Unfortunately, there have been times when this good and holy practice has experienced some anamolies. Well-meaning individuals sometimes take it upon themselves to introduce innovations that, sadly, manage to distort the true nature of these services and blur the meaning of sacramental confession.
Some of these illicit practices include presenting the priest with a written list of sins in lieu of oral confession and general absolution (wherein the celebrant absolves the faithful en masse without having heard their individual confessions).
In the year 2000, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, under the direction of the Venerable Pope John Paul II, issued the Circular Letter Concerning the Integrity of the Sacrament of Penance. The letter came as a result of some issues of grave abuse regarding the handling of the Communal Penance Services.
The document first treats the issue of presenting a written list of sins to the priest by stating that:
In accord with the law and practice of the Church, the faithful must orally confess their sins (auricular confession)9, except in cases of true physical or moral impossibility (e.g., extreme illness or physical condition inhibiting speech, speech impediment, etc.) This disposition would exclude communal celebrations of the sacrament in which penitents are invited to present a written list of sins to the priest confessor. It should be noted that such innovations also risk compromising the inviolable seal of sacramental confession.Sadly, this practice is common in not a few parishes. To compound this illicit practice, some parishes encourage the penitents to take their list of sins, place them in a bowl and then burn them. While the significance might be well-meaning, it has no place in the Rite. It's almost as though we are taking it upon ourselves to take the Rite and make improvements that we see as fitting. Unfortunately, these "edits" only make things even more confusing to the faithful.
The document then goes on to tackle the issue of "general absolution." Here, it makes the point quite clear that this particular form should be exercised only in grave circumstances:
. . . communal celebrations have not infrequently occasioned an illegitimate use of general absolution. This illegitimate use, like other abuses in the administration of the Sacrament of Penance, is to be eliminated.The teaching of the Church is reflected in precise terms in the requirements of the Code of Canon Law (cf. esp. canons 959-964). In particular it is clear that "A sufficient necessity is not ... considered to exist when confessors cannot be available merely because of a great gathering of penitents, such as can occur on some major feastday or pilgrimage" (canon 961, § 1, 2°).
The bishops will exercise renewed vigilance on these matters for the future, aware that departures from the authentic tradition do great wrong to the Church and to individual Catholics.10
4. With respect to the administration of "general absolution", the exclusive authority enjoyed by diocesan bishops to determine whether a grave necessity is truly present in a given case in their diocese 11 does not permit them "to change the required conditions, to substitute other conditions for those given, or to determine grave necessity according to their personal criteria however worthy."12 Indeed, the Diocesan Bishop makes "this judgment graviter onerata conscientia, and with full respect for the law and the practice of the Church."13
The CDWDS does not mince words here. It extolls the practice of having Communal Penance Services. However, these should not be treated as hotbeds for experimentation and creativity.
I have seen the fruits of these particular services throughout my own little corner of South Texas. While the lines are long, the priests make the time for each individual penitent. It is not an assembly-line operation. The priests spend themselves, taking to heart what the CDWDS noted when it stated that:
5. Local Ordinaries and priests, to the degree that it applies to them, have an obligation in conscience to ensure that penitents have regular and frequent scheduled opportunities for individual and integral confession of sins in all parish churches and insofar as possible in other pastoral centres.14 In addition, priests are called upon to be generous in making themselves available outside of those scheduled times to celebrate individual and integral confession whenever the faithful would reasonably ask for it.15 "Other works, for lack of time, may have to be postponed or even abandoned, but not the confessional."16
My father serves as an EMHC to the elderly and the homebound. He tries to make it a point to have the Sacrament of Penance available to them. His pastor gladly obliges to go to the senior citizens home to hear the confessions of the homebound, even to the point of going to the individual rooms.
Confession, whether as part of the Communal Penance Service or the weekly parish schedule, stands as an integral part of our sacramental life. Just as we go to see our medical doctors to cure whatever ails us, we should take the time to make that trip into the confessional to encounter the Divine Physician, in the person of the priest, to bring healing to our souls. However, just as the doctor should not make a general diagnosis of everyone in the waiting room, nor should a general absolution be imparted to the faithful unless the particular conditions for same are met. Just as we need to tell the doctor where the pain is (unless we are impeded from vocalizing it), so should we orally confess our sins to the priest (unless we are physically unable to do so).
Those wishing to read the document may find it in its entirety by clicking on the link below:
It's an invaluable resource for both Advent and Lent, the two seasons of the liturgical year when these services are widely held.