My first reaction was that this sounded like something strange. Then as I reflected on it and read some information about it, I began to think of it as an opportunity for the penitents as well as the whole parish to gain a new perspective on the meaning of penance and prayer, as well as a new appreciation of Lent, something we all need.
Just a bit on the origins of this practice. In early Christianity, there were questions about the forgiveness of serious sins committed after Baptism. This sometimes led to people postponing this sacrament until their deathbed.
The problem arose partly because some Christians who had abandoned their faith during the persecutions wanted to be reconciled to the Church. Various early writings speak of the differences of opinion. Some were against any re-acceptance of those who had abandoned the faith or other serious sinners, while others began to think differently and so eventually various new ways were developed.
By the third century, a pattern had been developed for the re-acceptance of public sinners who were known as penitents. They went to the bishop and confessed their sins. In addition, they had to go through a process of public penance (often distinctive dress), fasting and prayer which helped them reform their lives. Often, they were dismissed from the Eucharistic celebration after the readings and homily.
In some places they were prayed over so that they may be rid of the evil in their lives. In others, they were given a guardian who counselled them and testified to their reformed life. This period could last a short or longer time, even years. Finally, they were reconciled with God and received back into the community.
The first step is that individuals voluntarily sign up. Imagine accepting to classify oneself publicly as a sinner. We know that it is only when we realize who and what we are that God's grace can work in us. This is a good opportunity for the whole community to join them in acknowledging their own sinfulness.
Called by name
Second, they will be called by name (God has called and continues to call each one), and invested with a sign (a leather bracelet) to be worn all during Lent. Can't you just imagine how this odd piece of leather will remind them of God's love and mercy? Certainly, they will become more aware of the presence of God in their lives.
Third, being prayed for by the whole parish during liturgical functions is a blessing from God. So the whole community will be blessed through helping the "penitents" heal. But even more, this will remind the community of their own need for prayer during this special season.
Fourth, the penance they will be given each Sunday either of extra prayer, reflection on Scripture or acts of kindness will help to draw them closer to Christ. If announced publicly, it will give the rest of the parish an opportunity to join in their practice.
Fifth, gathering together each Friday, the penitents will deepen their understanding of God's presence in their lives. Also, they will experience mutual support and understanding in living their lives as followers of Christ in a world not always conducive to living Christian values.
Sixth, the sacrament of Penance, which they are encouraged to celebrate during Lent, will, I'm sure, be much more meaningful in view of their practice of prayer and penance. For the whole parish, too, this experience can provide a richer period of preparation for Lenten confession.
Finally, being reconciled with God and the community during Holy Week Wednesday, they will truly experience the joy of being reborn in Christ Jesus at Easter. Your Church community, too, will have a renewed sense of the presence of the Resurrected Christ in their midst.
I believe, if carried out well, this unusual and interesting application of the Church's mission of reconciling sinners with God will prove fruitful for the individuals who were willing to accept the designation of "sinners" and for the parish community. May God be with you as you journey to Easter.