Penitential services for parishes

Anthony Zimmerman
Reproduced with Permission

Cardinal James Francis Stafford has stated that the current Church crisis is a crisis of parish life, and that, in his judgment this "should lead us to a further exploration of a restoration of the "Ordo Poenitentium" -- the Order of Penitents -- that was present in the patristic Church." He continued:

A restructuring, a renewal, a rediscovery of the "Ordo Poenitentium," for example as in the early Church, would be an opportunity in which priests and people would recognize their sinfulness, would be willing to surrender in their vulnerability to the tough love of the community in making known their weakness, their sinfulness, and asking for a public penance (Zenit News, August 23, 2003).

For a time a public Rite of Penitents existed in the early Church which admitted sinners who sought reconciliation. Excluded however, were the sins of idolatry, murder, and fornication, The Bishop prescribed the penance, called Exomologesis, and when the prescribed penance was completed, the penitent could then ask for absolution and be publicly admitted back into the Church.

The public penance was severe, however, and probably few submitted to it. In one form, the penitents would be dressed in a special garb, fast and abstain during the time prescribed by the Bishop. They would put ashes on their head and kneel at the door of the church beseeching the prayers of the faithful who passed into the church for services. Probably many of them felt that those who passed into the church for Mass were no better than themselves.

Public sinners were thus publicly reprimanded, and that kept an awareness alive that sin was sin and must be recognized as such. Besides the public penance, there was also private Confession, as is indicated, for example, by the first century document, the Didache. It tells those who assemble for the Eucharistic Sacrifice to "First confess your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure." St. Polycarp, who died in 110, appears to urge the priests to be gentle to sinners:

Chapter VI. The Duties of Presbyters and Others.
And let the presbyters be compassionate and merciful to all, bringing back those that wander, visiting all the sick, and not neglecting the widow, the orphan, or the poor, but always "providing for that which is becoming in the sight of God and man; "abstaining from all wrath, respect of persons, and unjust judgment; keeping far off from all covetousness, not quickly crediting [an evil report] against any one, not severe in judgment, as knowing that we are all under a debt of sin. If then we entreat the Lord to forgive us, we ought also ourselves to forgive; for we are before the eyes of our Lord and God, and "we must all appear at the judgment-seat of Christ, and must every one give an account of himself."

Pope St. Calixtus (218-222) ruled that idolatry, murder, and fornication should also be reconcilable through the Exomologesis, much to the wrath of Tertullian. But few chose to do the public Exomologesis, with the result that there were secret sinners in the flocks. Others chose to put off Baptism until after the storms of youth had passed. The system had its drawbacks.

It had been a custom, which St. Calixtus allowed in his diocese, that sinners could by-pass the Exomologesis if they obtained a libellum from one of the steadfast Christians in prison awaiting martyrdom. The system was quickly abused, as some of the jailed confessors gave out libella wholesale without even meeting their clients. The martyrs in jail where getting more attention than the bishops who should reconcile sinners after an Exolomogesis, by a laying on of hands. Wherefore St. Cyprian tightened up the system, requiring that the martyr specify by name the sinner that requests the libellum. There must be no more collective notes reconciling sinners without need of a bishop.

To this the priest Novatian objected, who opposed any reconciliation whatsoever, and went into schism. He had a considerable following, the "pharisees" in the Church who insisted that to absolve from crimes such as apostasy was beyond the power of the Church.

I write all this to indicate that the "solutions" of the early Church cannot help us much today, when a majority of couples are likely on the Pill or other, and 60% of couples eventually resort to surgical sterilization. Among couples with at least one child, in which the woman is in the age category of 35-44, 68,3% were surgically sterilized for contraceptive purposes according to a government survey (1988, Advanced Data issued by National Center for Health Statistics, Dec. 4, 1990). Much as in the year 250 a majority of Christians in many areas were apostates of sorts, so today a majority of our people are contracepting by pill or surgery.

