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The Plenary Council: Restoring the Third Rite



One of the casualties of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was the confidentiality of the Catholic Sacrament of Penance — commonly called ‘the Seal of Confession’. The Catholic bishops who responded to the Commission were unable to convince the commissioners that the seal of confession should continue to be respected, at least in some circumstances. As a result of the recommendations of the Royal Commission, now in a majority of Australian states and territories when a priest in administering the sacrament becomes aware that a child has been sexually abused, he must bring such an incident to the attention of the police.

This has placed the Catholic clergy in a difficult situation. On the one hand, they will incur automatic excommunication if they breach the inviolability of the seal of confession, even in cases of child sexual abuse. On the other hand, they will face judicial penalties and even imprisonment if they do not notify the police of any incidents of child sexual abuse, even if such incidents have only been revealed under the seal of confession.

To escape the horns of this dilemma, I have heard of some priests who have stated that they will no longer ‘hear confessions’ — administer the Sacrament of Penance. In other cases, some priests have stated that they will not grant absolution — an integral part of the Sacrament — to a penitent involved either as a perpetrator or a victim in child sexual abuse unless such a penitent agrees to repeat the information to the priest outside the confessional context. By this strategy the seal of confession will not be violated when the priest refers the incident to the police. But, of course, the penitent may refuse to cooperate with this strategy and the priest will then remain caught on the horns of the dilemma.

A further casualty of all these developments has been the Sacrament of Penance itself. As a result of the pandemic, like other religious observances, its availability has been drastically curtailed, and it is unlikely that recourse to the sacrament will be as frequent as previously even when the restrictions are lifted. Further, the confidence of the laity in the inviolability of the seal has, understandably, been undermined, a consequence of which may again be that recourse to the sacrament will be in decline. 

These are matters, I suggest, that should be addressed by the upcoming Plenary Council. It is a recent situation specific to the Australian Church and one to which a remedy should be sought. The Plenary Council would seem to be an appropriate forum in which to address these matters — the inviolability of the seal, the more limited availability of confessors and the decline in the practice of the sacrament.

For a short period in the late 1980s and 1990s the so-called ‘Third Rite of Reconciliation’ was made available at specific times in the liturgical year, usually in Lent and Advent, in preparation for Easter and Christmas. It was popular with Australian Catholics. Penitential liturgies incorporating the Third Rite were instituted in most parishes. Instead of individual face-to-face encounters with a priest in the privacy of the confessional, penitents as a congregation were invited to recall their sins mentally, express their contrition communally and receive a common absolution and penance. Many Catholics who had not ‘confessed’ for many years took advantage of the Third Rite.


'Instead of individual face-to-face encounters with a priest in the privacy of the confessional, penitents as a congregation were invited to recall their sins mentally, express their contrition communally and receive a common absolution and penance.' 


This widespread use of the Third Rite was brought to the attention of the Roman authorities. When the Australian bishops made their ad liminavisit to Rome in November, 1998, they were admonished that this widespread use ‘not infrequently occasioned an illegitimate use of general absolution’. They were instructed in effect to eliminate the practice and adhere strictly to the relevant canons in the Code of Canon Law (1983). As a result, the practice of the Third Rite disappeared virtually overnight. Subsequent appeals to reinstate the practice have, apparently, been summarily dismissed.

The relevant canons in the Code are canons 961 and 962 and read as follows:

Canon 961:

General absolution, without prior individual confession, cannot be given to a number of penitents together unless: 

  1. danger of death threatens and there is not time for the priest or priests to hear the confessions of the individual penitents;
  2. there exists a grave necessity, that is, given the number of penitents, there are not enough confessors available properly to hear the individual confessions within an appropriate time, so that without fault of their own the penitents are deprived of the sacramental grace or of holy communion for a lengthy period of time. A sufficient necessity is not, however, considered to exist when confessors cannot be available merely because of a great gathering of penitents, such as can occur on some major feast day or pilgrimage.
  3. It is for the diocesan bishop to judge whether the conditions required in n 2 are present; mindful of the criteria agreed with the other members of the Episcopal Conference, he can determine the cases of such necessity.

