|St. Martin RC Church in Washington, D.C.|
Its use was generally restricted to the most public and notorious of sins, particularly apostasy and idolatry, when a Christian publicly renounced the Christ as Lord and undertook again pagan practices of emperor-worship. Apostasy often had other drastic consequences, such as the revelation of the identities of other Christians to their persecutors, leading to imprisonment and even death. Murder and adultery were other reasons for excommunication, that is, being cut-off from the community and therefore from communion, as was being in the military, again, because of reasons stemming from gospel imperatives and allegiance to the empire. Reconciliation, in the order of penitents, was a once-in-a-lifetime event, often relegated to one's deathbed in the happy event that one could foresee it. It required a lengthy period of public penance, the wearing of sackcloth and ashes, for instance, and kneeling outside the doors of places Christians gathered for Eucharist, asking for the prayers and forgiveness of the community, sometimes for years. Eventually, when the bishop had determined that the time of penance was over and the bond with the community had begun to mend, the ban from the eucharistic meal would be dissolved. This process, culminating in the absolution of the ban from the table, was, again over centuries, collapsed as the church spread across Europe and then outward from the British Isles, into what we know today as the sacrament of penance.
What Forum tried to do, then, with penance, was similar to what had been done with baptism in the recovery of the catechumenate, that is, recover an ancient practice of the church and apply its dynamics to new situations and problems. The work of scholars and practitioners like Fr. Jim Lopresti, James Dallen, Joe Favazza, Sarah Harmony, and Fr. Bob Blondell and many others took into account the work of sociologists like Dean Hoge to try to address different kinds of alienation in the church, and apply tactics of outreach, dialogue, and ritual to reinvigorate the spirit of evangelization and reconciliation as the engine of genuine community life in parishes. The sacrament of penance was spread out over the entire period of Lent, with a public proclamation of sinfulness on Ash Wednesday by the community of penitents in the midst of whole sinful community, the Lenten period as a time of reparation and penance, and absolution sometime before the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday. Alas, though empowered by research into the consultations that led to the revised Rite of Penance which led to the implementation of, for instance, a public rite that included general absolution, Forum could not point to any legitimate mandate or episcopal aegis for so radical an adaptation of a sacrament. While many parishes adopted and adapted models of the Order of Penitents for a decade or two, these slowly disappeared, and eventually the project was dropped in favor of workshops that enabled parish leaders to re-envision their local church as "reconciling community."
One of the first institutes at which Gary and I worked together was in Orange, California. Part of the opening ritual for Ash Wednesday was a procession, and Gary wanted a litany that we could sing a cappella as we processed into the worship space, one that expressed confidence in God's mercy at the beginning of Lent and the Re-Membering process. (It's worthwhile noting here that there is a tradition in Rome and other European churches to sing the Litany of the Saints at either or both the Ash Wednesday service and the First Sunday of Lent, calling upon all the saints with the Holy Trinity to be with the church as it embarks yet again on the season the calls its members to the baptismal waters and authentic eucharistic life at Easter.)
We settled on a musical and theological idea gleaned from the work of Tom Conry. You will no doubt remember the Latin plainsong chant that has long been a part of the Lenten repertoire, the "Parce, Domine," which is a verse from the first reading (Joel) on Ash Wednesday, "Spare, O Lord, your people, and do not be angry with us forever." This is how it looks in some books:
Conry took that melody, and it became the basis of the chorus of his song "Hold Us in Your Mercy," which anchored his wonderful 1983 collection "Justice, Like a River,"
The litany text that I wrote attempted to catalog some of the gospel events and names for Jesus that would call the singing assembly consciously into the world of divine mercy, aware of our sinfulness but confident that God's presence is healing, protective, and reconciling:
Maker's love poured out from heaven, hold us in your mercy.Mercy's word-made-flesh among us, hold us in your mercy.Sent to bring the poor good news, hold us in your mercy.Born as one of homeless pilgrims, hold us in your mercy.You who shared the sinner's table, hold us...You who cleansed the leper's flesh, hold us...What began as an a cappella litany morphed over many uses and situations into a more complex arrangement for stationary use in church, with a contrasting and syncopated accompaniment pattern against the 4/4 eighth-note chant, and an SATB choral response that can add ambience and depth to the chant, particularly in a resonant space.
Gary recorded "Penitential Litany" on his 1993 collection and CD, Praise the Maker's Love. It has subsequently appeared in every edition of Gather hymnals since, and we certainly hope it continues to serve communities well as part of a repertoire of music for Lent and penitential rites and liturgies throughout the years.
"Hold Us in Your Mercy" - more information at this page on giamusic.com.