Theology Club’s Zossima Project explains confession

With the indefinitely extended Mass dispensation, many Catholics have reflected on their relationship with the sacraments. While the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass receives the most thought, confession also demands careful consideration in these “unprecedented” times. It is our fear that the difficulties of attending confession have deterred its reception; we are worried that people seek out Mass and forget Reconciliation. Not only is confession part of preparing to receive the Eucharist, Catholics must also seek the graces of confession even when attending Mass isn’t possible. To appreciate confession more fully, we’ve reviewed its 2,000-year development.

The Scriptural foundation for the early Church’s practice of confession reveals that it was a communal affair: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established’” (Mt. 18:15-16). The interpersonal nature of confession reflected the eternal participation of the faithful in Christ’s Body, the Church. 

But in general the early Church did not have a standard ritual for Reconciliation, as Christ did not reveal one. Baptism and the Eucharist heavily influenced the early Church’s attitude toward confession. They believed that Baptism had washed their sin away “once and for all” and that the Second Coming of Christ was to be expected at all times. In the Mass itself there was “general admission of sinfulness” that reconciled members of the Body with one another before reception of the Eucharist.

In the second century, the Church divided cases of venial sins from mortal ones. For smaller sins, laypeople would still inspire good habits in one another and encourage appeal to God’s forgiveness. Deadly sins—adultery, murder or apostasy—were addressed by “canonical penance” when more intensive reconciliation with the community seemed necessary. The sinner would go to the local bishop, undergo a period of disciplinary penances for weeks, months, or years, and then the bishop would offer absolution. This final absolution, most often performed on Holy Thursday, usually occurred in the presence of the community so that they might also pray with the reformed sinner. 

Canonical penance was the first manifestation of corporal penance, to further humble man and move God’s merciful heart. Penitents would fast, reduce themselves to outfits of sackcloth and ashes, and lie weeping and moaning for their abuse of God’s gifts, all for these ends: “While it abases the man, it raises him; while it covers him with squalor, it renders him more clean; while it accuses, it excuses; while it condemns, it absolves.”

Because one could only undergo canonical penance once, people would often put off canonical penance until they neared death. In response to this tendency, Tertullian, a Christian of extensive writing who lived in Carthage, encouraged the faithful to increase their devotion and not so postpone their Reconciliation:

“Let no one be less good because God is more so, by repeating his sin as often as he is forgiven. Otherwise be sure he will find an end of escaping, when he shall not find one of sinning… Men in general, after escaping shipwreck, thence forward declare divorce with ship and sea; and by cherishing the memory of the danger, honour the benefit conferred by God, their deliverance.”

The Irish monastic culture of the 6th century further shaped the sacrament of confession. Irish monasticism derived a practice of private confessions from the Eastern monastic practice of spiritual fatherhood, in which a spiritual guide would offer instruction in response to a confession. From thence developed tariff penance, the practice of assigning specific, often severe punishments for certain sins. Canonical penance in Rome was gradually overtaken by this more individualized rite.

As Scholasticism developed, theologians attempted to better define the sacrament of penance. Peter Lombard, 12th century bishop and theologian, emphasized that “there is an inner penance and an outer: the outer is the sacrament, the inner is the virtue of the mind; and both are for the sake of salvation and justification.” Three centuries later, the Council of Florence further discerned the tripartite nature of the sacrament: “contrition of the heart, to which belongs grief at sin committed with the resolution of not sinning further; confession of the mouth, to which pertains that the sinner confesses all sins to his priest of which he has memory; [and] satisfaction for sins according to the guidance of a priest, which principally may be through prayers, fasting and charity.” 

The Council of Florence also rang in greater formality of the sacrament. By this time, it had been reordered so that penance occurred after absolution. The Council also defined the form of the sacrament as the words said by the priest: “I absolve you.” The authority of both priests and bishops to administer the sacrament was affirmed by the Council. 

During the 16th and 17th centuries, counter-reformation theology affirmed ministerial authority and the validity of the sacrament. The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (1551) declared that 

“If any one denieth, either that sacramental confession was instituted, or is necessary to salvation, of divine right; or saith, that the manner of confessing to salvation, of divine right; or saith, that the manner of confessing secretly to a priest alone, which the Church hath ever observed from the beginning, and doth observe, is alien from the institution and command of Christ, and is a human invention: let him be anathema.” 

Likewise, the Second Vatican Council affirmed that the Church “is deeply concerned with calling the faithful to continual conversion and renewal.” According to the Decree: Rite of Penance, Vatican II required a revision of the sacramental rites, “so that they may more clearly express both the nature and effect of this sacrament.” It emphasized the relationship between individual penance and the community. 

The sacrament of confession is important and is not in any way diminished by pandemic or the passing of time. So, dear reader, do as the Apostle Paul writes,“Fight the good fight of the faith, take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you testified so well to your faith before many witnesses” (1 Tim. 6:12).

This article was brought to you by the Theology Club’s Zossima Project: Making prayer an education. For a complete works cited, please email Thank you for your readership.