Canon 962:

  1. For a member of Christ’s faithful to benefit validly from a sacramental absolution given to a number of people simultaneously, it is required not only that he or she be properly disposed, but be also at the same time personally resolved to confess in due time each of the grave sins which cannot for the moment be thus confessed.
  2. Christ’s faithful are to be instructed about the requirements set out in n1 as far as possible even on the occasion of general absolution being received. An exhortation that each person should make an act of contrition is to precede general absolution, even in the case of danger of death if there is time.

This letter of the law is very restrictive, even more restrictive than its source: ‘The Rite of Penance’, authorized by the Sacred Congregation of Divine Worship in 1973 and the ‘Normae Pastorales’ of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1972. In both of these instructions the Third Rite, while extraordinary, is at least acknowledged as an alternative in certain circumstances. The Code subsequently defined these circumstances very strictly.

The principle behind the canons turns on the availability of priests to minister to the number of penitents within a circumscribed time. The current situation in Australia where the seal of confession is under threat is not obviously a candidate for the standard exercise of the Third Rite. Priests who in the current climate have decided not to make themselves available for face-to-face confession may create a temporary situation of non-availability, particularly in remote areas, but in virtually all instances another priest could be contacted in a short time to substitute and fill the vacancy. It would be interesting to speculate, however, if all the priests in a particular diocese or region declared themselves ‘non-available’, whether this would constitute a legitimate instance in terms of the canons for the exercise of the Third Rite.

Take, for instance, an inner-city, or even some outer-suburban, parishes, where there are still a significant number of penitents and where, presumably, the probability of an incident of pedophilia being confessed is more likely — anonymity is a central consideration here. Let us suppose for a moment that because of the threat to the seal of confession all the priests who minister the sacrament of Penance at one or other of these parishes declare themselves unavailable and no substitutes from the Melbourne archdiocese were willing for the same reason to step into the breach. Would this justify the Archbishop in instituting the Third Rite?


'A more relaxed set of canonical conditions for the exercise of the Third Rite might be a way in which the centrality of the Sacrament of Penance be restored to the Catholic consciousness.'


It is an unlikely scenario, and, granted the intransigence of the Roman authorities in this matter, I doubt whether they would countenance such an exception as canonically legitimate. Perhaps a more viable approach would be to seek an interpretation or an extension of, or an addition to, the notion of availability such that it encompasses situations where face-to-face confession is liable to expose the confessor to the dilemma of either ecclesial or secular penalties. Although the threat to the seal of confession is confined to the Australian states currently, I suspect that it is only a matter of time before increasingly secularized jurisdictions are going to see the exemption as an anomaly and revoke it, at least in respect of certain abhorrent crimes like child sexual abuse. So, there may be new reasons to revisit the relevant canons, and the Roman authorities may be more sympathetic to such revisions than heretofore.

Further, a relaxation of the canonical strictures to make the Third Rite more available might arrest the decline in recourse to the Sacrament of Penance. When in the 1990s the Third Rite was instituted more widely, even though it was confined to Lent and Easter, it was remarkable how many penitents emerged ‘out of the woodwork’. It was, I believe, evidence of a consciousness of sin and a desire for forgiveness and reconciliation. I suspect/hope those sentiments are still alive in the Catholic community. The prospect of face-to-face confession, however, is daunting, especially if there has been a long interval since the previous confession, and if the seal is suspected to be compromised by the recent legislation. And there is some evidence that some women in particular find face-to-face confession to a male priest in the confines of a confessional especially daunting.

So, while it is understandable that proponents of face-to-face confession — the First Rite — should continue to insist that it should remain the preferred option, it cannot be denied that as a result of a number of circumstances — closure of churches during the pandemic, the threat to the seal of confession, the more limited availability of priests — the practice of the First Rite, ‘auricular confession’, is in virtually terminal decline. Granted this situation, would not a more relaxed set of canonical conditions for the exercise of the Third Rite be a way in which the centrality of the Sacrament of Penance be restored to the Catholic consciousness? Perhaps this is a recommendation which, in view of the specific current situation in Australia, the Plenary Council could bring to the attention of the Roman authorities and hope for a sympathetic response.



