Sacraments of Initiation
Part 2 History

Chapter i20 Summary History of  Christian Initiation








The Reconciliation of Penitents
Part Two:  Story Telling

Chapter 10 Individual Confession

Historical Survey


Pastoral Reflection

Suggested Questions for Discussion

Historical Survey

The manner of the individual confession, that is "the telling of the sins to the priest", has changed in various ways during the long history of the sacrament. In canonical penance, confession was made during a private meeting with the bishop before the sinner publicly entered the order of penitents. It was during the private meeting that a fitting type and period of penance, fitting the crime/sin, was also determined.

During the period of tariff penance, the sinners confessed their sins to the "holy person" in order that the proper penance might be assigned as indicated in a penitential book. The major focus was on the tariffs, the acts of satisfaction. Today, for example, those who are not feeling well physically might go and "confess" or "tell" their illness to a medical doctor in order receive pills or advice to cure the illness. The focus of this action is not on the "confession" to the doctor, but on the prescription which is to make them well. In the same way, tariff penance focused not so much on the telling of the sins but on the remedy of penance. It is only during the modern period that the focus of the sacrament shifts to the telling of the sins to the priest and this one element of the sacrament becomes so important that it gives its name "confession" to the entire sacrament.

In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council prescribed obligatory confession once a year for all Catholics, if they were in sin, to their own proper pastor. And in 1551, the Council of Trent during its fourteenth session (October and November) decreed that all mortal sins, including secret sins, committed after Baptism are obligatory matter for confession.

Emphasis is placed on "integral" confession, that is, telling all mortal sins. It becomes important to tell all the circumstances which might change the gravity of the sin. Penitents are encouraged in the sacrament to tell other facts about themselves (for example, how long it was since the last confession; state of life, single, married, cleric, etc.) so that the priest can judge the condition of their soul and be better able to give fitting advise. Confession became a time for spiritual direction and counseling. And in the years preceding the Second Vatican Council, confessions of devotion were encouraged, that is, confessions which were not directed toward "reconciliation" (because the penitent was not cut off from the Church by grave sin) but rather were directed toward the eradication of individual venial sins from the Christian's life.

The "Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution" provides for individual confession so that the decree of the Council of Trent regarding the necessity of confession of mortal sins can be fulfilled. However, it also provides for the individual confession for those who do not have grave sin because of the importance of the witness and the sign value of the personal movement on the part of the congregation to acknowledge their sinfulness. The movement of the individuals in the community to the confessors gives powerful witness to the reality that we are a redeemed yet sinful Church, ever in need of deepening our baptismal commitment.

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Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy

2. It is through the liturgy that the faithful are enabled to express in their lives and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church.


Music in Catholic Worship

4. People in love make signs of love, not only to express their love, but also to deepen it. Love never expressed dies. Christians' love for Christ and for each other, Christians' faith in Christ and in each other, must be expressed in the signs and symbols of celebration or it will die.

5. . . . the signs and symbols of worship can give bodily expression to faith as we celebrate. Our own faith is stimulated. We become one with others whose faith is similarly expressed. We rise above our own feelings to respond to God in prayer.

6. Faith grows when it is well expressed in celebration. Good celebrations foster and nourish faith. Poor celebrations may weaken and destroy it.

Rite of Penance

6b. The sacrament of penance includes the confession of sins, which comes from true knowledge of self before God and from contrition for those sins. However, the inner examination of heart and the outward accusation must be made in the light of God's mercy. Confession requires on the penitent's part the will to open the heart to the minister of God and on the minister's part a spiritual judgment by which, acting in the person of Christ, he pronounces his decision of forgiveness or retention of sins in accord with the power of the keys.

7a. To obtain the saving remedy of the sacrament of penance, according to the plan of our merciful God, the faithful must confess to a priest each and every grave sin that they remember after an examination of conscience.

55. Then the penitents go to the priests designated for individual confession, and confess their sins. Each one receives and accepts a fitting act of satisfaction and is absolved.

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Pastoral Reflection

The "Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution" recognizes the importance of the witness given by those going to confession. When the members of the congregation move from their places in the assembly to the stations for individual confession, they admit the reality of their sinfulness in a powerful manner to the other members of the assembly.

Admitting our sinfulness is not the only thing that individual confession indicates to the other members of the assembly. The other members of the parish probably already know that we are sinners! The personal movement to the confessor is a sign and a promise to the community of our repentance and our resolve to live more faithfully the promises of our baptism. This movement is a powerful sign in families -- husbands and wives, children and parents; in the social context -- employers and employees, the poor and the rich; and in the parish itself. Parishes have found it an especially powerful sign when the assembly can see the pastor himself going to confession, the other priest confessors and the members of the parish staff admitting their repentance in community.

The individual movement to the confessor is somewhat analogous to the procession for Holy Communion at Sunday Mass. While we give witness to one another by our presence and our participation in the eucharistic prayer of praise and thanksgiving, we give a very special sign to the community when we individually get up from our places, process to the communion station and receive the Bread and drink the Cup. While the celebration of the sacraments is always a community action, the celebration is at the same time a personal communal act which calls for our personal participation and response.

The "Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution" encourages us to examine our conscience in the light of the scripture readings. This type of examination calls us to move away from "lists" of sins and to look at our response to God's loving action in our lives.

Often at a parish celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation, the members of the assembly who have not cut themselves off from the love of God by grave sin which must be confessed specifically are directed to approach the confessional stations and confess only that area of their lives which is least in harmony with the message of the Scriptures which were proclaimed at the service.

The time while this procession to the confession stations is taking place is a time for reverence and prayer on the part of the assembly. It is not just "waiting around till the confessions are over". As during the time of the procession for Holy Community at Mass, we give our personal witness to the community by our action and our devotion. We witness the devotion of the other members of the assembly as we pray with them and for them. This attitude of devotion can be fostered by a hymn, common prayer, or instrumental music. Some parishes have effectively used meditative scripture passages accompanied with appropriate visuals at this time; or symbolic actions, such as going to the baptismal pool after the confession and signing one another with baptismal water while renewing the commitment of that primary sacrament of our forgiveness. Much depends on the space and style of the church and the congregation. Of course the movement to individual confession must take place within a reasonable amount of time, just as the distribution of Holy Communion should not be unreasonably prolonged out of proportion to the rest of the rite.

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Suggested Questions for Discussion

Why do most Catholics still call this sacrament "confession"?

Do you think that most people who come to the parish celebrations of reconciliation have sins that need to be confessed by number and kind?

Do you think that most people understand that they do not have to confess all their faults and sins?

How does the movement for individual confessions take place in your parish? Are the confession stations toward the center of the assembly area where the rest of the assembly can see the movement to confession?

Are there a sufficient number of confession stations and priest confessors? Where do the other priests come from?

Are the confessions made standing, kneeling, or sitting? Which is best?

What is a reasonable length of time for the individual confessions?

What does the assembly do during this time in your parish?

What proportion of the people stay for the remainder of the celebration and what proportion leave after their individual confession?

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Copyright: Tom Richstatter, Franciscan Province of St. John the Baptist, Cincinnati Ohio, Order of Friars Minor. 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 03/20/15 .  Your comments on this site are welcome at