A history of the use of the sacrament of reconciliation in the early Church

A friend of mine is preparing a teenage girl for confirmation, and is in need of accurate information about the history of the sacrament of confession in the Church. I believe that understanding its history, and the evolution of its practice can help us understand its essence. The following are quotes from articles and early Church Fathers on this subject, as well as my own thoughts on what I’ve read.

This is a good article to start off with. It summarizes the history of confession and focuses on how it changed after the 7th century.

It’s a myth that the Irish priests started private confession. They only spread the practice to Europe, but it already existed everywhere else.

“Private confession is implied in Canon 13 of the First Council of Nicaea (325). In addition, in the Letter Consulenti tibi to Bishop Exsuperius of Toulouse (405), Pope Innocent I referred to penance being granted for those who need it. In 459, Pope St. Leo I the Great wrote a letter Magna indignatione to All the Bishops of Campania, etc., stating:
With regard to penance, what is demanded of the faithful is clearly not that an acknowledgement of the nature of individual sins written in a little book be read publicly, since it suffices that the states of consciences be made known to the priests alone in secret confession”.

I’ve also read that in various places in the early Church, confession was public because they were being persecuted at that time, and that was their way of being strong witnesses to their faith and strengthening each other’s faith in the midst of persecution.

It seems in most cases, it wasn’t a public confession of sins, but only a public penance.

The priest or bishop would only require the sinner to confess a mortal sin publicly if it involved creating scandal for someone else or the Church overall. The early Christians took their faith more seriously than us. They were being killed right and left for their faith, so they figured if someone committed a mortal sin, or left the faith completely, it should take an act of public penance for them to be reinstated. After all, if the martyrs were willing to die for this faith, then it seemed that the least the apostates and worst sinners could do is publicly repent of their sins.

This was especially true for public sins. It was a way for the Church to show non-Christians that they took sin seriously and weren’t trying to cover up the actions of hypocrites.

Here’s what some of the earliest Church Fathers wrote about this subject:

St. Basil:

“It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries is entrusted. Those doing penance of old are found to have done it before the saints. It is written in the Gospel that they confessed their sins to John the Baptist [Matt. 3:6], but in Acts [19:18] they confessed to the apostles” (Rules Briefly Treated 288 [A.D. 374]).

St. Cyprian:

“The apostle [Paul] likewise bears witness and says: ‘ . . . Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord’ [1 Cor. 11:27]. But [the impenitent] spurn and despise all these warnings; before their sins are expiated, before they have made a confession of their crime, before their conscience has been purged in the ceremony and at the hand of the priest . . . they do violence to [the Lord’s] body and blood, and with their hands and mouth they sin against the Lord more than when they denied him” (The Lapsed 15:1–3 (A.D. 251]).

“Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience. . . . I beseech you, brethren, let everyone who has sinned confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession is still admissible, while the satisfaction and remission made through the priests are still pleasing before the Lord” (ibid., 28).

For although in smaller sins sinners may do penance for a set time, and according to the rules of discipline come to public confession, and by imposition of the hand of the bishop and clergy receive the right of communion: now with their time still unfulfilled, while persecution is still raging, while the peace of the Church itself is not vet restored, they are admitted to communion, and their name is presented; and while the penitence is not yet performed, confession is not yet made, the hands Of the bishop and clergy are not yet laid upon them, the eucharist is given to them; although it is written, ‘Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord”.’ Cyprian, To the Clergy, 9 (16):2 (A.D. 250).

Origen

“[A final method of forgiveness], albeit hard and laborious [is] the remission of sins through penance, when the sinner . . . does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and from seeking medicine, after the manner of him who say, ‘I said, “To the Lord I will accuse myself of my iniquity”’” (Homilies on Leviticus 2:4 [A.D. 248]).

Aphraahat the Persian Sage

“You [priests], then, who are disciples of our illustrious physician [Christ], you ought not deny a curative to those in need of healing. And if anyone uncovers his wound before you, give him the remedy of repentance. And he that is ashamed to make known his weakness, encourage him so that he will not hide it from you. And when he has revealed it to you, do not make it public, lest because of it the innocent might be reckoned as guilty by our enemies and by those who hate us” (Treatises 7:3 [A.D. 340]).

