In a Pastoral Letter dated 2 May 2000, Archbishop Barry Hickey of Perth has announced that he has written to all priests in the Archdiocese informing them that experimental versions of the Sacrament of Penance being used in some parishes must cease and that priests must "find other ways of calling people back to the practice of individual confession."
The experimental versions attempted to incorporate the Sacrament of Penance into Sunday Mass. According to Archbishop Hickey's Pastoral Letter, "One priest told me that, whereas only a handful ever went to individual confession, when this practice was introduced, around eighty percent [of those at Mass] participated."
The procedure used was to distribute to the congregation a sheet of paper which included two headings, including "My sins and failings," with room to write down "anything you think is serious sin, plus perhaps one or two others." The second heading read "How I want to change with God's help."
The sheet then instructed: "When you hand [this] to the priest, say something like: 'I am sorry for these sins'. The sheet may then be burnt as a symbol of God's forgiveness and our desire to give our lives to Him. For your penance, when you return to your seat, say a prayer for each other."
After some preliminary prayers penitents then stood in a line, communion-style, in front of one of several priests and one by one handed the priest the piece of paper. The priest read it and then gave them individual absolution. The penitents burnt the paper and then returned to their seats.
Those who wrote to Archbishop Hickey expressing their concerns about this practice were informed that while he had serious reservations about it he was tolerating the practice, subject to further authoritative advice.
It is understood that an approach was then made directly to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments asking whether there was any authoritative material applicable to the practice in question. The Congregation then initiated contact with Archbishop Hickey, asking him to suppress the experimental practices and enclosing a "Circular Letter concerning the integrity of the Sacrament of Penance" (Protocol No. 700/00/L, signed by Cardinal Medina Estevez, Prefect on 20 March 2000 - copies available from AD2000 with receipt of a stamped self-addressed envelope).
The Letter states that it is not making any new laws or rulings but simply recalling existing law and norms so as "to promote a deepening of an authentic understanding of the sacramental discipline, as well as a correct application of the rite as clearly determined by liturgical and canonical norms."
Specifically, "In accord with the law and practice of the Church, the faithful must orally confess their sins (auricular confession), except in cases of true physical or moral impossibility (e.g., extreme illness or physical condition inhibiting speech, speech impediment, etc.). This disposition would exclude communal celebrations of the sacrament in which penitents are invited to present a written list of sins to the priest confessor. It should be noted that such innovations also risk compromising the inviolable seal of sacramental confession."
The Letter goes on to stress the priority that celebrating individual and integral confession should be for all priests, quoting Pope Paul VI, "Other works, for lack of time, may have to be postponed or even abandoned, but not the confessional."
The Letter also warns against innovations that interfere with the "'inviolable and inalienable right' of the faithful" to "individual and integral confession of sins", "such as when penitents are invited or otherwise encouraged to name just one sin or to name a representative sin". Such innovations are "to be eliminated".
The Letter categorically prohibits the integration of either "the Rite of Reconciliation of several penitents with individual confession and absolution" or any form of Penitential celebration "into the celebration of the Mass". As well as being an "unauthorised innovation", "such abuses run the risk of creating confusion in the minds of the faithful as to whether a sacramental absolution may or may not have taken place".
The instruction continues: "It is to be recalled that the 'Eucharist is not ordered to the forgiveness of mortal sins - that is proper to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The Eucharist is properly the sacrament of those who are in full communion with the Church'." However, reception of the Eucharist does strengthen the faithful "in charity, 'which tends to be weakened in daily life; and this living charity wipes away venial sins ... [and] preserves us from future mortal sins'."
The Letter concludes with an exhortation to diocesan bishops to "recommend strongly the frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance, even in those cases when, after a diligent examination of conscience, penitents remain unaware of any mortal sins, both by promoting this teaching themselves and by reminding confessors to counsel the faithful that 'the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit'."
It finishes by quoting Pope John Paul II's prayer that "one of the fruits of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 be the general return of the Christian faithful to the sacramental practice of Confession."