Bill UrenBill Uren SJ AO is a Jesuit Priest, Scholar in Residence at Newman College at the University of Melbourne and Former Rector of the College, Jesuit Theological College and former Provincial of the Australian Jesuits. He is a graduate of the Universities of Melbourne, Sydney, Oxford and the Melbourne College of Divinity. He has lectured in moral philosophy and bioethics at the Universities of Melbourne, Murdoch and Queensland, and has served on over a dozen clinical and research ethics committees in universities, hospitals and research institutes.

Main image: Priest in confession booth. (Banksphotos/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Bill Uren, seal of confession, penance, catholic, plenary, Royal Commission, Third Rite, Reconciliation



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Existing comments

Dear Father, Every time I attended the 3rd rite in the ACT, there was a brief time for personal confession where I was absolved of my sins. In one parish we were asked to write our sins and give it to the priest when we got to him. He opened it, read it quickly, asked me if I was sorry, he gave me absolution and then I went back to my pew. Surely this would cover the need for the 1st Rite.

Gabrielle | 05 October 2021  
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‘write our sins and give it to the priest when we got to him. He opened it, read it quickly….’ I wonder why a minister-designate reads an oath of office to the Queen’s representative, instead of signing the pro forma and having it read quickly. God doesn’t read. He hears, like the Mass is heard, by him, and by us. So, we have to say. Prerogative of office, I guess, to be briefed, instead of having to read for himself, like the PM or Premier, who’s busy and doesn’t want to have to wade through waffle.

roy chen yee | 06 October 2021  

The most eloquent critique of excessive penitential formality that I have read (in my admittedly limited exposure to such discussions) is in the allegorical novel "Joshua" by Fr Joseph Girzone. His secretly returned Jesus confronts the Curia by asking them how it was that confession, meant to be a path of consolation and freedom for the soul, within responsibility, became hemmed in by all sorts of prescriptive and punitive caveats. Mercy and understanding are at times replaced with canonical parroting of the rules. Anecdotally I have also met fellow parishioners, certainly more devout that I, who go rarely to reconcile because they are offered little understanding by their confessor. What should they then do, go priest shopping perhaps? Little dignity in that, for either side. Have we forgotten that Jesus forgave out of a pastoral mindset completely other than the inquisitorial, legalist one that confessors themselves seemed forced to take at times (at least in the past). Jesus forgave the woman in adultery by simply saying: "if no-one is here to accuse you any longer, neither shall I. Go and sin no more". He doesn't demand details, even an admission of guilt, leaving it to the individual to choose the good *within their own dignity*, not within some one-size-fits-all rubric that implicitly tries to put God's mercy in a box, and is so reminiscent of the soul-killing world view of modern managerialism. I believe in the power of honest, face-to-face confession. I don't believe in jumping through institutional hoops to save the appearances of hierarchical prerogative.

Fred Green | 05 October 2021  

As someone who entered the Church with great joy in 1979 and left it with great sadness some 40 years later I am painfully reminded of a Church where legalism has so comprehensively triumphed over pastoral care.
However in this particular instance I am guessing that I am not the only ES reader to have experienced a form of the Sacrament that (presumably within legal parameters, though religious orders are perhaps a little more free in interpreting these) retained much of that lost wisdom.
The crowds that flocked before Easter and Christmas to this particular church (how sad that I dare not even name the state) and one by one silently confessed to one of the priests at the front of the church. were truly freed from the burden of their sins.
My heart aches for the Church we have lost.

