Part 2 History

Chapter r28 Before Vatican II [1900-1959]

Preliminary Questions


The Liturgical Movement

Confession in the Years Before the Council

To Think About

Preliminary Questions

While private confessions of devotion were the common practice among Catholics during this time, the information learned during the Liturgical Movement was already bearing fruit with regard to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  For example, I was first introduced to communal, liturgical celebrations of the Sacrament of Reconciliation by Fr. Bernard Harring in 1966 -- eight years before the publication of the new Ritual.

One of the important things to know about liturgical law [See:  Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M. Liturgical Law Today: New Style, New Spirit. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1977] is that liturgical law (usually) does not initiate a new liturgical practice but rather confirms and/or universalizes an existing practice.     E.g. the rediscovery of the meal aspect of the Eucharist, and the movement to use "real" food and drink, led to the realization that a piece of bread is usually received (by adults) in the hand, not in the mouth).  The wide spread practice of "communion in the hand" in Belgium, France, and Germany led their bishops to ask Rome to change the law to legitimize this practice.  But the practice came before the law.  This is how liturgical law usually came about.  (Today, the practice usually precedes the condemnation rather than the legitimization, but that only proves the point.) 

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Pius XII, Mediator Dei, On the Sacred Liturgy, November 20, 1947.  The text may be found at

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The Liturgical Movement

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.  His book was so obviously anti-Catholic, a Catholic response was clearly needed.] -- Once again "Love your enemies" proves true. The "enemy" was the one who eventually did us the most good!

Confession as a "devotional practice"
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 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 -- Practice of devotional confession declines steeply. 

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Quam Singulari

1910, August 8   (Pius X)  Sacred Congregation of the Discipline of the Sacraments Quam Singulari, "Decree on [lowering the age for] First Communion"

The custom of not admitting children to Confession or of not giving them absolution when they have already attained the use of reason must be entirely abandoned. The Ordinary shall see to it that this condition ceases absolutely, and he may, if necessary, use legal measures accordingly.

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Code of Canon Law (1917-1983)

The Sacrament of Penance in the former (1917) Code of Canon Law

870 to 936 ' 66 canons

Title IV: [The Sacrament of] Penance [870 to 936 ' 66 canons] [bapt, Conf, Euch, Penance]

Can. 870: Definition: In the sacrament of penance, through the juridical absolution given by a legitimate minister, the sins committed after baptism of the faithful who are properly disposed are remitted.

Chapter 1: The Minister of the sacrament of penance:  only a priest with jurisdiction

Canons 872-892 (one third of the Canons) Jurisdiction: --besides the power of orders he must have jurisdiction -- How does he get jurisdiction -- over whom the jurisdiction extends -- How long does jurisdiction last -- Jurisdiction for religious priest -- Revoking jurisdiction -- who can who can give jurisdiction besides the bishop -- Jurisdiction and religious houses -- Jurisdiction over novices -- Jurisdiction in writing -- Jurisdiction for the dying...

Chapter 2: Reserved sins (893 - 900). Who can reserve sins -- Forgiving reserved sins -- Religious superiors and reserved sins -- When reservation ceases... etc.

Chapter 3: The subject of the sacrament [the person going to confession] 901-907 [only 6 of the 66 canons]. Every mortal sin must be told in confession, number and kind but if there are no mortal sins, to confess venial sins or already confessed mortal sins is sufficient matter for the sacrament. Confessing through an interpreter...

Chapter 4: The place for confession. 908 (priest cannot hear women except behind a screen)

Chapter 5: Indulgences 911- 936 (25 canons ' nearly half of the chapter!)

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Mystici Corporis

1943, June 29  Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi, Encyclical on "The Mystical Body of Christ."