Emperor Decius had given a choice of sorts, apostatize or die; that was too much for many to bear. Today the pressure to stop at two children is a fashion, hard to resist. It is time for the pastors to find a way for their faithful to live with the problem and remain in the Church. Moreover, a number of theologians have dissented from the Encyclical Humanae Vitae, and this has broken down barriers for the millions. Large numbers of Christians no longer follow the ban against contraception, no longer confess their sins, and are confused about Church teaching and the means of eternal salvation. Following the suggestion of Cardinal Stafford, then, who recognizes that renewal must begin in the parishes, may I offer this penitential rite adapted to current needs.

The ideal manner to carry out the rite is that four or five priests should be available for private confession before, during and after the penitential rite. This may mean that four or five parishes arrange to hold the rite in one parish after another on successive weeks of Lent and of Advent, The Bishop may best propose the arrangements for the rite in his diocese.

I propose the drafts for two penitential rites a year, one during Lent, the other during Advent. My hope is that it will inspire some of the bishops to begin - in their own way. I suggest that if a Bishop mandates this to his pastors, the pastors will have an easier excuse to begin the innovation in their parish. Perhaps experiments in one or the other parishes is indicated. I further suggest that the pastor himself, not a substitute, preside at the rites. This will prevent his escaping from his obligations. Oremus.

Humbly and joyfully yours in the Lord,

Fr. Anthony Zimmerman, STD
Retired professor of Moral Theology
Nanzan University, Nagoya, Japan
See my site:

Penitential Rite Number One

On Ash Wednesday or at an opportune time during Lent (Proposed by Fr. Anthony Zimmerman STD)

1. The Law of God is Holy

Pastor at Lectern: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

We have come together in solidarity with all the members of our parish to ask the Good Shepherd to guard His sheep, especially those of this parish. We live in a secularist world where sins against the Sixth Commandment are epidemic and are even promoted by the media. We must not live lives of shame, but must keep our vessels in holiness. Saint Paul preached a Gospel of holiness even to the people of Corinth and of Thessalonica where sexual sins were rampant, as they are now in our secular society. Paul said to them:

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and of spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God (2 Cor 7:1). (Paul also said): For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness (1 Thes. 4:3-5,7).

We know that when we trifle with the laws of God, we invite personal disaster, for sin separates us from the all loving God, God drove Adam and Eve out of Paradise after they had sinned. To sin against GodŐs law is a major event in our lives, as it was for our Adam and Eve. And that is why we have come together tonight to reflect on the laws of God, to ask for forgiveness of our sins, and to renew our obedience to God.

While we live, God invites us to be reconciled to Him through the merits of Jesus Christ our Savior. But once we die, there is no second chance. We will live with the choice we made forever, whether in heaven with God, or in hell away from God. Our eternal condition will be happy or miserable. As the tree falls, so it remains forever.

By free choice the good angels adored God and obeyed Him, and in consequence God admitted them to eternal joys. Whereas the disobedient angels rejected God and His laws, and they were cast out from GodŐs presence forever. Sadly we see that there is no repentance for the angels after their fall, just as there is no repentance for man after death (CCC 393). But we, we have a second chance, and a third. And just as Jesus said that we should forgive our neighbor not seven times but seventy times seven times, so we too can ask God repeatedly to forgive us our sins and to help avoid them in future.

During this season of Lent we invite Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to come into our midst, and to enlighten us with a deep understanding that the law of God is holy. Our first reading calls to mind the fact that we are created in GodŐs image. For that very reason, we have an obligation to conduct our lives as children of God.

Reader: A reading from the Book of Genesis: (Gen 1:26-31).

Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." God said, "See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Congregation: Lord, thou has made us in thy own image and likeness. We are thy image because we have minds that can understand truth; we are thy likeness because we are inclined to choose that which is good. Forgive us, Lord, for having so often followed lies with our minds instead of truth; forgive us also for having embraced evil with our wills instead of goodness. We pray now as Moses once prayed, that Jesus, the new Moses, will intercede for us and that thou willt once again forgive us our sins, and the sins of the world:

"O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, 'I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'" And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people (Exodus 32:11-14).

