Reconciliation
Part 2 History

Chapter r20 Historical Overview of the Sacrament of Reconciliation

1. Apostolic [0-399]

2. Patristic [400-799]

3. Early Medieval [800-1199]

4. Medieval [1200-1299]

5. Late Medieval [1300-1499]

6. Reformation [1500-1699]

7. After Trent [1700-1899]

8. Before Vatican II [1900-1959]

9. Vatican II [1960-1975]

10. After Vatican II [1975-2050]

This chapter presumes your familiarity with the general history of the liturgy.  You can visit this general history at Chapter d20 Overview of the History of Liturgy

Preliminary Observations 

The "history of the sacrament of reconciliation" was not part of the seminary formation of Pre-Vatican II priests.  How many of the pastors with whom you will be working next year studied this when they were in the seminary?

[I was ordained in 1966 and this history was not a part of my theological or pastoral formation.  Moral Theology and Liturgical Theology did not yet exist.  "Moral Theology" at that time was primarily casuistry and "Liturgical Theology" was primarily the study of Mass rubrics.  I came into contact with this material only after ordination.  I am indebted to the Rev. Bernard Harring and to my professors at the Institut Superieur de Liturgie de Paris, especially Msgr. Pierre Jounel, P. Pierre-Marie Gy, O.P. and Professor Cyril Vogel  for giving initial direction to my thoughts on the Sacraments of Reconciliation. Two key lectures have been published in La Maison-Dieu 117 (1972):   Pierre-Marie Gy, "Les bases de la Penitence Moderne" pp. 63-85, and Pierre Jounel, "La Liturgie de la Reconciliation" pp. 7-37. While acknowledging my indebtedness to these great professors, I claim as my own any inaccuracies or errors in these notes. ]

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Ten Finger History: Explanation

1. Apostolic [0-399]  RIGHT THUMB:  The first 400 years.  What were the ORIGINS of the topic under consideration? What did it look like during the time of Jesus? during the time of the apostles? during the formation of the Christian Scriptures? during the period until Christianity "goes public" with Constantine?
2. Patristic [400-799] RIGHT SECOND FINGER: The next 400 years.  What happens to the topic of the grid once Christianity goes PUBLIC? Often a large increase in Church membership will require the formation of structures, laws, books, etc. and the regularization of discipline.
3. Early Medieval [800-1199]  RIGHT THIRD FINGER: The next 400 years. This section of the grid looks at the TRANSITION between periods 2 and 4. What events set the stage for the development of the topic which will become the basis for the theological reflections of the scholastics?
4. Medieval [1200-1299]  RIGHT FOURTH FINGER: 100 years.  The SCHOLASTICS: Thomas, Bonaventure, Scotus, etc. What was their experience? In what ecclesial and secular context did they formulate their theology.  This brief period is very important because this theology was the basis for the decisions at Trent and became identified with "Catholic Teaching."
5. Late Medieval [1300-1499] RIGHT LITTLE FINGER: The next 200 years.  A second TRANSITION period. What SET THE STAGE for the reformation? What were the abuses that needing reforming? What were the values that, even if obscured, needed to be retained?
6. Reformation [1500-1699]   LEFT LITTLE FINGER: The next 200 years.  The REFORMATIONWhat was reformed? What was the Catholic response at the Council of Trent.  What were the steps toward reform taken by the Catholic Church.
7. After Trent [1700-1899]  LEFT FOURTH FINGER: 200 years   How did the reformation and Catholic-reformation develop in PROTESTANT theology and in CATHOLIC theology? What is similar and what is dissimilar in the two theological visions?
8. Before Vatican II [1900-1959] LEFT THIRD FINGER: 60 years This period of the grid looks to those issues and events which SET THE STAGE for the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. [This 8th  period is very important because many of the Catholics you will be catechizing are still in this section of the grid. Some identify this period with the Tradition of the Church.]
9. Vatican II [1960-1975]  LEFT SECOND FINGER: 15 years.  GENERAL LITURGICAL PRINCIPLES.  New rites and rituals.  How was the topic effected by the Second Vatican Council and the documents which resulted from the Council?
10. After Vatican II [1975-2050]  LEFT THUMB: 75 years (Historians say that it takes about 75 years for a Council to be implemented).  How have the directives of the Council been implemented with regard to the topic?  How has the initial experience of the renewed topic influenced new theological reflection on the topic?