THEODORE OF MOPSUESTIA (c. 428 AD) — This is the medicine for sins, established by God and delivered to the priests of the Church, who make diligent use of it in healing the afflictions of men. You are aware of these things, as also of the fact that God, because He greatly cares for us, gave us penitence and showed us the medicine of repentance; and He established some men, those who are priests, as physicians of sins. If in this world we receive through them healing and forgiveness of sins, we shall be delivered from the judgment that is to come. It behooves us, therefore, to draw near to the priests in great confidence and to reveal to them our sins; and those priests, with all diligence, solicitude, and love, and in accord with the regulations mentioned above, will grant healing to sinners. [The priests] will not disclose the things that ought not be disclosed; rather, they will be silent about the things that have happened, as befits true and loving fathers [cf. 1 Thess 2:11; 1 Cor 4:15] who are bound to guard the shame of their children while striving to heal their bodies. (Catechetical Homilies 16)

POPE LEO THE GREAT (c. 459 AD) — I decree also that that presumption contrary to the apostolic regulation, which I recently learned is being committed by some in an illegal usurpation, is by all means to cease. With regard to penance, certainly what is required of the faithful is not that the nature of individual sins be written in a document and recited in a public profession, since it is sufficient that the guilt of consciences be indicated to priests alone in a secret confession. For although that fullness of faith may seem to be praiseworthy which, for fear of God, is not afraid to blush before men, nevertheless, because the sins of all are not of such kind that those who seek Penance do not fear to make them public, such an unapproved custom is to cease. (Letter of Pope Leo I to the Bishops of Campania, Samnium and Picenum dated March 6, 459 AD)

St John Chrysostom:

“Have you sinned? Go into Church and wipe out your sin. As often as you might fall down in the marketplace, you pick yourself up again. So too, as often as you sin, repent your sin. Do not despair. Even if you sin a second time, repent a second time. Do not by indifference lose hope entirely of the good things prepared. Even if you are in extreme old age and have sinned, go in, repent!” …. “For here there is a physician’s [i.e. priest’s — see below] office, not a courtroom; not a place where punishment of sin is exacted, but where the forgiveness of sin is granted. Tell your sin to God alone: ‘Before You alone have I sinned, and I have done what is evil in Your sight’ [Psalm 50(51):4]; and your sin will be forgiven.” (Homilies on Penance 3:4)

“Great is the dignity of priests. ‘Whose sins you forgive,’ He says, ‘they are forgiven them’ [John 20:23]…The things that are placed in the hands of the priest, it belongs to God alone to give….” (Homilies on John 86:4)

“Whatever priests do here on earth, God will confirm in heaven, just as the master ratifies the decision of his servants. Did He not give them all the powers of heaven? “Whose sins you shall forgive,” He says, “they are forgiven them: whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” [John 20:23]. What greater power is there than this? The Father has given all the judgment to the Son. And now I see the Son placing all this power in the hands of men. [cf. Matthew 9:8] They are raised to this dignity as if they were already gathered up to heaven, elevated above human nature, and freed of its limitations.” (The Priesthood 3:5:183–184)

The Fathers, knowing well that one great difficulty which the sinner has to overcome is shame, encourage him in spite of it to confess. “I appeal to you, my brethren”, says St. Pacian (d. 391), “. . . you who are not ashamed to sin and yet are ashamed to confess . . . I beseech you, cease to hide your wounded conscience. Sick people who are prudent do not fear the physician, though he cut and burn even the secret parts of the body” (Paraenesis ad poenit., n. 6, 8). St. John Chrysostom (d. 347) pleads eloquently with the sinner: “Be not ashamed to approach (the priest) because you have sinned, nay rather, for this very reason approach. No one says: Because I have an ulcer, I will not go near a physician or take medicine; on the contrary, it is just this that makes it needful to call in physicians and apply remedies. We (priests) know well how to pardon, because we ourselves are liable to sin. This is why God did not give us angels to be our doctors, nor send down Gabriel to rule the flock, but from the fold itself he chooses the shepherds, from among the sheep He appoints the leader, in order that he may be inclined to pardon his followers and, keeping in mind his own fault, may not set himself in hardness against the members of the flock” (Hom. “On Frequent Assembly” in P.G., LXIII, 463).

