of the penitent comes from the mercy of the Father; it shows the connection between the reconciliation of the sinner and the paschal mystery of Christ; it stresses the role of the Holy Spirit in the forgiveness of sins; finally, it underlines the ecclesial aspect of the sacrament, because reconciliation with God is asked for and given through the ministry of the Church.


20. After receiving pardon for sin, the penitent praises the mercy of God and gives him thanks in a short invocation taken from Scripture. Then the priest bids the Penitent to go in peace.

The penitent continues the conversion thus begun and expresses it by a life renewed according to the Gospel and more and more steeped in the love of God, for "love covers over a multitude of sins" (I Pt 4:8).


21. When pastoral need dictates, the priest may omit or shorten some parts of the rite but must always retain in their entirety the penitent's confession of sins and acceptance of the act of penance, the invitation to contrition (no. 44), and the formularies of absolution and dismissal. In imminent danger of death, it is sufficient for the priest to say the essential words of the form of absolution, namely: I ABSOLVE YOU FROM YOUR SINS IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, AND OF THE SON, AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT.


22. When a number of penitents assemble at the same time to receive sacramental reconciliation, it is fitting that they be prepared for the sacrament by a celebration of the word of God.

Those who will receive the sacrament at another time may also take part in the service.

Communal celebration shows more clearly the ecclesial nature of penance. The faithful listen together to the word of God, which as it proclaims his mercy invites them to conversion; at the same time they examine the conformity of their lives with that word of God and help each other through common prayer. After confessing and being absolved individually, all join in praising God together for his wonderful deeds on behalf of the people he has gained for himself through the blood of his Son.

If necessary, several priests should be available in suitable places to hear individual confessions and to reconcile the penitents.


23. When the faithful have gathered, a suitable hymn may be sung. Then the priest greets them and, if necessary, he or another minister gives a brief introduction to the celebration and explains the order of service. Next he invites all to pray and after a period of silence completes the opening prayer.


24. The sacrament of penance should begin with a hearing of God's word, because through his word God calls his people to repentance and leads them to a true conversion of heart.

One or more readings may be chosen. If more than one are read, a psalm, another suitable song, or a period of silence should be inserted between them, so that the word of God may be more deeply understood and heartfelt assent may be given to it. If there is only one reading, it is preferable that it be from a gospel.

Readings should be chosen that will:

  1. let God's voice be heard, calling his people back to conversion and ever closer conformity with Christ;
  2. call to mind the mystery of our reconciliation through the death and resurrection of Christ and through the gift of the Holy Spirit;
  3. bring to bear on people's lives God's judgment of good and evil as a light for the examination of conscience.

25. The homily, taking as its source the scriptural text, should lead the penitents to examine their conscience and to turn away from sin and toward God. It should remind the faithful that sin works against God, against the community and one's neighbors, and against the person of the sinner. Therefore it would be good to recall:

  1. the infinite mercy of God, greater than all our sins, by which again and again he calls us back to himself;
  2. the need for inner repentance, by which we are genuinely prepared to make reparation for sin;
  3. the social dimension of grace and sin whose effect is that in some way the actions of individuals affect the whole Body of the Church;
  4. the duty of expiation for sin, which is effective because of Christ's expiation and requires especially, in addition to works of penance, the exercise of true charity toward God and neighbor.

26. After the homily a suitable period of silence should be allowed for an examination of conscience and the awakening of true contrition for sin. The priest or a deacon or other minister may help the faithful with brief considerations or a litany, adapted to their background, age, etc.

If it should seem suitable, the community's examination of conscience and awakening of contrition may take the place of the homily. But in this case the text of Scripture that has just been read should serve as the starting point.


27. At the invitation of the deacon or other minister, all kneel or bow down and say a form of general confession (for example, the prayer, I confess to almighty God). Then they stand, if this seems useful, and join in a litany or suitable song to express confession of sins, heartfelt contrition, prayer for forgiveness, and trust in God's mercy. Finally, they say the Lord's Prayer, which is never omitted.

28. After the Lord's Prayer the priests go to the places assigned for confession. The penitents who desire to confess their sins go to the priest of their choice. After they have accepted a suitable act of penance, the priest absolves them, using the formulary for the reconciliation of an individual penitent.

