Liturgical Catechesis:  Penance

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Reconciliation Services

Communal penance services are among the newest and most popular services to appear on the liturgical horizon.  Penance, the chameleon of sacraments, has changed its color to blend with its historical, cultural, and personal environment more than any other sacrament.  The newest mutation is the communal penance service (with individual confession), or, to give the official title, the "Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution."  Now quite common, it is brand spanking new in church history.

The penance service may take place any time of year, but it has become a mainstay of parish liturgical life in Advent and Lent.  The rite's structure permits some flexibility.  Consequently, preparing the service has posed an opportunity for the liturgically creative, and a headache for ritual minimalists.

In preparing the penance service, the Rite of Penance still provides the best resource (46-59).  Too often, creative penance services ignore the basic grammar of liturgy: the inclusion of Scripture, the sequence of ritual parts, or the thanksgiving that concludes the absolutions.  The Rite of Penance offers an open field in which creativity may ripen and provide a refuge for those who don't know where to begin.

The Prayer of the Penitent

The revised rite of individual confession contains something very traditional - the prayer of the penitent.  The new text for the prayer may be chosen from many options, but look at this one (45).

My God,
I am sorry for my sins with all my heart.
In choosing to do wrong
and failing to do good,
I have sinned against you
whom I should love above all things.
I firmly intend, with your help,
to do penance,
to sin no more,
and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.
Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for us.
In his name, my God, have mercy.

It's what is more commonly known as "the act of contrition."  Catholics memorized that prayer according to one of many variations.  For example:

O my God,
I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee,
and I detest all my sins
because I fear the loss of heaven
and the pains of hell,
but most of all because they offend Thee, my God,

Who art all good and deserving of all my love.
I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace
to sin no more, to do penance,
and to amend my life.

When folks just go to private confession, the prayer of the penitent often plays a minor role.  Some priests do not invite the penitent to offer the prayer at all, figuring he or she probably said the act of contrition before entering the confessional.  It saves time that way, you see.  And some penitents, if they haven't had the chance to say the prayer, pray it aloud while the confessor gives absolution.  Well, they were taught to do that.  It saves time, too.

The prayer remains a major cause of the penitent's stress.  Many wonder, "What if I forget?" and use it as an excuse not to celebrate the sacrament.  Some mumble through it, hoping the priest won't notice.  The prayer, memorized by virtually every Catholic child, has prompted some of confession's most amusing malapropisms.  Jim Dunning has collected his favorites in the following version:

O my God,
I am hardly sorry for having offended Thee,
and I digest all my sins
because I dread the lusts of heaven and the pains of hell,
but most of all because I defend Thee, my God,
Who art all good and deserving of all my sins.
I firmly resolve in spite of Thy grace
to confess my sins, to do penance,
and to end my life.

But the penitent is free to make up a prayer.  Many Catholics freeze out when asked to improvise a prayer.  Sometimes they talk about God, rather than to God.  But all they need to do is tell God they're sorry and will try to do better.

Textual Comparison

Comparing the prayer of the penitent with the old act of contrition deserves a longer study, but noteworthy is the reason why the penitent confesses sin.  In the older version of the prayer, the reason is that the penitent "fears the loss of heaven and the pains of hell."  This prayer reinforced the fear that the sins of even a weekly confession would lead to eternal damnation if not confessed.  No wonder people went to confession before every communion.  The line mellowed out in later versions with the expression "because of thy just punishments."  But the effect is the same.

Now the prayer of the penitent confesses sin by acknowledging one "should love (God) above all things."  It analyzes the wrong that was done and questions its motive, while avoiding the threat of eternal damnation.

This liturgical prayer parallels the moral development evident in humans: In early childhood, we avoid evil because we fear punishment ("because I fear the loss of heaven and the pains of hell."  Later, we avoid evil because we believe in a spirit of fairness ("because of thy just punishments.")  In adulthood, we avoid evil because we care for others, and we see the good avoiding evil can do ("whom I should love above all things.")

The prayer of the penitent poses an unusual case where the liturgy has followed insights in moral development, and adapted the text - like a chameleon - to fit the needs of society.


Use of the prayer differs for individual confession and the communal rite.

Strangely when we confess privately the prayer of the penitent is the only prayer in the liturgy.  There's a greeting, an optional reading, the confession of sins, absolution, the proclamation of praise of God and dismissal.  However, the only time a single word is actually addressed to God is the prayer of the penitent.  The priest speaks to the penitent; it's the penitent who speaks to God.  That raises the importance of this little prayer.

Matters are different in the communal rite.  There, since communal liturgy is more formal, the prayers to God are more numerous, and are indeed spoken by the presider.  Although the prayer of the penitent is not called for in the communal rite, it could be included.  Prior to the individual confession of sins, the whole assembly confesses sins together with the confiteor and a litany found at no. 54 in the rite.  The prayer could replace the confiteor to begin this section, or conclude the litany.  Priests should not ask penitents to recite the prayer while hearing individual confessions in the midst of the communal rite.  The liturgy has already invited their prayer of sorrow.

As you celebrate Lent and Holy Week this year, invite your community to grow familiar with the penitent's prayer.  It may help shape a mature sense of sorrow.

This article first appeared in Modern Liturgy 28/10 (December 1993 January 1994):21-23.

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