Even in the early days of the Church, public confession of sins wasn’t mandatory. Rather, it was left up to priests and bishops to decide if a sinner should be required to do a public penance for a serious sin he or she already confessed:

“The penitential process included a series of acts, the first of which was confession. Regarding this, Origen, after speaking of baptism, tells us: “There is a yet more severe and arduous pardon of sins by penance, when the sinner washes his couch with tears, and when he blushes not to disclose his sin to the priest of the Lord and seeks the remedy” (Homil. “In Levit.”, ii, 4, in P.G., XII, 418). Again he says: “They who have sinned, if they hide and retain their sin within their breast, are grievously tormented; but if the sinner becomes his own accuser, while he does this, he discharges the cause of all his malady. Only let him carefully consider to whom he should confess his sin; what is the character of the physician; if he be one who will be weak with the weak, who will weep with the sorrowful, and who understands the discipline of condolence and fellow-feeling. So that when his skill shall be known and his pity felt, you may follow what he shall advise. Should he think your disease to be such that it should be declared in the assembly of the faithful — whereby others may be edified, and yourself easily reformed — this must be done with much deliberation and the skillful advice of the physician” (Homil. “In Ps. xxxvii”, n. 6, in P.G., XII, 1386). Origen here states quite plainly the relation between confession and public penance. The sinner must first make known his sins to the priest, who will decide whether any further manifestation is called for”.
Public penance did not necessarily include a public avowal of sin. As St. Augustine also declares, “If his sin is not only grievous in itself, but involves scandal given to others, and if the bishop [antistes] judges that it will be useful to the Church [to have the sin published], let not the sinner refuse to do penance in the sight of many or even of the people at large, let him not resist, nor through shame add to his mortal wound a greater evil” (Sermo cli, n. 3). It was therefore the duty of the confessor to determine how far the process of penance should go beyond sacramental confession. It lay with him also to fix the quality and duration of the penance: “Satisfaction”, says Tertullian, “is determined by confession; penance is born of confession, and by penance God is appeased” (On Penance 8). In the East there existed from the earliest times (Sozomen, Church History VII.16) or at least from the outbreak of the Novatianist schism (Socrates, Church History V.19) a functionary known as presbyter penitentiarius, i.e., a priest especially appointed on account of his prudence and reserve to hear confessions and impose public penance. If the confessor deemed it necessary, he obliged the penitent to appear before the bishop and his council [presbyterium) and these again decided whether the crime was of such a nature that it ought to be confessed in presence of the people. Then followed, usually on Ash Wednesday, the imposition of public penance whereby the sinner was excluded for a longer or shorter period from the communion of the Church and in addition was obliged to perform certain penitential exercises, the exomologesis. This term, however, had various meanings: it designated sometimes the entire process of penance (Tertullian), or again the avowal of sin at the beginning or, finally, the public avowal which was made at the end — i.e., after the performance of the penitential exercises.

from FUNDAMENTALS OF CATHOLIC DOGMA by Ludwig Ott, proof from prescription —

If confession had been instituted by the Church it would be possible to demonstrate the DATE of its institution. No such demonstration can be made. All the historical testimonies imply that it is an institution which goes back to Divine ordinance. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) did not introduce confession, but merely defined the already existing duty of confession more closely by prescribing yearly confession. The Greek-Orthodox Church teaches the necessity of individual acknowledgement of sins in its official writings on confession (cf. the Confessio Orthodoxa of Petrus Mogilas, Pars I q 113 : Confessio Dosithei, Decr 15). The Penitential Canons of the Fathers and the Councils, and the Penitential Books of the early Middle Ages presuppose an individual confession of sins.

The early Church didn’t understand God’s mercy the way we do, so they saw confession more as an act of His justice rather than an act of His mercy. Today, we see it as an act of both, but more of His mercy, which is why we keep it private. We’re a much more universal Church now, so we don’t have the same need to keep a small community together in the faith and have public displays of reconciliation and support for sinners.

The public penances were a way to show their unity in the faith. The early Church was still growing and was fighting heresies, so they needed as many public shows of unity as possible to inspire their fellow Christians to persevere in the faith in the midst of intense persecution.

The fact that in some areas, absolution after confession was only given once during a person’s life had good intentions behind it. The early Church wanted to show how serious the effect of mortal sins are not just on the sinner, but on the whole Church since we’re all connected as members of the body of Christ. They also wanted to prevent abuse of the sacrament. They figured if it was possible to use it an unlimited number of times, people would commit the sin of presumption and just assume that even if they committed a mortal sin, they could go to confession any time they wanted and be forgiven. So they limited it to once in a lifetime. Of course, this was too extreme and had the opposite effect, which was to scare people away from the sacrament since it put too much pressure on them to avoid committing another mortal sin in their lifetime. It should be noted that this wasn’t more common than allowing sinners to confess mortal sins more than once during their lifetime, and that neither form of confession was the official form of the Church at that time.