Pastor: By his fervent prayer Moses placated the wrath of God who then changed His mind and desisted from punishing and abandoning Israel on that occasion. When King David had sinned by adultery and murder, he implored God's forgiveness with the words of the Miserere Mei Deus, and God truly forgave him. We too ask for forgiveness and for grace to renew our lives by singing the words ascribed to David:

All: (Sing): Miserere mei Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.

Et secundum multititudem miserationum tuarum, dele iniquitatem meam. Amplius lava me ab iniquitatem mea; et a peccato meo munda me.

Jesus, Mary, Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul.

2. Abstinence until the time of marriage - Focus on the adolescents of the parish

Pastor: We confess to God that it is wrong for any of the young people of this parish, and for all the young people of our nation, to engage in sexual intercourse outside of marriage. All the more, co-habitation without marriage is sinful, and this practice usually weakens the real marriage bond that may follow. As Pope John Paul II said to the Roman Rota (21 January, 1999), there is an "essential difference between a mere de facto union - even though it claims to be based on love - and marriage, in which love is expressed in a commitment that is not only moral but rigorously juridical. The bond reciprocally assumed has a strengthening effect, in turn, on the love from which it arises, fostering its permanence to the advantage of the partners, the children, and society itself." We pray to God that in this parish, marriages are loving and permanent.

During the past forty years a mistaken type of sex education has invaded our schools, which practically invites our youth to engage in sex while using Pills or Depro-Provera and other forms of contraceptives. This is entirely contrary to the duty of educators to give moral guidance to the young. As the Pontifical Council of the Family declares:

The use of contraception, which is fostered by active propaganda among young people through so-called "sex education" courses has negative effects that are well known today. The information provided in these courses is often limited to instruction on how to use contraceptives. Sex education centered on an individualŐs sexual impulses and the "risk free" means to satisfy them is poor preparation for the mature, responsible love of adult sexuality that has the nature of a gift and finds its proper place in the family. Sometimes this kind of education tends to distance children from their parents in the name of the young people's "sexual rights" (Oss. Rom. English Weekly Edition 10 September 2003).

It should be no surprise that sexually transmitted diseases follow this time of perverted sex education. Let the word go forth from this parish today that our youth will challenge the trends, that they will be different. They will save sex for their future spouse and present their gift then for the first time. Let us listen to the beautiful message that Mother Teresa gave to the young people of Sophia University in Tokyo in 1982:

Reader: Message of Mother Teresa to university students in Tokyo

But before I leave here I would like to give an advice to our young people. It is very beautiful for a young man to love a young woman; and a young woman to love a young man. It's beautiful. But one thing I ask you is that you make a resolution in your life that, on the wedding day, when you decide to marry each other, that you are able to give to each other as a gift the best gift of your love a virgin heart, a virgin body. Never touch each other before you can taste each other as one heart full of love. This is my prayer for you that you make of your life together something beautiful for God.

And if the mistake is made, that a girl is expecting a child, do not destroy the child; that is a greater sin; it's a real murder. Help each other to accept the child, and to give the child your love and care; because that child is created in the image of God. So help each other not to destroy, not to abort the child; not to kill the child; but to accept it as you have wanted; so that you may be able to live together with that child. Maybe it was the mistake of passion, but still that life is God's life, and you -- the two of you together -- must protect it, must love it, and must take care of it. Because that child is created in the image of God, the gift of God.

Pastor: Even though half of the young people of this nation indulge in sex before marriage, our young people of this parish will abstain as God asks them to do. Even though there are close to a million pregnancies among juveniles of this nation, our parish is an island where the young are resolved to practice chastity, Even though sexually transmitted diseases infect 65 million Americans today, we ask the Lord to spare the people of this parish. It is reported that 45 million have incurable genital herpes, with a million new cases annually. And 20 million are infected with the Human Papilloma virus, with 5.5 million new cases per year. Syphilis is again spreading like a desert fire, and are Gonorrhea and Chlamydia, not to mention the half million citizens infected by the HIV virus. By age 24, at least one of three persons who are sexually active have contracted a sexually transmitted disease (Kaiser Foundation Report, NCR, August 17-23, 2003).