29. When the confessions are over, the priests return to the sanctuary. The priest who presides invites all to make an act of thanksgiving to praise God for his mercy. This may be done in a psalm or hymn or litany. Finally, the priest concludes the celebration with one of the prayers in praise of God for this great love.


30. After the prayer of thanksgiving the priest blesses the faithful. Then the deacon or the priest himself dismisses the congregation.



31. An individual, complete confession and the receiving of absolution remain the only ordinary way for the faithful to obtain reconciliation with God and the Church, unless physical or moral impossibility excuses from this kind of confession.

Special, occasional circumstances may render it lawful and even necessary to give general absolution to a number of penitents without their previous individual confession.

In addition to the case of danger of death, general absolution for many of the faithful who have only confessed generically, but have been rightly disposed for penance, is lawful if there is a serious need. This means a case in which, given the number of penitents, not enough confessors are available to hear the individual confessions properly within a reasonable time, with the result that, through no fault of their own, the faithful would be forced to be for a long time without the grace of the sacrament or without communion. Such a situation may occur in mission lands particularly, but in other places as well and in groups of people to whom the serious need mentioned clearly applies.

When confessors can be made available, however, the procedure is not lawful solely on the basis of a large number of penitents, for example, at some great festival or pilgrimage. [45]

32. It belongs exclusively to the local Ordinary, after consultation with other members of the conference of bishops, to make the judgment on whether the conditions stated already are verified and therefore to decide when it is lawful to give general absolution.

If, apart from the instances established by the local Ordinary, any other serious need arises for giving general absolution, a priest is bound first, whenever possible, to have recourse to the local Ordinary in order to give the general absolution. If this is not possible, he is to inform the same Ordinary as soon as possible of the need in question and of the fact of the absolution. [46]

33. With respect to the faithful, it is absolutely required for the reception of general sacramental absolution that they have the proper dispositions. This means that they repent individually of their sins, have the intention of refraining from them, are resolved to rectify scandal or injuries they may have caused, and intend to make an individual confession in due time of those serious sins they cannot at the present time confess. Priests are to take pains to instruct the faithful about these dispositions and conditions that are prerequisites for the sacrament to have its effect. [47]

34. Unless there is a good reason preventing it, those who receive pardon for serious sin through general absolution are to go to auricular confession before any further reception of general absolution. And unless a moral impossibility stands in the way, they are absolutely bound to go to a confessor within one year. For the precept binding every one of the faithful binds them as well, namely, to confess individually to a priest at least once a year all those grave sins not hitherto confessed one by one. [48]


35. For the reconciliation of penitents by general confession and absolution in the cases provided by law, everything takes place as described already for the reconciliation of several penitents with individual confession and absolution, with the following exceptions.

a. After the homily or during it, the faithful who seek general absolution are to be instructed to dispose themselves properly, that is, to have a personal sorrow for sins committed and the resolve to avoid committing them again; the intention to repair any scandal and harm caused and likewise to confess in due time each one of the grave sins that they cannot confess at present. [49] Some expiatory penance should be proposed for all to perform; individuals may add to this penance if they wish.

b. The deacon, another minister, or the priest then calls upon the penitents who wish to receive absolution to show their intention by some sign (for example, by bowing their heads, kneeling, or giving some other sign determined by the conferences of bishops). They should also say together a form of general confession (for example, the prayer, I confess to almighty God), which may be followed by a litany or a penitential song. Then the Lord's Prayer is sung or said by all, as indicated in no. 27.

c. Then the priest pronounces the invocation that expresses prayer for the grace of the Holy Spirit to pardon sin, proclamation of victory over sin through Christ's death and resurrection, and the sacramental absolution given to the penitents.

d. Finally, the priest invites the people to give thanks, as indicated in no. 29 and, omitting the concluding prayer, he immediately blesses and dismisses them.

Table of ContentsIII. Offices and Ministries in the Reconciliation of PenitentsV. Penance ServicesEndnotes

You are here: Documents > The Other Sacraments and Sacramentals > Rite of Penance, Introduction  Back one page.

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All contents © copyright, 1998-2019
The Catholic Liturgical Library