More on the use of public penance in the early Church:

“A further evidence of the severity with which public penance, and especially its solemn form, was administered is the fact that it could be performed only once. This is evident from some of the texts quoted above (Tertullian, Hermas). Origen also says: “For the graver crimes, there is only one opportunity of penance” (Hom. xv, “In Levit.”, c. ii); and St. Ambrose: “As there is one baptism so there is one penance, which, however, is performed publicly” (On Penance II.10.95). St. Augustine gives the reason: “Although, by a wise and salutary provision, opportunity for performing that humblest kind of penance is granted but once in the Church, lest the remedy, become common, should be less efficacious for the sick . . . yet who will dare to say to God: Wherefore dost thou once more spare this man who after a first penance has again bound himself in the fetters of sin?” (Ep. cliii, “Ad Macedonium”). It may well be admitted that the discipline of the earliest days was rigorous, and that in some Churches or by individual bishops it was carried to extremes. This is plainly stated by Pope St. Innocent (405) in his letter (Ep. vi, c. ii) to Exuperius, Bishop of Toulouse. The question had been raised as to what should be done with those who, after a lifetime of licentious indulgence, begged at the end for penance and communion. “Regarding these”, writes the pope, “the earlier practice was more severe, the later more tempered with mercy. The former custom was that penance should be granted, but communion denied; for in those times persecutions were frequent, hence, lest the easy admission to communion should fail to bring back from their evil ways men who were sure of reconciliation, very rightly communion was refused, while penance was granted in order that the refusal might not be total. . . . But after Our Lord had restored peace to his Churches, and terror had ceased, it was judged well that communion be given the dying lest we should seem to follow the harshness and sternness of the heretic Novatian in denying pardon. Communion, therefore, shall be given at the last along with penance, that these men, if only in the supreme moment of death, may, with the permission of Our Saviour, be rescued from eternal destruction.””

“The mitigation of public penance which this passage indicates continued throughout the subsequent period, especially the Middle Ages. The office of poenitentiarius had already (390) been abolished in the East by Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, in consequence of a scandal that grew out of public confession. Soon afterwards, the four “stations” disappeared, and public penance fell into disuse. ln the West it underwent a more gradual transformation. Excommunication continued in use, and the interdict was frequently resorted to. The performance of penance was left in large measure to the zeal and good will of the penitent; increasing clemency was shown by allowing the reconciliation to take place somewhat before the prescribed time was completed; and the practice was introduced of commuting the enjoined penance into other exercises or works of piety, such as prayer and almsgiving. According to a decree of the Council of Clermont (1095), those who joined a crusade were freed from all obligation in the matter of penance. Finally it became customary to let the reconciliation follow immediately after confession. With these modifications the ancient usage had practically disappeared by the middle of the sixteenth century. Some attempts were made to revive it after the Council of Trent, but these were isolated and of short duration”.

This is a good definition of what public penance was in the early Church:

PUBLIC PENANCE

Definition

“The practice of requiring penitents to give public satisfaction for their sins as a condition for absolution and reconciliation with the Church. In vogue up to the early Middle Ages, public penance could be either solemn or not, depending on the gravity of the offense and the amount of scandal given.
When public penance was also solemn, the reason had to be a grave one. Among the public crimes that might be subject to solemn penance, the most common were adultery, apostasy, fornication, and murder, including abortion. A historic example of public penance was Henry II’s walking barefoot in 1174 to the shrine of St. Thomas of Bucket, to expiate his part in the murder of the archbishop. The more common practice was to limit solemn penance to those crimes that gave such scandal as seemed to call for proportionate expiation.
More generally, public penance was not solemn. The person would secretly confess some grave sin from which he was absolved by a priest. His satisfaction would be an external penance from which others might conclude the nature of the sin, but there was no formal identification as a public sinner”.

This is a good article on the history of confession:

The existence of a regular system of penance is also hinted at in the work of Clement, “Who is the rich man that shall be saved?”, where he tells the story of the Apostle John and his journey after the young bandit. John pledged his word that the youthful robber would find forgiveness from the Saviour; but even then a long serious penance was necessary before he could be restored to the Church. And when Clement concludes that “he who welcomes the angel of penance . . . will not be ashamed when he sees the Saviour”, most commentators think he alludes to the bishop or priest who presided over the ceremony of public penance. Even earlier, Dionysius of Corinth (d. circa A.D. 170), setting himself against certain growing Marcionistic traditions, taught not only that Christ has left to His Church the power of pardon, but that no sin is so great as to be excluded from the exercise of that power. For this we have the authority of Eusebius, who says (Church History IV.23): “And writing to the Church which is in Amastris, together with those in Pontus, he commands them to receive those who come back after any fall, whether it be delinquency or heresy”.