Human Papilloma virus, with 5.5 million new cases

On the occasion of the visit of Pope John Paul II to Pompeii, October 7, 2003 he looked at the signs of catastrophe left by Vesuvius when liquid fire buried the city alive. He reflected that the ruins of the ancient city "are witnesses to a great culture" that has vanished into the annals of history." Their witness, he observed, raises "disquieting questions" about the future of any civilization that loses its moral bearings. He told the faithful, "We must proclaim Christ to a society that is distancing itself from Christian principles and even losing its memory of them."

We ask the Lord to correct and forgive the people of the media who abuse television, video, radio, the theater, advertising and print by promoting sins against chastity. We wallow in pornography, we trivialize sex outside of marriage, we maliciously promote sinful sex in our clinics at schools, and in classroom sex education that is little short of pornography. Our supermarkets display salacious magazines, our Internet provides free access to sexual titillation.

Lord, we have been allowing Planned Parenthood and their like to pervert our youth In universities and colleges, in high schools, even in grade schools. By arousing our young to engage in sex before marriage we divert them from the pursuit of studies and from forming strong and honest characters. We sometimes even oppose education in abstinence until marriage, perhaps because we ourselves are not without sin. In our country of the USA, so blessed by thy goodness, nearly a million juveniles become pregnant each year. We allow the young to abort their children, and so to experience the crime of Cain. We are so permissive of sex without marriage that one out of three children is born without having a father in the house to nourish, love and educate it. Civilization is being unhinged with crime and drugs, health is compromised with sexually transmitted diseases, divorce and re-marriage have become routine. All this is wrong. No member of our parish should contribute to Planned Parenthood, and if any are employed by this organization, they should quit and find another job. If the following news item is true, for example, then we know for certain that Planned Parenthood promotes sex, and sex, and still more sex among our school children and youth:

Virginia Planned Parenthood Targets Teens With New Outreach Roanoke, VA -- Pro-life activists in Virginia fear that Planned Parenthood is targeting teenage girls with a campaign that could lead them to abort their unborn children. Planned Parenthood of the Blue Ridge has launched a monthly "teens only" clinic in the Roanoke Valley, offering teenagers "free, confidential reproductive medical and educational services without requiring parental consent." -- /

Reader: A reading from the Book of Daniel:

"O Lord, the great and terrible God, who keepest covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from thy commandments and ordinances; we have not listened to thy servants the prophets, who spoke in thy name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land (Daniel 9:4-6).

Pastor: Lord, bring the wickedness of the media and of all who thrive on promoting sinful sex to nought:


Why dost thou stand afar off, O LORD?
Why dost thou hide thyself in times of trouble?
In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor;
let them be caught in the schemes which they have devised.
For the wicked boasts of the desires of his heart,
and the man greedy for gain curses and renounces the LORD.
In the pride of his countenance the wicked does not seek him;
all his thoughts are, "There is no God" (Psalm 10:1-4).
A young man and a young lady step forward:
What is your desire?

Youths: We represent the young people of this parish. We wish to sign a promise to abstain from the use of sex until the day we are married.

Are you sure that you will keep this promise?

Yes, we are resolved to do so with the help of God and the intercession of the blessed Virgin Mary. We also intend to make a monthly confession. Please allow us to sign the pledge before this congregation that we will abstain from sexual acts until marriage.

Will you also abstain from the occasions of sin, from being seduced after drinking, from watching forbidden types of entertainment?

We are resolved from this day forth to do all that the Lord asks us to do, to avoid what He asks us to avoid, with the help of His grace and the encouragement of our parish.

The pastor supplies certificates. All the young people of the parish rise as the two sign the pledges and place them on the altar. Those who wish can now step forward to take a certificate with them, to sign them at their homes in the presence of their parents.

Pastor and Congregation together: Lord, help the young people of our parish to practice abstinence until the time of marriage. Help them to turn to thee with shining faces, and so save themselves for their future spouse, to be pure, to remain free of sexual diseases, to become sturdy members of our society and of the civilization of love. We pray also that we and they together will avoid the occasions of sin when watching television and videos and all the other media. We ask this through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

"Hail Mary ..." (three times). Then:

"Mother most pure, help the young of our parish to be chaste."

