Sacrament Of Penance

The Sacrament of Penance (also commonly called the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Confession) is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church (known in Eastern Christianity as sacred mysteries), in which the faithful are absolved from sins committed after Baptism and they are reconciled with the Christian community. While in current practice reconciliation services may be used to bring out the communal nature of sacraments, mortal sins must be confessed and venial sins may be confessed for devotional reasons. According to the current doctrine and practice of the Church, only those ordained as priests may grant absolution.


In the New Testament, Christians were admonished to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another” at their gatherings (James 5:16), and to be forgiving people (Ephesians 4:32). But the “forgiveness of sins” in John 20:23 meant Baptism, which was entrusted to the disciples” and evidenced in the early Church (Acts 5:31; 3:19), with God and not the disciples forgiving the sins. “Binding and loosing” (Matthew 16:19; 18:15-18), in line with Jewish custom, did not pertain directly to the sin but to the person, who was excluded or admitted to the community (1 Corinthians 5:4-5; 2 Corinthians 2:7; Titus 3:10). In the New Testament, there was no specific ritual for reconciliation except Baptism. With the delay of the expected Second Coming, there was a recognized need for a means of accepting back into the Christian community those who had been expelled for serious sins.



Early practice

In the middle of the 2nd century, the idea of one reconciliation/penance after Baptism for the serious sins of apostasy, murder, and adultery was suggested in the book of visions, The Shepherd of Hermas. The “episkopos” (bishop) was the main liturgical leader in a local community. He declared that God had forgiven the sins when it was clear that there was repentance, evidenced by the performance of some penance, and the penitent was readmitted to the community. Since reconciliation with the Church could be granted only once after Baptism, Baptism was often postponed until late in life and reconciliation to one’s deathbed. The need to confess to a priest is traced to Basil the Great. Nonetheless, it was seen that God and not the priest granted forgiveness. Before the fourth century confession and penitential discipline were a public affair “since all sin is sin not only against God but against our neighbor, against the community.” By the time of Cyprian of Carthage, confession itself was not public, although the practice of public penance for serious sin remained.

Functional 19th century confessionals in St Pancras Church, Ipswich

Functional 19th century confessionals in St Pancras Church, Ipswich

Lifelong penance was required at times but from the early fifth century for most serious sins public penance came to be seen as a sign of repentance. At Maundy Thursday sinners were readmitted to the community along with catechumens. Confusion entered in from deathbed reconciliation with the Church, which required no penance as a sign of repentance, and the ritual would begin to grow apart from the reality.

Beginning in the 4th century, with the Roman Empire becoming Christian, bishops became judges and sin was seen as breaking of the law, rather than as fracturing one’s relationship with God. A new, more legalistic understanding of penance emerged at episcopal courts, as payment to satisfy the demands of divine justice. According to Joseph Martos, this was facilitated by a misreading of John 20:23 and Matthew 18:18 by Augustine of Hippo and Pope Leo I, who thought it was the “disciple” and not God who did the forgiving, though after true repentance. The acts of councils from the fourth to the sixth century show that no one who belonged to the order of penitents had access to Eucharistic communion until the bishop reconciled him with the community of the Church. Canon 29 of the Council of Epaone (517) in Gaul says, that from among penitents only apostates had to leave Sunday assembly together with catechumens, before the Eucharistic part commenced. Other penitents were present until the end but were denied communion at the table of the Lord.

A new approach to the practice of penance first became evident in the 7th century in the acts of the Council of Chalon-sur-Saône (644–655). Bishops gathered in that council were convinced that it was useful for the salvation of the faithful when the diocesan bishop prescribed penance to a sinner as many times as he or she would fall into sin (canon 8).

Celtic influence

When Western Christianity was overrun by peoples from the North and East in the Early Middle Ages, a Celtic version of Christian practice was developed in the monasteries of Ireland. From there Christian beliefs were carried back to Europe by missionaries from Ireland.

Because of its isolation, the Celtic Church for centuries remained fixed with its forms of worship and penitential discipline which differed from the rest of the Church. It drew from Eastern monastic traditions and had no knowledge of the institution of a public penance in the community of the church which could not be repeated, and which involved canonical obligations. Celtic penitential practices consisted of confession, acceptance of satisfaction fixed by the priest, and finally reconciliation. They date back to 6th century.

Penitential books native to the islands provided precisely determined penances for all offences, small and great (an approach reminiscent of early Celtic civil and criminal law). Walter J. Woods holds that “[o]ver time the penitential books helped suppress homicide, personal violence, theft, and other offenses that damaged the community and made the offender a target for revenge.” The practice of so-called tariff penance was brought to continental Europe from the British Isles by Hiberno-Scottish and Anglo-Saxon monks.