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1. Apostolic [0-399]

Sins are forgiven in Baptism.  The Catechumenate is to assure that the period of sinning is over. Sins after Baptism are forgiven by Eucharist.

Persecutions / Apostasy / question of "rebaptism"

  2. Patristic [400-799]

Canonical Penance

3. Early Medieval [800-1199]

Celtic or Tariff Penance

  4. Medieval [1200-1299]

St. Thomas presents Scholastic "Confession" in the Summa

5. Late Medieval [1300-1499]

Scholastic confession

6. Reformation [1500-1699]

Luther finds biblical mandate for confession
Trent defines Penance as one of the Seven Sacraments

7. After Trent [1700-1899]

Confession obligatory at least once a year before Easter Duty Communion

8. Before Vatican II [1900-1959]

The Liturgical Movement -- a period of intense research into the history of the Church's practice of reconciling sinners.
Liturgical Movement:  discovery of Canonical Penance, Celtic Penance, etc.

The historical study was "inspired" by H. C. Lea with his books A History of Auricular Confession and Indulgences in the Latin Church, 3 volumes, 1896. [Osborne O.F.M. says "As far as Roman Catholic theology is concerned, it is perhaps the publication of H. C. Lea's book that moved Roman Catholic scholarship into an intense study of the historical development of each of the sacraments.  Lea's book was so obviously anti-Catholic, a Catholic response was clearly needed.] -- Once again "Love your enemies" proves true. The "enemy" here was the one who eventually did us much good!

Confession was seen as a "devotional practice"  --  You told your sins and received advice in English (Devotions were in English; the liturgy was in Latin.)  No candles, no community, no music, no vestments -- none of the things we associate with Liturgy.
Confession becomes more frequent than the reception of Holy Communion
Frequent (weekly) Communion preceded by weekly Confession

Scholarship from the "Liturgical Movement" is published, but still (2014) not widely known
Cyril Vogel. Le Pecheur et la penitence dans l'eglise ancienne. Paris: Cerf, 1966.
Cyril Vogel.  "Sin and Penance," in Pastoral Treatment of Sin, ed. P. Delhaye. New York: Desclee, 1968.
Cyril Vogel. Le Pecheur et la penitence au moyen-age. Paris: Cerf. 1969.

After 1958 the practice of devotional confession declines steeply.   (Was this the result of Humani Vitae?)  "As the lines for Holy Communion grow longer, the lines for confession grow shorter." (Leo hey, OFM)

9. Vatican II [1960-1975]

As confession is a devotional practice, Constitution on the Liturgy doesn't treat it (only one paragraph).

10. After Vatican II [1975-2050]

Rite of Penance -- published, translated, published in English -- ???  not implemented 

In the 2012 Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality, Becoming the Sign: Sacramental Living in a Post-Conciliar Church, Kathleen Hughes RSCJ, speaking of the sacramental rituals as reformed by the Second Vatican Council, writes (on page 52): "The eucharistic liturgy was the first rite to be introduced. The Rite of Penance was, in 1975, the last major rite to be published, and it is my contention that it was never implemented or catechized at all. A few years ago, I tried to buy a copy of the Rite of Penance. I found it had been out of print for nine years; so I went to Amazon.com. There was a copy there, available from a priest who said it was in mint condition - "never been opened." By 1975 there was already a fair amount of "change fatigue."

And Antonio Santantoni, writing in Anscar J. Chupungco's Handbook for Liturgical Studies (Volume 4):  Sacraments and Sacramentals, p 151, says:  "What perplexes both the liturgist and pastor is the strange situation that has been created since the promulgation of the new Ordo Penitentiae. The Church seems to have no faith in its own reform and acts defensively to place limitations on the new penitential discipline. ... While there is an understandable and even necessary defense of traditional forms, there seems also to be a closure to a new breath of the Spirit in his Church, which is responding to new needs, to new demands and expectations of the people of today. The answers of the past no longer seem adequate."

Development of communal non-sacramental celebrations followed by individual, private (scholastic) confession.
Pre-Vatican mentality prevails in many parishes
John Paul II encourages a return to scholastic confession
Scholastic confession still flourishing in Hispanic Culture
The sacrament is not celebrated frequently by most Anglo-Catholics in the USA

   Go to the next period of this history

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Copyright: Tom Richstatter.  All Rights Reserved.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 10/21/14.  Your comments on this site are welcome at trichstatter@franciscan.org