Margaret | 05 October 2021  

Once again, a brilliant and insightful summation Bill, by someone whose opinion, based on exemplary knowledge of Canon Law, the relevant authorities should take on board. From my personal knowledge, many birth Catholics are troubled by the current state of the Australian Church. They have either left, attend sporadically or attend other Churches, particularly Anglican ones, where, in the High Church tradition, they find dignified services with superb hymns. Confession is available in the Anglican Church, on a voluntary basis. I would love this to be the norm in the Australian Catholic Church. I think many priests baulk at individual Confession for a number of reasons. In certain cases, where a paedophile, wife beater or other criminal behaviour is involved, the penitent may be known to the priest and also be violent, drunk or otherwise intoxicated. If the priest attempts to reason with the penitent, he could be in serious personal danger. The 'I'll bash you if you don't just forgive me, Father' scenario could become dreadfully real with an old, frail priest and a young, strong, violent criminal. We sometimes think of priests as just operatives, whereas they are real people with real lives. I think the ecclesiastical authorities here often see themselves as the equivalent of officers or RSMs, who only exist to issue orders from above to these 'other ranks'. This is dreadful. Priests need to be given real respect, a decent livelihood and be heard by the authorities.

Edward Fido | 06 October 2021  

Thank you Father Bill for your reflection on the vexed issue of Reconciliation.
Like you, I hope that the Plenary Council will pray and discern the intention of the Holy Spirit , although sadly the feel that conservatives elements will try for a continuation of the status quo . It surprises me that the Hierarchy of the Church has failed to learn from the steep decline in Church Attendance over the last half century or , evidence that there is a pastoral problem seen by nominal Catholics with the official Church. A while ago I wrote a article for John Menadue's "Pearls and Irritations" entitled "Why I remain a Catholic" . The task helped me focus on this very central issue in my life. Do we live by rules or by love? As I used to address my students as a teacher, I ask; if Jesus was to come before the Plenary Council now , how would He address the issue of the Third Rite?

Gavin O'Brien | 06 October 2021  

The human being, perhaps the most devious and scheming of all creatures, is hardly going to use the first rite of penance if he/she knows that the priest will report a particular category of sin, eg child sexual abuse, to the police. The problem with the first rite is that the graces bestowed in the sacrament don't necessarily result in "...your sins are forgiven. Go Now , and sin no more." It's too easy to walk away, sin again the same day and come back next week for renewed forgiveness. If the police are informed, however, "the sin no more" obligation is far more likely to be implemented. However, the seal as applied to the first rite must be maintained so that there is no deterrent to the genuine penitent coming forward for forgiveness and the psychological relief that comes with the interpersonal nature of the first rite compared with the third rite.

john frawley | 06 October 2021  

I am struck, Bill, by the steadfastness and acuity with which you address the question of Reconciliation falling into disuse. I appreciate also the pastorally insightful responses of Fred Green and Margaret. Eighteen months ago I was privileged to attend Mass at S. Maria Maggiore. There, as an older gay Catholic without recourse to the Sacrament after many years, not for want of approach but of the availability question that you address, I made my confession to an Irish-American priest in one of the confessionals reserved for English-speaking penitents. It was a deeply heartfelt and emotional experience for me, not simply because of the setting and congregational participation in the sung Latin Missa Gregorianis of my youth, but because the priest, from the Collegio Americana, spent ten minutes of his pastoral time with me entirely on the personal matter of my visit to Rome and where I came from. For these reasons, not only do I endorse your proposal to the Synod, but also a wider reconsideration of the Sacrament as an opportunity for the celebrant to get to know the fuller pastoral circumstances of the penitent, which deep context cannot be known without personal contact between penitent and priest.