The Celtic practice led to new theories about the nature of God’s justice, about temporal punishment God imposes on sin, about a treasury of merits in heaven to pay the debt of this punishment, and finally about indulgences to offset that debt.

The Church’s teaching on indulgences as reflected in Canon Law (992) reads: “An indulgence is the remission in the sight of God of the temporal punishment due for sins, the guilt of which has already been forgiven. A member of Christ’s faithful who is properly disposed and who fulfills certain specific conditions, may gain an indulgence by the help of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of the merits of Christ and the Saints.”

In his work on the history of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Bernhard Poschmann writes that “in its origins an indulgence is a combination of the early Medieval absolution, which had the efficacy of a prayer, and an act of jurisdiction remitting ecclesiastical penance.” And so, he concludes: “An indulgence only extends to remission of satisfaction imposed by the Church.

Celtic penitential practice had accepted the late patristic idea that it was the disciple and not God who did the forgiving, and it also employed the principle of Celtic law that a fine could be substituted for any punishment. This obscured the importance of repentance and amendment. From the 6th century Irish monks produced “penitentials” which assigned a punishment for every sin, which penitents could pay others to do for them. The practice of seeking counsel from wise persons for the reform of one’s life, which developed around monasteries, led to the custom of reconciliation in private with a priest. While private penance was first found in the penitential books of the eighth century, the beginnings of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the form of individual confession as we know it now, i.e. bringing together confession of sins and reconciliation with the Church, can be traced back to 11th century. By the 9th century the practice of deathbed absolution, without performance of a penance, had led priests to pronounce absolution more widely before the performance of the penance, further separating repentance from forgiveness In the early Church absolution had applied to the punishment rather than to the sins themselves. This punishment was controlled by the bishops. The later understanding of absolution as applying to the sins themselves altered the notion of only God forgiving sins. By the twelfth century the formula that the priest used after hearing the confession had changed, from “May God have mercy on you and forgive you your sins” to “I absolve you from your sins. Thomas Aquinas, with little knowledge of the early centuries of the Church, mistakenly asserted that the latter was an ancient formula, and this has led to its widespread use ever since his time.

With the spread of scholastic philosophy, the question arose as to what caused the remission of sins. From the early 12th century Peter Abelard and Peter Lombard reflected the practice that contrition and confession (even to laymen) assured of God’s forgiveness, but remorse for one’s sins was necessary. Absolution referred only to the punishment due to sin. But at this time Hugh of St. Victor taught on the basis of the “power of the keys” (John 20:23 and Matthew 18:18) that absolution applied not to the punishment but to the sins, and this hastened the end to lay confession. From “as early as the third century devout Christians were sometimes encouraged to reveal the condition of their soul to a spiritual guide.” This led to a private form of confession that bishops finally put a stop to by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) that made confession to a priest obligatory within a year of the sinning, and has enshrined the practice of private confession ever since. In the 13th century the Dominican philosopher Thomas Aquinas tried to reunite the personal “matter” (contrition, confession, satisfaction) and ecclesial “form” (absolution). But the Franciscan Duns Scotus gave support to the prevalent opinion at the time that absolution was the only essential element of the sacrament, which readmitted the penitent to the Eucharist.

In the 11th and 12th centuries a new, legalistic theory of penances had crept in, as satisfying the divine justice and paying the penalty for the “temporal punishment due to sin”. This was followed by a new theory of a treasury of merits which was first put forward around 1230. As a means of paying this penalty, the practice grew of granting indulgences for various good works, drawing on “the treasury of the Church’s merits”. These indulgences later began to be sold, leading to Martin Luther’s dramatic protest.

Since Council of Trent

In the mid-16th century, the bishops at the Council of Trent, retained the private approach to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and decreed that indulgences could not be sold. The Council Fathers, according to Joseph Martos, were also “mistaken in assuming that repeated private confession dated back to the days of the Apostles.” Some Protestant Reformers retained the sacrament as sign but shorn of Canonical accretions. However, for Catholics after Trent “the confession of mortal sins would be primarily regarded as a matter of divine law supported by the ecclesiastical law to confess these within a year after they had been committed.” In the following centuries a use of the sacrament grew, from Counter-Reformation practice, and according to Martos, misunderstanding what ex opere operato meant (independent on the worthiness of the priest), and from seeing penances as penalties (abetted by indulgences) rather than as means of reform.

The problem that “has dominated the entire history of the sacrament of reconciliation … is the determination of the roles of the subjective and personal factors and the objective and ecclesiastical factor in penance.” From the mid-19th century, historical and biblical studies began to restore an understanding of the necessity of repentance for forgiveness by God, before readmission to the Christian community through the sacrament These studies paved the way for the bishops at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) to decree in their Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: “The rite and formulas for the sacrament of penance are to be revised so that they more clearly express both the nature and effect of the sacrament.” In a post-conciliar document, The Constitution on Penance, Pope Paul VI emphasized “the intimate relationship between external act and internal conversion, prayer, and works of charity.” This sought to restore the New Testament emphasis on growth in the works of charity throughout the Christian life.

