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Confession 2: The History of Confession

History of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Church

Jesus educated and lived by the message of reconciliation in his parables and in his healings, as we see this through bible stories. We as Christians believe that the life of a Christian is one of reconciliation and with our self, others and God. The Catholic church, from the earliest times, has had a deep understanding and believed profoundly in the mercy and forgiveness of God. The Sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance, through the power of the Holy Spirit, has been used as an opportunity to reconcile  with their selves, God and the community. Below is information about how Reconciliation was celebrated in the Early Church and how it has developed.

The Sacrament in the First and Second Centuries:

In these early centuries, it was believed that baptism was to the sign of the converted person’s new life in Christ which involved the forgiveness of sin. It was understood that baptised people gained forgiveness through taking the Eucharist and participating in prayer, fasting and almsgiving. When confessing sins, they were said directly to God. For mortal or serious sin, the Church began a process of community penance.

They believed that forgiveness could only be received once in a life time, but a person had fallen into a very deadly sin again, they would be unable to receive the Sacraments of Reconciliation, Eucharist and Anointing. However, the Christian community would pray for the person at death.

The Sacrament in the Third to Fifth Centuries:

In these centuries a formal ritual for forgiveness of sin was gradually developed. This was a public ritual , which was celebrated a s a community, and presided by a bishop, in which the person in need of forgiveness was received into the order of penitents. The sinner would have to start fasting, prayer and works of charity in the community as a procedure of penance and conversion. The bishop, would then bring them back into the community, on behalf of the community in a liturgy which was usually celebrated just prior to Easter.

The ceremony of forgiveness was kept as side for major sins in the community, and forgiveness could be taken out of action for a period of time between three to fifteen years. Sometimes the sins were known to the whole community, and overtime the penitent would sometimes confide their sins to a bishop or priest.

The Sacrament in the Sixth to Ninth Centuries:

In England and Ireland, the practice of looking for private spiritual help from monks became popular in these countries. As this spiritual help became more common, it led  to a private ritual of Reconciliation which was then frequently used in the Church . In the late sixth century, when monks from England and Ireland came to Europe, the practice of private reconciliation became typical. After this happening, public penance then shifted to the practice of private confession. This took over that once-in-a-life-time public ritual that used to be commonly practiced. Only in some Eastern Churches have public forms of confession followed by private confession.

The Sacrament in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries:

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, procedure for reconciliation in the Church was made. This consisted of:

  • Confession: this is when the person tells his/her sin to the priest, which represents Jesus in the Church
  • Contrition: this is when the person is genuinely sorry for his/her sin and expresses this sorrow.
  • Absolution: this is when the priest then offers forgiveness on behalf of God and the Church.
  • Satisfaction: under the direction of the priest the person does something to apologize for the damage they have caused by his/her sin. This also can be referred to as a “penance”.

Sixteenth Century

At the Council of Trent, it was said Confession or Penance was now a sacrament of the church. This declaration confirmed the practice that was already in place. The church then suggested that Catholics now had to use this sacrament at least once a year.

Twentieth Century

The Second Vatican council suggested that they call for the revision of the Sacrament of Penance. So in 1973 the revised Sacrament was publicized, which also promoted the three rites in which may be celebrated today. After this, there was a new emphasis on God’s love and mercy and the opportunity of the Sacrament offered for reconciliation. After this the importance of the community dimension was strained. Catholics were then encouraged to also have community celebrations of reconciliation as well as an individual celebration  and acknowledgement of sin.

Read more here.