Exploring the sacrament of penance

By | March 11, 2011


While the sacrament of penance is as old as the church, the procedure of “confession” has changed over the centuries. Most Catholics today are familiar with either a “confessional box” or a “reconciliation room.” However, the use of a confessional, with a grille separating priest from confessor, is a relatively late development in the history of the sacrament.

Four parts

Since the earliest days, the sacrament has had four distinct parts:

  • Contrition — a sincere examination of conscience and sorrow for the damage caused to another, to the community and to one’s relationship with God.
  • Confession — the naming aloud of the sins and the taking of personal responsibility.
  • Satisfaction — what we know as penance. This is considered an act of justice that acknowledges that a hurt has been done and a price must be paid to balance justice. (The ultimate price has been paid by Christ for all sins.)
  • Absolution — Forgiveness of sins, given by Christ and imparted by the priest.

The author of the letter of James, written late in the first century, shows a rather simple form of confession that existed in the early church: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed” (5:16).

“The Didache” is a text generally dated to the early second century. It describes confessing of sins taking place before the “breaking of the bread” on Sunday “that your sacrifice may be pure” (14.1).

Since members of the early church lived in community, major sins — such as murder or apostasy — were well-known, so the privacy of confession was not a great concern. However, confessing sin to a bishop (later a priest) — called “auricular confession” — has always been the norm. (Auricular, related to “the ear,” refers to the practice of speaking directly “into the ear of” a priest.) Whether, and when, this was done publicly or privately in the early church has been debated. By the fifth century, however, public confession — along with the practice of publicly posting of sins and penances — was condemned by Pope Leo X.

Once in a lifetime

In the early years of the church, absolution was given once in lifetime and only after penance, which was often long in duration. Common penance for lesser transgressions included dressing in sackcloth (and ashes), giving alms and fasting.

We can thank the Celtic monks of Ireland and England, beginning in the sixth century, for the sacrament of confession looking more as we know it today. While they made penances even longer than previously — sometimes lasting years and entailing penitential journeys — they also introduced the practice of allowing absolution on a more frequent basis and giving that absolution before a penance was performed. This is probably due to the fact that the monks were itinerant missionaries and might never return to a particular town to see if a penance had been fulfilled.

The monks, based on their own practice of examination of conscience with a spiritual advisor, are also often credited with making of private, auricular confessions more popular.


As time went on, the anonymity of such confession became more prominent. The “Encyclopedia Britannica” notes that St. Charles Borromeo was the first to order grilles placed between the priest and penitent, in 1565, while he was archbishop of Milan.

St. Charles was also a member of the Council of Trent (1545-63), which clarified the practice of all the sacraments, including penance. The council issued nine chapters and 15 canons on penance, specifying procedures and rules. These continued, largely unchanged, until the reforms following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Vatican II emphasized the sacrament’s elements of healing and reconciliation, as had the early church. From here came the modern practice of a reconciliation room, rather than a confessional, which allows for either private or face to face confession. (Church law says there must always be the opportunity for private confession.)

Even before Vatican II, though, the church had been reviewing sacramental practices in light of the early church’s emphasis on community. We belong to one community, one family in Christ. The sacrament of penance reminds us that, when we hurt someone in our family, we apologize and try to make things right. It’s the same in the community of the body of Christ.

Sources: “Modern Catholic Dictionary;” “The New Dictionary of Theology;” “Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism;” “The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia;” “Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic History;” the 1983 Code of Canon Law; the Medieval Sourcebook at www.fordham.edu; and “Catholic Life in the New Century”

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