Sacrament of reconciliation in pandemics

On 20 March 2020 the Apostolic Penitentiary issued a note on clarifications regards the Sacrament of Reconcilliation in the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic. In particular is was noted “Where the individual faithful find themselves in the painful impossibility of receiving sacramental absolution, it should be remembered that perfect contrition, coming from the love of God, beloved above all things, expressed by a sincere request for forgiveness (that which the penitent is at present able to express) and accompanied by votum confessionis, that is, by the firm resolution to have recourse, as soon as possible, to sacramental confession, obtains forgiveness of sins, even mortal ones (cf. CCC, no. 1452).”

Contemporary confessional practice

Canon Law requires confession along with purpose of amendment and absolution from the priest for all grave sins for reconciliation with God and with the Church, except in danger of death as detailed below.

Especially in the West, the penitent may choose to confess in a specially constructed confessional. Since the Second Vatican Council, besides the previous practice of kneeling behind a screen, the option of sitting facing the priest has been added in most confessionals. But for those who prefer anonymity, the provision of an opaque screen separating the priest from the penitent is still required.

The priest administering a sacrament, such as Reconciliation, must have permission from the local bishop, or from his religious superior. But in urgent need any ordained priest may grant absolution to a penitent.


The current Rite of Penance was produced in 1973 with two options for reconciliation services, to restore the original meaning of sacraments as community signs. This also addressed the growing sensitivity to social injustices. The 1983 Code of Canon Law brought some further changes. The penitent may kneel on the kneeler or sit in a chair (not shown), facing the priest. The current book on the Rite of Penance prescribes the following (42-47). The sign of the cross precedes a greeting of encouragement to trust in God. The priest may read a short passage from the Bible that proclaims God’s mercy and calls to conversion. All mortal sins must be confessed, while confession of venial sins also is recommended but not required. The priest may emphasize repentance and offer counsel, and always proposes a penance which the penitent accepts and then recites an act of contrition. The priest imparts absolution. Since the Council of Trent, the essential words of absolution have been: “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” In the renewal of the sacrament the more ample form is:

God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace. And I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Finally, the priest invites the penitent to “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good”, to which the penitent responds, “His mercy endures forever” (Psalms 136:1). The priest dismisses the penitent “in peace”.

Before the absolution, the penitent makes an act of contrition, a prayer declaring sorrow for sin. While older forms might only mention sin as offence against God, newer forms mention harm done to one’s neighbor.

Since Vatican II reconciliation services have been encouraged, to emphasize the communal element in the sacrament. Such services include readings from scripture, a homily, and prayers, followed by individual confession. In extenuating circumstances where general absolution is given, true repentance is still required and individual confession at some opportune time. Such circumstances include where large numbers are in danger of death, or are deprived of the sacrament by grave lack of priests, but not simply from the number of penitents at major feasts or pilgrimages. By official declaration, one day is a sufficiently “long time” to justify use of the Third Rite, a reconciliation service with absolution, but requiring individual confession after. The Catholic Church teaches that individual and integral confession and absolution (as opposed to collective absolution) is the only ordinary way in which a person conscious of mortal sins committed after baptism can be reconciled with God and the Church.

Although spiritual direction is not necessarily connected with the sacrament, the sacrament of penance has throughout the centuries been one of its main settings, enabling the Christian to become sensitive to God’s presence, deepen the personal relationship with Christ, and attend to the action of the Spirit in one’s life. In the 20th century, during the Second Vatican Council, new approaches were taken in the presentation of this sacrament, taking into account the concern of scrupulosity, or the exaggerated obsessive concern for detail. This further distinguished the role of penance from forms of psychotherapy.

Necessity and frequency

After having reached the age of discretion, each member of the faithful is obliged to confess faithfully his or her grave sins at least once a year. This yearly confession is necessitated for performing one’s “Easter duty”, the reception of Communion at least once during the Easter season. This must be preceded by Reconciliation if one has sinned gravely. Grave sin involves serious matter, sufficient knowledge of its seriousness, and sufficient freedom from any interior or exterior factors that would mitigate one’s responsibility for the harm done. While private confession of all grave sins is now required, confession of venial sins is recommended but not required. Popes have written on the possible benefits of “devotional confession” of venial sins., for strengthening of resolutions, divine encouragement, Christian growth, and interior peace.

