As the third Christian millennium gets underway, we gain a healthy perspective of the history of church development. The Seven Sacraments, for example, were not formulated till the middle of the fifteenth century around the Council of Florence. Baptism and Eucharist, the two sacraments we share with our Protestant brothers and sisters, were foundational and present in the fledgling Christian church of the first century, while the others found their place and meaning in subsequent times.
What we know today as the Sacrament of Reconciliation (or Penance or Confession or Forgiveness or Healing) existed in the early church as part of those foundational sacraments; its cleansing grace was contained in Baptism, its confession of God’s divinity and our human failings in Eucharist. From the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection till the legalization of Christianity in 313 c. e. through the Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Tolerance, Christians had to meet in secret. There were no churches – so they had to meet in designated houses, burial sites or other inconspicuous places. If one of them committed an act that separated him/her from communion with the church, e.g., murder, apostasy, adultery, s/he would have to repent to rejoin them, i.e., to no longer be “excommunicated/” Since such serious sins of separation were public, so was the reconciliation process. The sinner would appear before the assembled community to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. It might look something like a modern-day AA meeting: “Hi – my name is Don and I am a sinner.” The community served as the agent of welcome and absolution.
After the emperor became Christian and, with him, much of the empire, huge structures were fashioned into worship sites, the catechumenate process (to become Christian) became popularized, and communal forgiveness essentially disappeared because communities morphed into unwieldy sizes. The presbyter (priest) began to give absolution in the name of the community that was now too large to assemble. Since the catechumenate process led to baptism, it was incorporated with a penitential period, part of a lengthy and rigorous journey of conversion. Like baptism, reconciliation was normally to be received only once in a lifetime. If, however, a Christian committed an act by which s/he separated her/himself from the community (excommunicated), s/he could, through confessing, doing penance, and requesting reconciliation, be in communion once again. The non-public, less serious, everyday faults were forgiven through Eucharist which remained, as it is today via the penitential act, the ordinary sacrament of reconciliation with God and the church.
As years unfolded, more and more “serious” Christians moved to monasteries, schools, or hermitages that developed their faith. In the seventh century, in some regions, reconciliation began to separate from baptism to gain a life of its own. No longer was it a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence; the act of confessing and doing penance became part of a spirituality for many Christians who sought the sanctifying grace and healing power more frequently. Around the twelfth century it became one of what we now know as the Seven Sacraments – through holy matrimony, depending on which history accounts you read, was not at that time counted among them. In the twentieth century, through the influence of the Second Vatican Council, the church rediscovered some of its original purpose and beauty and highlighted the notion of reconciliation to God, self, and the community. “Reconciliation” is a Greek word which means eyelash-to-eyelash, implying that we should go face to face with ourselves, or God, and our community to regain communion with the Body of Christ.
Today most Catholics receive this sacrament during the seasons of preparation in a communal manner each year. This format connects us closely with the early church’s community model. Meeting privately with a priest, as representative of the community, is still customary for those who are out of a communion with the Body of Christ because of more serious, public, sins, while Baptism and Eucharist remain as ordinary sacraments of reconciliation for us as we embrace the divine mercy of God.
As a priest, I can tell you that the sacrament serves a valid and wonderful purpose in our modern times that is often emotional, sanctifying, and even life-changing. But too often the confession box gets misuse by people who are scrupulous or obsessed with compulsive thoughts or acts that torture them, usually sexual in nature. Most of these people are dealing with issues that are more psychological than spiritual. Realizing that half the cure of any ailment is tied to listening and knowing that priests are cheaper than therapists, I don’t know what to do with those that return to the confessional over and over to confess the same thing with no intention of changing. I guess I just listen and trust that the grace of the sacrament and healing power of God are at work.