3. Marriage for life. Divorce and Unfaithfulness - Focus on the younger married couples of the parish

Pastor: Everyone would agree that divorce is the greatest tragedy that can befall a family. This is why the Catholic Church from time immemorial has been struggling to protect the family from the tragedy of divorce. The number of divorces in our country has grown all out of proportion during the past 40 years. We of this parish must be different, for Christ asks that when we marry, we marry for life.

Whether by coincidence or by cause, the statistics indicate that divorces exploded from the time the birth control Pill came into usage. In the USA, there were 393,000 divorces in 1960, roughly the time when the pill episode started. Then the dam cracked, and divorces increased to over a million by 1975 and every year since then. Divorce must not be the way of life in this parish. The Lord calls married couples to holiness and to joy, as He blessed the newlyweds in Cana. to lead holy lives and make ourselves pleasing to God.

In an address to the Roman Rota, 28 January 2002, Pope John Paul II pointed out that "The prevailing culture favours the separation of spouses and divorce as the solution to a couple's problems." Such may be the prevailing culture of the world, but our parish must be different. We simply remain faithful to the Christian way of life. In our parish we work together for the stability of our families.

In our parish those who have divorced and re-married refrain from receiving Holy Communion until they rectify their condition. As the Church explains:

They are unable to be admitted thereto (to Holy Communion) from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage" (Familiaris Consortio 84).

When we call to mind the divorce statistics of so-called "developed" nations of the world, we ask whether life-time marriage can long endure if governments do not obey God's law in this matter. The "No fault" divorce laws that were introduced in the United States and other nations during the 1970s and are being expanded today into other regions of the world have given rise to an industry that makes divorce its business, the more, the better. Judges, lawyers, court agents, police, social service employees, all in great numbers depend now upon a substantial part of their livelihood that is derived from divorce-related activities.

The campaign (for "no fault" divorce) was based on misleading information from the start. Laws advertised as allowing couples to divorce without legal grounds by mutual consent actually created involuntary or unilateral divorce, permitting one spouse to dissolve a marriage for any reason or no reason without incurring any liability for the consequences. "In all other areas of contract law, those who break a contract are expected to compensate their partner or partners," writes Robert Whelan, "hut under a system of 'no-fault' divorce, this essential element of contract law is abrogated. Divorce comes to be regarded as one of those things that just happens."3

In fact, the legal implications go further, since the courts do not remain neutral, but invariably side with the violator of the agreement to punish the faithful spouse. Attorney Steven Varnis points out that "the law generally supports the spouse seeking the divorce, even if that spouse was the wrongdoer, by granting divorces with little regard for a spouse who may not desire it"4 (Steven Baskerville, "Strengthening marriage through divorce and custody reform," The Family in America, May, 2004).

If a good number of Catholics and other Christians remain faithful to the law about marriage that Christ here renewed in the Sermon on the Mount, they will be the surviving groups that continue to populate the earth generation after generation.

Let us reflect on these truths which we cannot deny, let us offer our prayers and sufferings for couples and children who are in trouble, let us most of all ask God for the forgiveness of our sins and for the grace of stability of marriage of the members of our parish.

Reader: A reading from the Gospel according to Matthew
Jesus said to the Pharisees: "Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder" (Matthew 19: 4-6).
A young couple steps forward:

Pastor: What is your desire?

Young couple: We represent young married couples of this parish who may have sinned by unfaithfulness and by divorce. So many of us have sinned by sexual acts before marriage that we have entered marriage itself with weak resolve. Then we sinned even more by contraception, thus blocking GodŐs grace out of our family life. Finally we divorced and then attempted re-marriage. Because we were sinning, we did not give our children a good example and a proper education toward holiness of life. We young couples are in a bad way, with our bloated divorce statistics, our traumatized post-divorce consciences, our unhappy children who take drugs to calm restless spirits.

Pastor with congregation: We turn to the Lord our God to ask forgiveness for all the sins committed by the married couples of this parish, for sins of divorce, for sins that lead to divorce, for sins after divorce. Forgive our sins and have mercy on us.

Next Page: Reader: A reading from the Book of Lamentations
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