The evolution of the sacrament of confession

Father John A. Kiley

Perhaps no sacrament has evolved (or maybe the word should be devolved) over the centuries like the sacrament of Penance. And canonically it still is the sacrament of “Penance.” The official publication of the Catholic Church for the instruction of ministers confecting the sacrament is entitled “Ordo Paenitentiae,” i.e., the Order of Penance. The modern term “Reconciliation” is a mid-twentieth century application that ordinarily connotes equality between offending parties.

Spouses and siblings reconcile after falling out. Political opponents reconcile after an election in the interest of public service. Labor and management reconcile about working conditions. Sinners do not reconcile with God in this sense. God indeed chooses to reconcile with penitents but they can only respond hat-in-hand to him, fully acknowledging their sinful guilt and fully aware of God’s condescending excellence. There can be no hint of negotiation, arbitration or compromise when the sacrament of penance is administered. An honest admission of a penitent’s offences and God’s mercy is essential to the effective celebration of the sacrament.

The manner of “going to confession” has clearly developed since Jesus uttered his instituting words on Easter Sunday night: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” No Act of Contrition was recorded. No specifications for a “reconciliation room” were delineated. No appropriate penances were suggested. But the early Church did appreciate the place that a penitential spirit would play in authentic Christianity. In fact, St. Luke summarizes the whole Gospel message by proclaiming that “repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Formal, private penance rites were rare in the early Church. For disciplinary reasons, three sins – murder, adultery and idolatry – were not forgiven in the ancient Church. The sinner had to trust in the mercy of God to effect any forgiveness. Thanks to the consideration of Pope Cornelius in the 4th century, idolaters were gradually re-admitted to church life and the sacrament of penance more and more blended judgment with compassion.

When Europe had settled down after several barbarian invasions, missionaries from Britain and Ireland re-evangelized the continent bringing their uniquely personal form of individual confession to the mainland. Books in which punishments were matched with crimes – penances with sins – were introduced so that the often poorly educated clergy could properly administer the sacrament. Standing in the shadow of a cathedral pillar or in the back of a parish church, a priest would render judgment on the penitent’s admission of guilt and firm purpose of amendment. It was St. Charles Borromeo, the Cardinal-archbishop of Milan, who would introduce in the mid-1500s the confessional box almost universally recognized throughout the Catholic Church until the middle of the last century. The introduction of the Reconciliation Room in many and perhaps most American Catholic churches over the last fifty years greatly abetted the shift away from the admission of guilt on the part of the penitent and the judgment of guilt on the part of the priest (both essential to the sacrament) toward an atmosphere of dialogue and discussion more appropriate to the rectory office than the sacramental chamber.

An effective, i.e., valid celebration of the sacrament of Penance has two requirements: contrition on the part of the penitent and judgment on the part of the priest. The penitent’s contrition entails a frank and honest admission of sin as an offense against God and a frank and honest resolution to avoid such sin in the future. The priest’s judgment demands that there be offenses serious enough to forgive and that protestations of amendment are sincere. Once these two requirements are met, absolution is rendered by the priest and enjoyed by the penitent. Absolution is the totally free gift of God’s saving grace healing a sinner from all past offenses, made available through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and conferred through the ministry of the Church. Absolution is entirely a result of God’s mercy, not man’s compunction. Even the proper dispositions for receiving absolution would not be present in the penitent had God not already entered his or her heart. In this sense, God is not one party to reconciliation but the source, stimulus and sealer of reconciliation. Divine forgiveness is a gift; it is never the product of negotiation. Freely bestowed, it is the source of true joy.