Kathleen Chesto opens up the history and development of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The idea of getting rid of our sins was present in a ritual performed by the Early Hebrews. They would gather as a community and place a young spotless goat in the middle of the people. All of the people would heap their sins upon this blameless young creature. They would then send it off into the desert to die as a sacrifice for the sins of the community. That is where the term “scapegoat” was derived.
The next ritual noted became common practice at the Temple. The people believed that they could purchase small animals such as two turtle doves to be sacrificed to forgive their sins. The idea was that you could pay for forgiveness. This was the belief of the culture when Jesus Christ came. Jesus taught that God would forgive sins without payment. This was radical and unbelievable to the people.
The earliest church after the Resurrection of Christ believed that Baptism would forgive all sins committed to that point. They knew Baptism should only take place one time. So the early church taught that you must not sin after Baptism. They also believed that Jesus would come back within their life time. Jesus didn’t come back and many people had committed big sins. The early church fell back on an old Hebrew idea and began to throw the sinners out of the church; they were excommunicated. One of the problems with that idea was that there were too many people being thrown out. To solve that problem the Church founded the idea of Canonical Penance which was active from the 2nd – 5th Century. This was the act of a sinner trying to be readmitted to the church. The sinner had to dress in sack cloth, be covered in ash and beg the bishop to make this penance. If accepted it could take seven years to a lifetime before they were fully accepted back into the Church. They became like beggars leaving their families and begging for prayers, fasting and following strict rules.
Between the 4th and 5th century this idea was failing and a new practice had begun in the Monasteries of Ireland. Individual confession was originally created for a monk to confess his faults and seek guidance from an older monk. It was very appealing to the people because it was repeatable. The confessor could be anyone. To make it more organized a penitential book was written sin=penance. Thus was born commutation; one could take their penance of fasting for one year and shorten it to one week of extreme fasting. Many penances took years to a lifetime to complete. Substitution then became the answer. Another person could complete a person’s penance for them. The rich would give their penance to their servants to complete. This practice of individual confession was not accepted by the Church for centuries. In the 13th century during the Lateran Council it was accepted with rules. The confessor must be a legal representative of the church. Absolution was to be given and penance was the way you paid for your sins. So began Temporal Punishment; if you didn’t complete your penance on earth you would do so in purgatory. This practice consisted of prayer, fasting and alms giving; from which indulgences were produced. If you paid the church time was taken off of your penance in purgatory. It became very abused and led to the Reformation. Martin Luther condemned the practice. The Council of Trent was convened to refute Martin Luther. The Church said it had the power to forgive sins because it was given this power by Jesus Christ.
Finally by Vatican II the communal idea of sin was renewed. Individual Reconciliation was put into practice not in a box but a in a room with a priest as a spiritual guide as well as a representative of Christ to give absolution. General Absolution was also introduced.
The history of this sacrament completely shaped its development over time. I am shocked that people believed for so long that they could pay for their sins to be forgiven.
I believe that this sacrament is not utilized as much as it should be in our culture. If we could only understand that this sacrament brings peace and guidance to each of us then maybe more people would go back to Reconciliation. It is difficult to confess our sins face to face. However, reconciling to God and being forgiven and realigning our lives in the direction of God is worth the embarrassment.
Copyright 2013 Lori Hadorn-Disselkamp