What Is a Reconciliation Service?

And Can It Substitute for Confession in the Catholic Church?

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In the 1970's and 1980's, "reconciliation services" were all the rage in the Catholic Church in the United States. In part, a response to a decline in Catholics participating in the Sacrament of Confession, reconciliation services, unfortunately, ended up accelerating that decline, to the point where the Vatican had to step in and make it clear that such services could not substitute for the sacrament itself.

When Catholic churches first started holding reconciliation services, the idea was that the half-hour or hour-long service would help prepare those who attended for participation in Confession and allow those who had been reluctant to go to Confession to see that many others were in the same boat. Such services generally took the form of Scripture readings, perhaps a homily, and a priest guided examination of conscience.​

In the early days of reconciliation services, priests from neighboring parishes would cooperate: One week, all the priests in the area would come to one parish for the service; the next week, they would go to another. Thus, during the service and afterward, multiple priests were available for Confession.

General Absolution Versus Confession

The problem began when some priests began to give "general absolution." There is nothing wrong with this, properly understood; in fact, in the introductory rites of the Mass, after we recite the Confiteor ("I confess .

. . "), the priest gives us a general absolution ("May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life").

A general absolution, however, can only absolve us from the guilt of venial sin. If we are conscious of mortal sin, we must still seek out the Sacrament of Confession; and, in any case, we should prepare for our Easter Duty by going to Confession.

Unfortunately, many Catholics did not understand this; they thought that the general absolution offered in the reconciliation service forgave all their sins and relieved them of any need to go to Confession. And, sadly, the fact that many parishes began to offer reconciliation services without providing priests for private Confession added to the confusion. (The idea was that parishioners would go to Confession later, during regularly scheduled times.) Even worse, some priests began to tell their parishioners that the general absolution sufficed and that they did not need to go to Confession.

The Fall and Rise of Reconciliation Services

After the Vatican addressed this issue, the use of reconciliation services waned, but they are becoming more popular again today—and, in most cases, they are being done right, with multiple priests available to provide all of those in attendance with the opportunity to go to Confession. Again, there is nothing wrong with such a service, as long as it is made clear to those in attendance that it cannot substitute for Confession.

If such services help prepare Catholics for the reception of the Sacrament of Confession, they are all to the good. If, on the other hand, they convince Catholics that they do not need to go to Confession, they are, to put it frankly, endangering souls.