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Archbishop Hayes’ great Halifax experiment


By Joseph Foy


Most Canadians have heard of the Great Halifax Explosion of 1917. But few know about the “great Halifax Catholic experiment” of the 1980s.

It involved a new liturgy for the sacrament of reconciliation (a.k.a. “confession,” a.k.a. “sacrament of penance”). Two dioceses (Halifax and Yarmouth), covering half of mainland Nova Scotia, were included. Thousands of parishioners in literally scores of parishes participated and it lasted more than a decade. It was a significant experiment by any standards.

I thought of those days when I heard of the recent death of James Hayes, Archbishop of Halifax for 25 years (1965-91), a real treasure and the most innovative and open bishop I have ever known. He had returned from Vatican Council II with a rejuvenated theology and quickly set to work following John XXIII and “throwing open the windows!”

By the late 1970s, the new English (and French) mass was well established and Catholic sacramental liturgies were thriving. Except for reconciliation, where the practice of individual confession-in-the-box was everywhere in steep decline.

An experiment was proposed: during Lent, offer an evening penitential service and include what was called “general absolution.” Confessing one’s sins individually to a priest would not be required; instead, the priest, at the end of the liturgy, would absolve the entire congregation, collectively.

This was not a new idea; many veterans of the Second World War were still around, and they had often participated in such liturgies on the battlefield. However, the use of general absolution was restricted by the Vatican to “extraordinary circumstances.”

Archbishop Hayes, who was very knowledgeable in liturgical matters, approved the experiment, arguing that Lent was, historically and liturgically, quite definitely a “special circumstance.”

I remember the first year. In the dark evening parishioners gradually filed into our church. The service was long but meaningful, with appropriate singing and praying. Then came an examination of conscience led by a local Sister of Charity who focused on social justice rather than on traditional “hot button” Catholic moral issues. By the time she was finished, all of us had realized that, by omission and by commission, we were indeed part of a sinful people. Then, to our great relief, in the name of our God of Mercy, our pastor absolved us all, and we sang together a rousing song of joy. It was a moving experience, one which I will always remember. 

Come next Lent, an inter-generational crowd (grade school, high school, college, 20-somethings, middle-agers, elders) filled the church and spilled out into the yard. People were amazed; the enthusiasm was contagious. The next year we added a second lenten service, and the church filled to overflowing both nights. Later we added a third one, with the same results. Not only were they inter-generational liturgies; people were “coming out of the woodwork,” some of whom we had not seen in church for years. The sacrament of reconciliation was being reborn right before our eyes.

Knowing success when he saw it, Archbishop Hayes reminded us that Advent is also, in our tradition, an “extraordinary circumstance.” And so penitential services with general absolution were held then as well, with similar results. Thus we moved into the 1990s knowing that we were all involved in something wonderful and rare: the rebirth of the sacrament of God’s mercy, in a form parishioners respected and cherished, and for which they would brave bitterly cold Maritime nights to take part.

In 1991, Archbishop James Hayes retired. Under Bishop Austin Burke, the experiment continued. However, in 1993, John Paul II appointed a new archbishop, and one of his first official acts was to announce that general absolution would no longer be allowed in our penitential services. Thus the “great Halifax Catholic experiment” ended.

Some believed, faced with that change, parishioners would return en masse to the confessional. That did not happen. And still has not.

Foy belongs to St. Francis Parish in Wolfville, N.S.