Does Confession Have a Place in the Paschal Triduum?

Should confessions be scheduled during the Paschal Triduum? Once upon a time, that question would have been a non-question. Youthful memories remind me of confession lines on Holy Saturday. More recent ones, too. I’m proud to have a pastor who demonstrates priestly charity and hears confessions on Holy Saturday morning.  

But the question remains pertinent because there are some lingering views, which were much more common in the 1980s, against scheduling confessions in that period. I wrote against that position in Homiletic and Pastoral Review back in 1984; but I see that, in some quarters, bad ideas die hard.

The logic behind not scheduling confessions in the Paschal Triduum is based on an anachronistic reading of liturgical history irrelevant to contemporary pastoral practice and needs. In the ancient Church, penitents were formally reconciled by the bishop on Holy Thursday morning. That is when those who had been enrolled in the order of penitents were received back into the Church. This ancient historical practice then gets combined with the current liturgical norm that the Paschal Triduum is a distinct liturgical season and not part of Lent. On the basis of these facts, the argument is that the penitential period should conclude with the penitential season of Lent and not extend into the separate and distinct Paschal Triduum, into which—as a result of Lenten practice—all should enter reconciled.

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I reject this line of argumentation for several reasons. One is that it is anachronistic: yes, in the ancient Church penitents were reconciled by the bishop on Holy Thursday morning. But the sacrament of Penance as it existed in that era differed from how it subsequently evolved in the Church. In antiquity, public penance for serious sins preceded absolution; it did not follow it. “Private” or auricular confession, as we know it, developed later. To transpose a disciplinary practice associated with the sacrament as it then existed onto the sacrament as it now exists may satisfy some liturgists’ fancies, but it is historically groundless.  

That the Paschal Triduum is a distinct liturgical season is true. That it would be a good thing for people to enter that season better prepared spiritually would be good, too.

But that such things are good does not make the contrary practice bad.

Vatican documents like the “Circular Letter on Preparing and Celebrating the Paschal Feasts” make clear the sacrament of Penance can be celebrated during the Paschal Triduum. As noted, many parishes have recovered the practice. A nearby cathedral has time for confessions after Good Friday’s afternoon service, another parish that evening. The major basilicas in Rome hear confessions on Holy Saturday afternoon; and I have personally sat in St. Peter’s Basilica for the Easter Vigil while some priests were still hearing confessions. That is not “bad liturgy.” It is good pastoral care.

Yes, the Paschal Triduum is a distinct liturgical season. But active and conscious participation in the Paschal Triduum, especially Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday prior to the Paschal Vigil, all emphasize Christ’s Passion and Death, responsibility for which we by sin share. To say that this is a proper understanding of the meaning of that aspect of the Paschal Triduum and yet necessary and/or desired repentance is not available because of liturgical history is schizophrenic. It utterly misunderstands the spiritual significance of that celebration in order to engage in some historical recapture of forms that became obsolete about 1,500 years ago.

So, the theoretical argument against scheduled confessions during the Paschal Triduum is unjustified. Let me note, however, that there’s probably also a practical or utilitarian argument: time crunches.

Yes, priests are pressed for time during the Triduum. Yes, the liturgies of the Paschal Triduum—in time and detail—are demanding. Yes, many parishes schedule extra time for confessions during Lent, whether that be additional weeknights, “Wednesdays the light is on for you,” Pope Francis’ “24 hours for the Lord” initiative, and/or penitential services. That’s all great, and thank you.

But the Church’s first, foremost, and constant mission is reconciliation and communion. Not liturgical preparations. Not flower arrangements. Not cleaning the church. Not blessing foods.

The Church’s first, foremost, and constant mission is reconciliation and communion. Not liturgical preparations. Not flower arrangements. Tweet This

Now, I absolutely do support the popular devotion of blessing Easter foods. I do not oppose that practice. But if the priest is in church to bless foods, he can also be there to heal souls.  

Blessing and absolving are, after all, what the priest is needed for. Liturgical prep? Others can lay out the vestments, prepare the Easter candle, and arrange the kindling for the fire. Lots of people can arrange lilies. The parish kids can clean the church. And you can sleep in on Monday.

Only the priest can heal souls.

And that’s the essential work. Like Ford used to say: “It’s Job One!”

I also recognize that there are fewer priests today than years ago. But, understanding logistics and scheduling, it still doesn’t change priorities. It still doesn’t change “Job One.”

So, for those priests who have jettisoned the moratorium on confessions during the Paschal Triduum: thank you. For those who haven’t: Why not?

  • John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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