Vespers and Penitential Services

Author: Fr Edward McNamara

Combining them isn’t recommended

ROME, 18 FEB 2020 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Can community vespers be prayed as part of or within a penitential service? — J.B., Cincinnati, Ohio

A: Penitential services, in general, are a mixture of sacramental liturgical actions (reconciliation) and activities that can be classed as being part of popular piety. They often form part of the second form of the Rite of Reconciliation. The overall norms for this rite are the following:

“B. Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution

“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 proclaims his mercy and 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 each person has confessed his sins and received absolution, all praise 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.

“Introductory Rites

“23. When the faithful are assembled, 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.

“The Celebration of the Word of God

“24. The sacrament of penance should begin with a hearing of God’s word because through his word God calls men 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 the gospel.

“Readings should be chosen which illustrate the following:

“a) the voice of God calling men back to conversion and ever closer conformity with Christ;

“b) the mystery of our reconciliation through the death and resurrection of Christ and through the gift of the Holy Spirit;

“c) the judgment of God about good and evil in men’s lives as a help in the examination of conscience.

“25. The homily, taking its theme from the scriptural text, should lead the penitents to examine their consciences 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 sinner himself. Therefore, it would be good to recall:

“a) the infinite mercy of God, greater than all our sins, by which again and again he calls us back to himself;

“b) the need for interior repentance, by which we are genuinely prepared to make reparation for sin;

“c) the social aspect of grace and sin, by which the actions of individuals in some degree affect the whole body of the Church;

“d) the duty to make satisfaction for sin, which is effective because of Christ’s work of reparation 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 examining one’s conscience and awakening 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 is judged suitable, this communal examination of conscience and awakening of contrition may take the place of the homily. But in this case, it should be clearly based on the text of scripture that has just been read.

“The Rite of Reconciliation

“27. At the invitation of the deacon or other minister, all kneel or bow their heads and say a form of general confession (for example, I confess to almighty God). Then they stand 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 receiving a suitable act of penance, they are absolved by him with the form 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 and to praise God for his mercy. This may be done in a psalm or hymn or litany. Finally, the priest concludes the celebration with prayer, praising God for the great love he has shown us.

“Dismissal of the People

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

To these general criteria the Directory for Popular Piety published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments adds the following regarding the celebration of the sacrament of penance:

“267. For many of the faithful, a visit to a shrine is a propitious occasion on which to avail of the Sacrament of Penance. It is, however, necessary to encourage the various constitutive elements of the Sacrament of Penance:

“– the place of celebration: in addition to the traditional confessionals located in the church, it is desirable that a confessional chapel be provided for the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance and in which space is available for community preparation, and for penitential celebrations. These should always respect the canonical norms relating to the Sacrament of Penance as well as the privacy which is needed for confession. It should also provide some possibility for dialogue with the confessor.

“– preparation for the Sacrament: sometimes, the faithful require assistance in preparing for confession, especially in directing the mind and heart to God through a sincere conversion, ‘since the essence of Penance consists of this.’ The Ordo Paenitentiae provides for celebrations designed to assist preparation for confession through a fruitful celebration of the Word of God; or at least some form of suitable preparatory material being placed at the disposal of the faithful, so as to prepare them not only for the confession of sins but also for a sincere amendment of life.

“– choice of the ritual action, to lead the faithful to discover the ecclesial nature of Penance; in this respect, the Rite for the reconciliation of several penitents with individual confession and absolution (the second rite of Penance), properly prepared and conducted, should not be exceptional, but a normal celebration of the Sacrament of Penance especially at particular times of the Liturgical Year. Indeed, ‘communal celebration manifests more clearly the ecclesial nature of penance.’ Reconciliation without individual confession and absolution is a completely exceptional and extraordinary form of the Sacrament of Penance, and may not be considered interchangeable with the ordinary form of the Sacrament. The use of general absolution cannot be justified solely by the presence of great numbers of the faithful, as happens on feast days and pilgrimages.”

The circular letter Paschalis Sollemnitatis, also from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, on celebration of Lent and Easter indicates the following:

“37. It is fitting that the Lenten season should be concluded, both for the individual Christian as well as for the whole Christian community, with a penitential celebration, so that they may be helped to prepare to celebrate more fully the paschal mystery. These celebrations, however, should take place before the Easter Triduum and should not immediately precede the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper.”

There are some excellent resources available online for these penitential services, for example, the liturgy department of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales offers a series of valuable models for these services with diverse outlines, scriptural suggestions, and other prayers.

None of the above documents mentions the celebration of the Divine Office even though many elements suggested for a celebration of the Word of God are inspired by the structure of the Office.

Therefore, although there is no express prohibition with respect to communal recitation of the Divine Office in such a service, it certainly appears that Church documents, and particularly the Rite of Reconciliation, would not consider it as being pastorally effective in this context. Rather, the documents would require the preparation of an appropriate celebration of the Word attuned to the penitential and reconciliatory character of the occasion.