The Church allows four different kinds of penance services. I will identify each type, and spend some time explaining the fourth type: a communal penance service.
1.The first and most common is private, individual confession. This is the most commonly used form of penance service, and most of us are familiar with it. Last month, this column was devoted to some aspects of individual confession.
2.The second type of penance service is usually called general absolution. This is very rare, and to be used only in extraordinary circumstances when the bishop authorizes it or practical needs require its use. General Absolution is given only when the number of penitents is large, and the danger of death is great, or a large number of penitents cannot wait for private individual confession because of unusual circumstances such as natural disasters, wartime conditions, and other calamities. When general absolution is given, the penitents are given absolution as a group without confessing their sins to a priest, with the understanding that they will go to individual confession at the earliest opportunity.
3.A third type of penance service is a non-sacramental penance service. This is simply a prayer service in which we acknowledge that we are sinners and pray for forgiveness and renewal. Such a penance service does not involve sacramental confession, and therefore there is no absolution or the remission of sins.
4.The fourth type of penance service is usually called a Communal Penance Service. Many parishes, including St. John the Evangelist, hold communal penance services during Advent and Lent. This is a form of sacramental confession and mixes public prayer and individual confession of sins to a priest, followed by absolution. There are some legitimate variations in the way in which this is celebrated, but a communal penance service must always include: 1) the penitents? sorrow for sin (usually expressed in an Act of Contrition); 2) confession of sins to a priest with absolution given; and 3) an act of ?satisfaction? or penance.
Usually, a communal penance service includes a Scripture reading and brief exhortation by the priest. This is followed by an examination of conscience, and then the entire community prays the Act of Contrition together. Sometimes, a single, general penance is assigned to everyone participating; at other times the assignment of a penance is done during the individual confession.
After the communal part of the ceremony, those present individually confess their sins to the priest and receive absolution (and a penance if it has not been assigned in the communal setting). The Act of Contrition is not repeated privately, because it has been part of the communal section of the service. Note that the words of absolution are said by the priest individually over the penitent. A person who participates in only the communal parts of the service has not been to confession!