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Vespers and Penitential Services

Combining Them Isn’t Recommended

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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.

* * *

Follow-up: Placement of the Paschal Candle

In the wake of our October 2019 reply on the possibility of a stable location of the Easter candle, our original inquirer submitted further texts for clarification.

“The General Introduction for the Order of Christian Funerals, in paragraph 35, concerning ‘Easter Candle and Other Candles,’ states:

«‘ The Easter candle reminds the faithful of Christ’s undying presence among them, of his victory over sin and death, and of their share in that victory by virtue of their initiation. It recalls the Easter Vigil, the night when the Church awaits the Lord’s resurrection and when new light for the living and the dead is kindled. During the funeral liturgy and also during the vigil service, when celebrated in the church, the Easter candle may be placed beforehand near the position the coffin will occupy at the conclusion of the procession. According to local custom, other candles may also be placed near the coffin during the funeral liturgy as a sign of reverence and solemnity.’

“I wonder how many priests know that the paschal candle does not need to be placed near the coffin and that the traditional Requiem Candlesticks are still permitted.

“Moreover, I note that the Rite of Baptism for Children (ICEL, 1969) and Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (ICEL, 1974) contain the note, in paragraph 25 of the General Introduction for Christian Initiation, that ‘After the Easter season, the Easter candle should be kept reverently in the baptistery, in such way that it can be lighted for the celebration of baptism and so that from it the candles for the newly baptized can easily be lighted.’

“This seems to have been softened significantly by the language of the current [General Instruction of the Roman Missal], which is quoted in the original e-mail.

“It doesn’t hurt to quote paragraph 34 of the same document, which states, ‘Taking into account existing circumstances and other needs, as well as the wishes of the faithful, the minister should make full use of the various options allowed in the rite.’

“While this kind of instruction leads some priests to believe that they personally should employ all options at various times, I am confident that schizophrenia is not now obligatory. I am afraid, however, that the legislator, perhaps unwittingly, is setting up the minister to be a stooge for the whims of the faithful let alone the parish liturgy committee.

“Fortunately, the same instruction carves out room for priests to be unimpeded from employing the traditional options made available to them by the Ritual.

“The more I research, the more I am led to regard as legitimate the option of leaving the paschal candle in one permanent location.

“By the way, are there basilicas in Rome with several paschal candle stands? I think of the enormous stand in St. Paul Outside the Walls. There must be another smaller stand near the baptismal font. I wonder if that is an option for parish churches: have two stands but one candle.”

While I would respectfully disagree with our reader on some points, I believe he has also suggested a solution to the practical problem of where to leave the Easter candle.

First of all, none of the language used is so absolute that a priest would be committing some sort of liturgical misdemeanor if he, for example, does not leave the candle habitually in the baptistry because he celebrates more funerals than baptisms.

The norms indicate liturgical preferences with respect to the symbolic value but do not attempt to address all the logistic questions that can occur in Catholic church buildings which vary vastly in size, shape, and style.

Hence, I believe it is clear that the preferred location for the paschal candle outside of Eastertide is the baptistry and its use is necessary during baptism. There may be, however, good practical reasons for an alternative location, and there is no obligation that the candle be visible during the year if not placed in the baptistry.

I would not agree with our reader that it is not required to place the candle near the coffin during funerals. The weight of the several documents cited all presume its presence. Even the use of the word “may” in No. 35 of the Order for Funerals seems to refer to the possibility of placing the candle “beforehand” and not whether it is placed or not. In speaking of other candles, it says “also” and hence in addition to the Easter candle.

Our reader distinguished between the candle and the stand, and here I believe lies the secret to most practical solutions. The Christian symbol is the candle, not the stand, and there is no difficulty whatsoever for a church to have an elaborate stand for the sanctuary during Eastertide and a lighter, more manageable one for the rest of the year. Indeed many parishes adopt this solution.

There is also no requirement to leave the elaborate stand in the sanctuary. Unless it is in some way fixed or has singular artistic merit, it may be stored in the sacristy during most of the year.

The 5.6-meter-tall marble Easter candle stands in St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome was sculpted around 1170 and is a masterpiece of Romanesque art. The candle is placed on top during the Easter season. Otherwise, it is placed on a much smaller stand in the baptistry which is not visible from the main body of the basilica.

The baptistry of the Basilica of St. John Lateran is a large, totally separate building that is practically a church unto itself. That of St. Mary Major is next to the sacristy and is also very spacious. The baptistry of St. Peter’s is the first chapel after entering on the Gospel side (the left as one looks toward the altar) opposite the Pietà. In all cases, the Easter candle is left in the baptistry. Due to their particular situations, funerals are less regular in these basilicas then in most parish churches.

 * * *

 Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city, and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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