Often during Lent or Advent, Catholic parishes will post times for a “communal penance service.” This can be confusing to some, as it may sound like a time when everyone in the church confesses their sins and receives absolution together, all at the same time.
However, this is not the case. A communal penance service simply indicates a time when all the priests in a local area gather together in one church to hear individual confessions.
The Introduction to the Rite of Penance explains the format of the communal penance service.
When a number of penitents assemble at the same time to receive sacramental reconciliation, it is fitting that they be prepared for the sacrament by a celebration of the word of God.
Communal celebration shows more clearly the ecclesial nature of penance. The faithful listen together to the word of God, which proclaims his mercy and invites them to conversion … After each person has confessed his sins and received absolution, all praise God together for his wonderful deeds on behalf of the people he has gained for himself through the blood of his Son … several priests should be available in suitable places to hear individual confessions and to reconcile the penitents.
Everyone gathers together in a single place, listens to a special reading from the Bible, often followed by a brief homily. After the homily, everyone may recite an Act of Contrition and then get in line for individual confession.
A communal penance service does not include a communal confession of sins or a communal absolution. The service always ends with individual confession and absolution, facilitated by a priest.
This special service provides a time where it is easier to go to confession, as there are multiple priests and the lines are much shorter than normal.
Lent and Advent are prefect times for these services, as they prepare our souls for the coming feast of Easter or Christmas.