From the point of view of the clergy, these communal penance services (from now on, I'll call them CPSs) are opportunities for interaction with brother Priests, and in that regard they fill in the space previously occupied by "40 Hour devotions" in the parishes, which used to be more plentiful and gave Priests a chance to eat dinner, play cards, and solve all the problems of the universal Church. Today's penance services usually have a dinner involved, and it's always a good thing when parish Priests (the majority of whom live alone) can enjoy each other's company.
So what's the "down side" to these CPSs? Here's what I've thought of:
- CPSs have largely replaced Saturday morning confessions as the time when people receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Most of the penitents I heard from last night told me their last time going to Confession was last Christmas. Yes, they're going twice a year, which I suppose is better than the bare minimum on once per year required from all Catholics. But what seems to be happening is that people are hanging on to mortal sins until the next CPS, rather than feeling the need to confess these sins immediately.
- The faithful, particularly those under 30, are so conditioned to only going to Confession at CPSs, that they do not know how to begin an individual confession (i.e. - "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been ___ since my last confession."). Also, since most of these CPSs include the recitation of an Act of Contrition communally, most younger Catholics have neither an Act of Contrition memorized, nor know that it is called "An Act of Contrition" (and so I have come to say to them, "You know, that prayer that starts with, 'O my God...'").
- Children in religious education classes are usually herded into CPSs like cattle and forced to go to Confession. Here the teaching moment has gone out of the window, with the lame (but comforting) rationalization of, "If we don't make sure they go to Confession, they won't go. Their parents sure aren't going to take them!" But are they really learning anything about their future obligation to go to confession on their own? In my opinion, what needs to be instilled in young minds is, yes, the need for the sacrament of Reconciliation, but also the need to understand that this is something you should do on your own. I don't know how to get that into their minds (especially if they don't see it lived in their family life) but I think that's the goal.
- CPSs have practically eliminated the opportunity (and the right of a penitent) for anonymous confession. We've all seen the layouts of CPSs: sets of two chairs facing each other, spread throughout a church. I think the quality of individual confessions would rise if people were assured of some degree of anonymity. A friend of mine, a high school chaplain, made lightweight confession screens, first by making the frames out of plastic PVC pipes and joints he bought at a local home improvement store, then stringing some material over the top of the frame. He noted that, once his students felt "safe", their confessions went beyond the benign and, to borrow from JP2, "put out into the depth" of their souls.
- Now, lest I be accused of only bashing CPSs, let me say this: Individual confessions are not always so well done, either. I'd wager that every Priest who reads this has had the experience of having a penitent come to confession without having made an examination of conscience (or knowing they were supposed to do so), only to get in there and give you a bunch of "ums" and "ers" since they hadn't really thought about what they would say in confession. CPSs can be beautiful; certainly having people hear Scripture passages read about God's mercy and forgiveness can only benefit our spiritual lives. And, if they are done well, an public recitation of an examination of conscience can enlighten people as to just what is considered sinful.
- If it were up to me, I'd ban the word "impatient" in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Impatience is to confession what songs like "Fame" and "My Heart Will Go On" were to radio station playlists in their respective eras: overused. From now on, "I was impatient" is like the letters R,S,T,L,N, and E on Wheel of Fortune: I'm going to give you that sin from now on and presume you've done it before you even open your mouth. For many, impatience a "safe" sin. It sounds serious enough to say, but is, in reality, pretty common (and venial). It's the "popover" of Confession: looking serious on the outside yet hollow on the inside. OK, enough metaphors; you get my drift.
- If CPSs are the way that people are now conditioned to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the 21st century, then let's abandon scheduled Saturday morning confessions. BUT, let those pastors who do so have CPSs once each month, rather than only during Advent and Lent.