Michael Furtado | 06 October 2021  

Gavin, you hit the nail squarely on the head. I am reminded of the story of an African-American gentleman in the 1950s, who attempted to attend a very upmarket church in New York. He was denied entrance to it. As he came down the steps he met Jesus, who asked him 'What happened?' He replied 'They wouldn't let me in.' Jesus said 'They wouldn't let me in either.' I am hoping that this Plenary Council will indeed let in the Light of the Holy Spirit. This is a big ask. It requires not just prayer in words, but truly humble and contrite hearts. The current Pope, Francis, is the best thing to happen to the Catholic Church for a long time. I believe God sent him to do something wonderful, to renew the Church and bring back its lost sheep. Arrayed against him are some pretty poweful and influential retrograde forces, with figureheads such as Cardinal Leo Burke and advocates such as Matt Fradd. The Australian hierarchy are a mixed bunch. I think Archbishop Fisher has the potential to lead the Australian Church to a good place. I wish he would be made a Cardinal and recognised as the senior cleric in Australia with all due respect, honour and responsibility. We need good leadership here just as in Rome. I pray we get it.

Edward Fido | 06 October 2021  

Gabrielle, if the 3rd rite communal celebration of Reconciliation which you attended in the ACT included an opportunity for individual confession to a priest, then those who availed themselves of that opportunity effectively received the sacrament in accordance with the 2nd rite.

John Kenny | 12 October 2021  

There is no doubt that Jesus gave his Apostles the power to forgive sins and that this was handed down, through them, to his Church. There was in his lifetime no formal Sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation. This developed later. I have nothing against auricular Confession as exists in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches. Some great Confessors, such as the Cure of Ars, had an incredibly sanctifying effect. Sadly, as the Sacrament degenerated with 'the box' system, it became a means of browbeating and grooming. The Orthodox have Confession in the open - hopefully with some privacy - and it is mandatory before receiving Communion. With a good priest it could be wonderful, with a bad one it could be abused. Any sane priest does not want to be anyone's 'spiritual controller'. They want to engender mature, self-directing Christians. There is an overlap between Confession and Psychology, which, once again, every sane priest knows. I can understand why some priests are wary of auricular Confession. This is a difficult subject and not easy of solution.

Edward Fido | 13 October 2021  

I think this article ought to be headed: To Whom It May Concern. It seems to me that from the time when I was a teenager till my present octogenarian status the stumbling block for many Catholics that tripped them into falling away from Reconciation/Confession/ Penance was having to confess sexual offences (inside or outside marriage) to a
celibate confessor. Indeed I was told by a widower grandfather who became a Catholic priest that he was swamped by male penitents because "he could speak to them as one who spoke their language." Anothet priest I knew was dobbed into his Archbishop for preaching that in his experience in his parish in the the "free love" 60s there were more sins being committed against charity than against chastity. He later asked to be laisized. The evolution of the forms of the sacrament of Confession over centuries was due more to social factors than spiritual. (The Catholic Catechism at para 1447 admits as much).
If we look at the advancements made in the social & psychological sciences (maybe even IT?) maybe the time has come for more substantial change building on what Fr Uren suggests.

Uncle Pat | 17 October 2021  

As a regular penitent I am disturbed by a recent trend in our Church involving the use of younger confessors, many from Africa, who seem to come from a different theological environment from the local clergy. This becomes clear when advice from one group is diametrically opposed to what is given by the other; a fundamentalist approach is often found to be at odds with a more pastoral attitude.
By the way, is the declining attendance the "People of God" voting with their feet, or are God's people only listened to when they are not rocking the barque?

Grebo | 20 October 2021  

I think all the missionaries who went out to Africa were extremely conscientious, devout believers, often of a conservative bent, Grebo. They also tended to stay for a long time, so possibly were not that au fait with modern trends in their own countries. So their converts were often also conservative. I think African and Indian priests often have a status in their home communities which they do not have here. They are often unfamiliar with the local ethos. Because there has been a shortage of Australian ordinands for some time, the Australian episcopate has followed the American and European example and recruited later year seminarians from India and Africa to fill the gap. I don't think this has worked.

Edward Fido | 22 October 2021  
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Edward, I would agree with what you say in response. You are offering a plausible explanation for what I see as an unfortunate reality. One of the resultant practical problem is penitents, and I specifically have in mind secondary school boys, are being given very different, almost conflicting, advice about moral problems peculiar to them. The advisers' good will is not in question. The possible consequences are.

Grebo | 26 October 2021  

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