All contrition implies sorrow of spirit and “detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again.” Such contrition is “perfect” if it flows from divine charity but “imperfect” if it flows only from fear of penalties or of eternal damnation. While perfect contrition forgives serious sin, one must also have the intention to fulfill Church teaching and confess the sin if or when it becomes possible.

In order for the sacrament of Penance to be validly celebrated, the penitent must confess all mortal sins. If the penitent knowingly conceal any mortal sin, then the confession is invalid and the penitent incurs another sin: sacrilege. A person who has knowingly concealed a mortal sin must confess the sin he has concealed, mention the sacraments he has received since that time, and confess all the mortal sins he has committed since his last good confession. If the penitent forget to confess a mortal sin in Confession, the sacrament is valid and their sins are forgiven, but he must tell the mortal sin in the next Confession if it again comes to his mind.

Sacramental seal

The sacramental seal binds all those who hear or overhear a penitent confess a sin for the purpose of absolution, to not reveal the identity of the penitent and the sin. Those who may overhear sins confessed, such as an interpreter, are bound by the same seal as the priest. A priest who violates this seal is automatically excommunicated, with pardon reserved to the Holy See. Others who violate the seal may also be excommunicated. Careless speaking that might lead people to connect a specific penitent with a sin confessed is also punishable. While there have been martyrs who have been executed for refusing to break the seal, in the United States the inviolability of the seal is recognized before the law.

Manuals of confession

Beginning in the Middle Ages, manuals of confession emerged as a literary genre. These manuals were guidebooks on how to obtain the maximum benefits from the sacrament. There were two kinds of manuals: those addressed to the faithful, so that they could prepare a good confession, and those addressed to the priests, who had to make sure that no sins were left unmentioned and the confession was as thorough as possible. The priest had to ask questions, while being careful not to suggest sins that perhaps the faithful had not thought of and give them ideas. Manuals were written in Latin and in the vernacular.

Such manuals grew more popular as the printed word spread, and in 2011 had made a transition to electronic form as well. The first such app on the iPhone to receive a bishop’s approval was mistakenly reported as an app for the sacrament itself; in reality the app was an electronic version of this long-standing tradition of material to be used in preparing oneself to make a good confession.

Eastern Christianity and perspectives on renewal

Unlike Western Christianity which saw its liturgical practice disrupted during the Migration Period of the Early Middle Ages, Eastern Christianity has retained more the understanding that ecclesiastical reconciliation had in Patristic times. In Eastern Christianity sacraments are called “sacred mysteries”. The obligation to confess may be less rigid and this may include only one’s most regrettable sins, to experience God’s forgiving love. The practice of absolution or of a given penance varies greatly. The emphasis is on conversion of heart rather than on enumeration of sins.

Confession and penance in the rite of the Eastern Orthodox Church, even to our own day, preserve the character of liberation and healing rather than of judgment. Ruling and healing are seen as the same charism, as in early Christian times. Remission of sin is granted on the basis of sincere repentance and confession. Absolution proclaims God’s forgiveness of the sin. Penance is entirely therapeutic; it reinforces the penitent’s efforts at Christian growth. “Forgiveness of sin procured through sincere and heartfelt repentance is complete and perfect, needing no additional fulfillment,” and so “the Orthodox Church most strenuously rejects … Latin teaching of penalties and punishments, eternal and temporal remission, the treasury of merits, … (and) purgatorial fire.”

The perceived ongoing need for reform and development of the sacrament in the Roman rite can be seen from a book with a chapter on “From Confession to Reconciliation; Vatican II to 2015”, having sections on:

  • Vatican II and Liturgical Revival
  • Decline of Confessional Practice
  • Changing and Conflicting Views of Sin (increased emphasis on social sin)
  • Fundamental Option and Mortal Sin
  • Conflicts over First Confession
  • Conflicts over the New Rite of Penance and General Absolution
  • Bishop Carroll Dozier and General Absolution
  • Lutheran/Catholic Dialogue on Penance
  • Roman and American Attempts to Revive Sacramental Confession
  • New Catechesis on Penance
  • Theologians and the Restoration of Communal Penance
  • Changes in Penitential Theology and Practice: Historical Context

In his textbook on the sacraments, widely used in universities and seminaries, Joseph Martos explains how much still needs to be done to bring together what we have learned through biblical and historical studies, “sacramental theory”, and the way the sacrament is experienced today, “sacramental practice”. There has been widespread demand for more general use of the Third Rite, a reconciliation service with general absolution but requiring individual confession afterwards. However, Canon Law as revised under Pope John Paul II in 1983 has forestalled change for the time being. While arguing for much wider use of community reconciliation services with general absolution and not requiring individual confession, Ladislas Orsy anticipates further developments in the Church’s legislation on the Sacrament of Reconciliation and asserts that “we cannot stop; truth and mercy must continue to unfold.”

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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