When was Sacrament of Confession Instituted?

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Hello:

I know that Jesus gave the Apostles the power to forgive sins in the Holy Scriptures, so I am not asking about that. My colleague has told me that he thinks this Sacrament was first practiced later than 500 A.D. I have always been under the impression that the earliest Christians practiced this Sacrament, but that it was public (within the Christian community).

The context of this discussion with my colleague was the relationships between the Sacramental life and the Incarnation of God. My understanding has been that the Sacraments bloomed out of the wonder the early Christians had for the Incarnation - of course along with the words of Christ.

In Christ,

Sean.
 
There are many writings in the early centuries of the Church about “Reconciliation”. Cyprian dealt with what were called Lapsi, repentant believers who had fallen. There are many writings from about the 140’s on. The Church knew that reconciliation with sinners was necessary after Peters example. It needed to work on just how to go about doing it.
 
“Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. . . . On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure” (Didache 4:14, 14:1 [A.D. 70]).

It seems that the practice of public confession one’s sins in church was a practice that was common less than 40 years after Christ’s ascension. The Didache was the “working doctrinal manual” of the Apostles.
 
The concept of a private confession did, in fact become common around AD 500.

Prior to that, there was still confession to a priest, but it was more commonly done in public to the whole congreagation as well. One would stand up, prior to Mass and declare your sins to the priest and witnessed by one’s fellow faithful.

The priest would then give absolution and assign a penace.

But it was still the Sacrement of Reconcilliation and has been in placed since the time of the Apostles.
 
The priest would then give absolution and assign a penace.
As I understand it, the penance itself would also be public. Sackcloth and ashes type stuff, prohibition from receiving the Eucharist for extended periods, etc.
 
This is probably more than anyone wants to know but here’s something I’ve found. I think it’s accurate…If not, I hope someone will correct me.

This history can be roughly divided into three parts:

1.) Until the 500’s
a. This period of the sacrament was characterized by the public nature of the penances given to the penitents as well as the severity of the penance and its length.
b. The community prayed with and for the penitent.
c. The sacrament was received only once and was seen as a kind of “second baptism,” not literally but symbolically since it took away all sins, like baptism.
d. The Sacrament in this time is properly called “Reconciliation” since only those who had committed mortal sins (murder, adultery, apostasy) and actually needed to be reconciled with the Church approached the Sacrament.
e. The process of the Sacrament was:
  1. private confession of sins to the bishop
  2. bishop introduces penitent into the “order of penitents” (like the RCIA in terms of length and intensity)
  3. At the end of this process, often on Holy Thursday, the person would be reconciled and welcomed back into the Church
  4. The person would now have a particular status in the Church community—“order of penitents”
  5. In other words: contrition>confession>penance>absolution/reconciliation: note: the absolution is not only from the guilt of the sin but also from the penitential practices
    f. During this time, starting in the Desert Tradition (St. Anthony, Pachomius, etc.), there were people who confessed frequently
  6. this practice began with monks
  7. spread to laity as they saw the holiness of these men and wanted their counsel
  8. this confession was done repeatedly even if there were no mortal sins
  9. this is not “reconciliation” but “penance” and was done out of devotion and a desire for increased self-knowledge
    g. This practice spread to monasteries in Ireland and from Ireland to the rest of Europe
2.) From the 500’s – 1200’s
a. The practice which started in the Desert of Egypt spread (in particular through Ireland) and became the normal practice in the whole Church:
  1. it had the same format as the previous style
  2. penances were still severe for mortal sins
  3. many people began to confess once a year
  4. was different in that the penances weren’t as public since more and more people were using the Sacrament
  5. these people who were using the Sacrament were often influential members of society and a public display was unseemly and seen as disruptive
    b. The system of penance began to collapse for two main reasons:
  6. the penances were too severe
  7. the penances were often “by the book”—confessors were not always learned so “penitential books” were used. These books applied set penances for each sin, no matter the circumstances which were involved. This was seen as unjust and juridical
    c. This led to a practice of “commutation” of penances:
  8. pilgrimages, prayers, donations replaced corporal punishment, fasting, etc.
  9. penances were reduced
  10. using the idea of “carrying one another’s burdens" (from Galatians), some began to have other people fulfill their penances—usually the wealthy having their servants do it
3.) From the 1200’s – Present
a. As in previous section, people often used the Sacrament and since they were more frequently receiving penances (unlike at first when it only one time), fulfilling the penances became more and more difficult, also owing to the increased influence and status of Christians and other facts—like a farmer is not able to fast and a mayor or judge can’t go on pilgrimage, etc.
b. Indulgences (setting aside the temporal punishment in this life due to sin) were introduced as a way to help people fulfill basic requirements for the forgiveness of their sins
c. People began to ask the saints for help in making up for their sins, as well as other people
d. Important: the penances of the past were imposed to ensure that a person fulfilled the requirements of justice in correcting the wrong their sins caused in society
e. Thus, in order to make it possible for most people to receive the grace of the Sacrament, the format changed over time from what is stated above to: contrition>confession>absolution>penance
 
Sorry it took so long to respond, but thanks very much brother for your rigourous post!
 
Gospel of John/Chapter 20/Verses 20 - 23 : The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. And when He said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
 
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