88. The same result follows from the opinions of those who assert that little importance should be given to the frequent confession of venial sins. Far more important, they say, is that general confession which the Spouse of Christ, surrounded by her children in the Lord, makes each day by the mouth of the priest as he approaches the altar of God. As you well know, Venerable Brethren, it is true that venial sins may be expiated in many ways which are to be highly commended. But to ensure more rapid progress day by day in the path of virtue, We will that the pious practice of frequent confession, which was introduced into the Church by the inspiration of the Holy spirit, should be earnestly advocated. By it genuine self-knowledge is increased, Christian humility grows, bad habits are corrected, spiritual neglect and tepidity are resisted, the conscience is purified, the will strengthened, a salutary self-control is attained, and grace is increased in virtue of the Sacrament itself. Let those, therefore, among the younger clergy who make light of or lessen esteem for frequent confession realize that what they are doing is alien to the Spirit of Christ and disastrous for the Mystical Body of our Savior.

1947, November 20  Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei,  Encyclical on "The Sacred Liturgy"

173. When dealing with genuine and solid piety We stated that there could be no real opposition between the sacred liturgy and other religious practices, provided they be kept within legitimate bounds and performed for a legitimate purpose. In fact, there are certain exercises of piety which the Church recommends very much to clergy and religious.

174. It is Our wish also that the faithful, as well, should take part in these practices. The chief of these are: meditation on spiritual things, diligent examination of conscience, enclosed retreats, visits to the blessed sacrament, and those special prayers in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary among which the rosary, as all know, has pride of place.[163]

175. From these multiple forms of piety, the inspiration and action of the Holy Spirit cannot be absent. Their purpose is, in various ways, to attract and direct our souls to God, purifying them from their sins, encouraging them to practice virtue and, finally, stimulating them to advance along the path of sincere piety by accustoming them to meditate on the eternal truths and disposing them better to contemplate the mysteries of the human and divine natures of Christ. Besides, since they develop a deeper spiritual life of the faithful, they prepare them to take part in sacred public functions with greater fruit, and they lessen the danger of liturgical prayers becoming an empty ritualism.

176. In keeping with your pastoral solicitude, Venerable Brethren, do not cease to recommend and encourage these exercises of piety from which the faithful, entrusted to your care, cannot but derive salutary fruit. Above all, do not allow - as some do, who are deceived under the pretext of restoring the liturgy or who idly claim that only liturgical rites are of any real value and dignity - that churches be closed during the hours not appointed for public functions, as has already happened in some places: where the adoration of the august sacrament and visits to our Lord in the tabernacles are neglected; where confession of devotion is discouraged; and devotion to the Virgin Mother of God, a sign of "predestination" according to the opinion of holy men, is so neglected, especially among the young, as to fade away and gradually vanish. Such conduct most harmful to Christian piety is like poisonous fruit, growing on the infected branches of a healthy tree, which must be cut off so that the life-giving sap of the tree may bring forth only the best fruit.

177. Since the opinions expressed by some about frequent confession are completely foreign to the spirit of Christ and His Immaculate Spouse and are also most dangerous to the spiritual life, let Us call to mind what with sorrow We wrote about this point in the encyclical on the Mystical Body. We urgently insist once more that what We expounded in very serious words be proposed by you for the serious consideration and dutiful obedience of your flock, especially to students for the priesthood and young clergy.

182. There are, besides, other exercises of piety which, although not strictly belonging to the sacred liturgy, are, nevertheless, of special import and dignity, and may be considered in a certain way to be an addition to the liturgical cult; they have been approved and praised over and over again by the Apostolic See and by the bishops. Among these are the prayers usually said during the month of May in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mother of God, or during the month of June to the most Sacred Heart of Jesus: also novenas and triduums, stations of the cross and other similar practices.

183. These devotions make us partakers in a salutary manner of the liturgical cult, because they urge the faithful to go frequently to the sacrament of penance, to attend Mass and receive communion with devotion, and, as well, encourage them to meditate on the mysteries of our redemption and imitate the example of the saints.

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To Think About



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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 02/19/14 .  Your comments on this site are welcome at