(From the St. Isidore Parish Stewardship series)

What is the history of the Sacrament of Penance?

The Rev. Clifford Howell, S.J., says it best when he states, "Did you know that the Sacrament of Penance (which we commonly refer to as "confession") was once a public affair? That seems rather shocking to our way of thinking, but it is nevertheless a fact. In the early centuries of the Church's history, people who wanted to have their sins forgiven went through an ordeal the very thought of which almost makes our hair stand on end. And though the things they had to do have now been discontinued, it is worth our while to learn something about them, because thereby we shall come to a better understanding of the Sacrament of Penance as we now have it.

It is queer how things often become known by names which indicate some point of lesser importance… So with this sacrament - we call it 'confession or penance….' And, of course, it does involve both confession and penance. But the really important thing about it is that it brings reconciliation with God. It seems rather a pity that we don't call it 'absolution' or some such name, because that is what matters most. And that is what has remained basically unchanged throughout the centuries in spite of the changes which have come about in respect of the confession and penitential parts of it.

In olden days this sacrament was used only for the forgiveness of mortal sins. In different times and places there were many variations of procedure and it would take a whole book to describe them all…. In general it may be said that if the sins to be forgiven were secret sins they could be confessed in secret; whereas if they were public sins (murder, adultery, rape, sorcery, perjury, apostasy) then they had to be confessed in public before the whole community.

The entire Christian community assembled in the church, where the Bishop…sat upon his throne; and his priests, deacons and subdeacons arranged themselves on each side of him. The sinners were led barefoot into the midst of the congregation and prostrated themselves on the ground. They avowed what they had done, and the Bishop delivered judgment as to whether pardon would be granted and what penance was to be imposed (usually a year or more). Then they were walked to the doors of the Church and had to remain outside until they finished their penance.

On the day of reconciliation [usually on Holy Thursday], the ceremony was even more solemn. Again, barefoot and in penitential garb, the penitents knelt outside the closed doors of the church…until the Bishop came to the door and all the Church prayed that they be readmitted to the body of the faithful. The Bishop brought them forward, prayed over them in thanksgiving, stretched his hands over them, imparted absolution and gave them a blessing. Then the whole community welcomed them back. Now they could go home and change from their penitential garments, have a bath, cut their hair and trim their beards, and resume their ordinary clothes. And there was great joy among all the people."

Today the Sacrament of Reconciliation is expressed quite differently, but the elements have remained the same: Remorse for our sins, confession of our sins, forgiveness, and great joy in the merciful love that God has for us.

From the "Did You Know" Parish Stewardship series, a collaboration of Fr. Manuel Soria and Monique Figlietti, Chair of Stewardship Ministry in response to a request from the Pastoral Council.