First, Paul Ricche sat down in the pew next to one of 16 priests scattered in the transept of the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington and confessed his sins.

Then he walked over to a purple-draped table, extended his hands over a huge glass bowl while Rita Appel poured water over them and fried them. Ricche in turn, performed the same hand-washing for the penitent who followed after him, before going over to exchange greetings with Bishop Thomas J. Welsh.

Back in his pew, he sat prayerfully until the final hymn and benediction that concluded the communal penance service.

The mutual handwashing at the unusual communal penance service of the Diocese of Arlington Monday night symbolized a new dimension of the Roman Catholic rite of reconciliation: namely, that sin is not just a personal question.

"Sin is not only a private matter between you and God," explained diocesan spokesman Leonard Reed, "but it has an impact on the community. When one is sorry for what he has done, his reconciliation and renewal is not only between man and God but between him and the community."

The Arlington service, which was attended by about 250 persons, was the last in a series of five communal penance services conducted at different points of the Northern Virginia diocese during the lenten season.

"The people have responsed very well," said Bishop Welsh as he stood in the cathedral doorway to greet the worshipers after the service.

"They really liked it," he continued. "One woman just told me it was the first time she'd been to confession in 25 years."

Monday night's service began with hymns, prayers, Scripture readings and a homily by the Rev. Horace H. Grinnell, of Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Arlington, on the unqualified nature of God's love.

"We tend to think that Christ only accept us after we are confessed tonight and cleansed," said Father Grinnell. "But that's not so. The Lord died for you and me as sinners hoping we would grow."

Communal penance services are authorized in the rite of reconciliation issued by the Vatican in 1973, which became mandatory in Catholic churches with the beginning of Lent this year.

Church law always has required confession and absolution once a year for persons who have committed grave sin but in years past "people felt they had to go once a week," explained the Rev. John Rotelle, director of the secretariat on the liturgy of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

With the upheaval in the church in the years following the Second Vatican Council, weekly confessions have all but disappeared as a common practice.

The communal penance rite used in Arlington differed from a controversial rite conducted by Bishop Carrol T. Dozier of Memphis last December in that the Arlington services offered individual confession and absolution.

Nearly 15,000 Catholics in the Memphis disocese received general absolution and received holy communion after joining in a massive confession ritual, although they were admonished that they were obligated to make individual confession within six months.