Contrary to what some have asserted, Pope John Paul II did not relax the requirements for use of the so-called Third Rite of Reconciliation (communal rite with general absolution) in or around 1998.
In effect, he told the Australian Bishops at their ad limina visit to "read the instruction book", namely, the introduction to the Decree of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship on the Rite of Reconciliation (1973), especially paragraphs 31-33.
The Third Rite was never intended to be the norm. In fact, par 31 states quite clearly: "Individual, integral confession and absolution remain the only ordinary way for the faithful to reconcile themselves with God and the Church."
The Decree then outlines the strict conditions for legitimate use of the Third Rite - "particular, occasional circumstances may render it lawful and even necessary to give general absolution to a number of penitents," for example, in battle conditions.
Par 33 makes it clear that those aware of grave sins must "resolve to confess in due time each one of the grave sins" (in a subsequent confession). This is required for the validity of any general absolution.
It is worth repeating that the above and other necessary conditions were set out clearly in the 1973 Decree. Pope John Paul II added nothing.
Yet correction of abuses of the Third Rite continues to present difficulties in some dioceses, with general absolution still being made available in the Toowoomba Diocese in recent times.
In another Queensland diocese (Rockhampton), it would seem there has been offered what might be described as a "Fourth Rite of Reconciliation".
Two sample penitential services were distributed to all parishes for use or adaptation as part of their preparation for last Christmas. They "were written by participants" in the 2005 Pastoral Liturgy Course.
The prayers contained in the services did not present any obvious problems. However, there were some disquieting features:
* an inadequate examination of conscience;
* the note at the end of one of the services which states: "Individual confession may be offered after the penitential service" (emphasis added). In other words, sacramental confession seems to be merely an option. This note is not included at the end of the other services;
* the services can be conducted by a lay person, as the end blessing in each case is given in the "lay form";
* in one of the services the "Presider" states: "Now let us turn to God our Father and ask him to free us from evil" - which could easily be construed as some form of absolution;
* the impression could easily be conveyed that all that is required for forgiveness of sins is for an individual to attend one of these services in Advent and/or Lent.
The services are not examples of the Second Rite nor of the Third Rite. So what else can they be other than what amounts to a "Fourth Rite"?
Involved here as well is a further blurring of the distinction between the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of the laity.
As has been the case for far too long regarding the Church's liturgical and sacramental practices, confusion continues to reign supreme.