“ It is therefore Catholic doctrine, first, that Christ did not prescribe public confession, salutary as it might be, nor did He forbid it; second, that secret confession, sacramental in character, has been the practice of the Church from the earliest days”.

More on the history of confession in the early Church:

“What many centuries of Catholics largely ignored was its relevance to the community. They considered ‘confession’ a private event and means of personal grace. They did not appreciate that, unlike sins committed before baptism and entrance into the Christian community, the sins of the baptized affect the Church and, in smaller or greater ways, rupture the communion of the people of God. The once-in-a-lifetime penitential discipline of early Christianity was obviously severe, in that it excluded sinners from participating in the Eucharist and readmitted them only when they had completed a notable period of satisfying for their sins. But that old discipline clearly appreciated both the harm baptized Christians did to the whole body of Christ by their sins and the fact that repentance entails the desire to be reconciled and share again fully in the life of the community. In a brief but important paragraph, the Second Vatican Council signalled a recovery of a communal perspective of sin, repentance, and reconciliation: ‘Those who approach the sacrament of penance receive pardon from the mercy of God for the offences committed against him, and at the same time are reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, example, and prayer works for their conversion’ (Lumen Gentium, 11).
The enduring fruit of this renewed sense that sacramental penance reconciles sinners with God and with the Church came in December 1973 with the Ordo Paenitentiae (Order of Penance) of Pope Paul VI. This document introduced a new name, ‘the sacrament of reconciliation’; treated the sacrament from an ecclesial perspective; and provided a formula of absolution that corresponds to that reality:
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.
The 1973 Ordo offers three rites for celebrating the sacrament: reconciliation of individual penitents, reconciliation of many penitents who are absolved individually, and reconciliation of many penitents who make a public confession of sins and together receive a general absolution.
The first rite incorporates the personal caring for sinners, introduced by the monk-missionaries from the sixth century and officially endorsed by Lateran IV, the Council of Florence, and the Council of Trent. While allowing for something traditionally dear to Eastern Christians, spiritual direction, nevertheless, the first rite does not clearly exhibit its communal dimension. The second rite brings penitents together for a service of prayer, hymns, readings from the Bible, and a homily before they are absolved individually by one or other of a group of priests who attend the service. This rite combines a personal ministry (the monastic tradition) with the social and ecclesial dimension retrieved in modern times from the public penance of early Christianity. The third rite patently maintains the communal character of reconciliation, has proved popular in parishes across the world, but does not include the personal attention to penitents of the first and second rite. Moreover, the obligation of confessing grave sins individually, affirmed by the Council of Trent (see above), is not replaced by general confession and absolution. When such grave sins are absolved in such a communal rite, they are afterwards to be explicitly confessed to a priest”.

This video explains why public penance came to an end. Converts to the Catholic faith realized that if they committed a mortal sin, they only had one chance to use this sacrament. If they slipped up again, they’d be excommunicated from the Church. So they waited til their deathbed to confess any mortal sins they had. Obviously this was a problem since they couldn’t receive the Eucharist for the rest of their lives, or if they did, they were committing another mortal sin. This cut them off from the graces available in the Eucharist, one of which is the remission of all venial sins if received in a state of grace. That certainly wasn’t the intention with which Jesus instituted this sacrament, and eventually the Church realized that its use should be unlimited because Jesus’s mercy is unlimited.

I think the main reason the early Church required public penance for serious sins was because the early Christian communities were very tight-knit. Everyone knew everyone else, and they had an “us against the world” mentality because it pretty much was them against the world at that time. So when a Christian committed a mortal sin, it was almost seen as a betrayal of their community. The pagans they were surrounded by were committing those sins regularly, so the Christians wanted to show they were different. When one of them committed a serious sin, it separated them from the social life of the church, which is why a public penance was deemed necessary to reinstate them into full communion with the church. If the sin was confessed privately, the rest of the community wouldn’t have known about it, or at least not to the same degree, and word would have spread that this Christian might be leaving the church.

The Christian who committed the serious sin probably would have been treated like a leper and shunned from the community. Therefore, in order to become united to the body of Christ, a public penance was seen as necessary. This is why the absolution of sin and the public reconciliation of the sinner with the entire Christian community were inseparable in the early church.

This was my attempt to paint a picture of what the sacrament of reconciliation looked like in the early Church, as well as how it’s changed over the centuries in accordance with the spiritual maturation of the Church. An entire separate article could be written about the essence of this sacrament, what it does for us, and why we need it. For anyone reading this who’s interested in learning the answers to these questions, this article is a good place to start. For those who prefer videos, here are a few good ones that explain this sacrament in more depth.