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The Origin of Catholic Confession

Jesus entered this world to forgive sins. Recall the words of our Lord: “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him may not die but may have eternal life" (John 3:16). During His public ministry, Jesus preached about the forgiveness of sins: remember the parables of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11ff) or the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1ff), and His teaching that “there will likewise be more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to repent" (Luke 15:7). Jesus Himself forgave sins: remember the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1ff) or the woman who washed His feet with her tears (Luke 7:36ff). He also taught us to pray for forgiveness in the “Our Father": “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" (cf. Matthew 5:9ff). His mission of reconciliation would climax in His passion, death, and resurrection: Jesus suffered, died, and rose to free us from sin and death.

However, Jesus never trivialized sin nor rationalized it. No, for Jesus, sin is sin, a violation of love against God, self, and neighbor. However, in His divine mercy, Jesus called the sinner to realize the sin, to repent of it, and to be reconciled with God, self, and neighbor.

Jesus wanted this ministry of reconciliation to continue. On that first Easter Sunday evening, Jesus appeared to His apostles, “breathed on them," and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound" (John 20:21-23). Only twice in Sacred Scripture do we find God breathing into human beings. First, in the Genesis account of creation, God breathes the life of a soul into the man He has created (Genesis 2:7). Now, Jesus, the Son, breathes His life into His apostles, His priests, so that through them He will “breathe" life into the souls of contrite sinners. In this scene, Christ instituted the Sacrament of Penance and made His apostles the ministers of it.

At the ascension, Jesus again charged His apostles with this ministry: “Thus it is written that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead on the third day. In His name, penance for the remission of sins is to be preached to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of this" (Luke 24:46ff). Clearly, Jesus came to forgive sins, He wanted that reconciliation to continue, and He gave the Church a sacrament through which priests would continue to act as the ministers of this reconciliation.

We see this ministry of reconciliation lived-out in the early Church. St. Paul wrote, “God has reconciled us to Himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation" (II Cor 5:18). The Didache (orTeachings of the Twelve Apostles), written about AD 80, stated, “In the congregation you shall confess your transgressions" and “On the Lord’s Day, come together and break bread… having confessed your transgressions that your sacrifice may be pure." St. Cyprian in his De lapsis (c. 251) concerning the reconciliation of Christians who had succumbed to offering pagan worship rather than face martyrdom, wrote, “Let each confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession can be received, while satisfaction and the forgiveness granted by the priests is acceptable to God." At this time of persecution, when local “parishes" were small, individuals publicly confessed their sins at the beginning of Mass (as mentioned in the Didache) and received absolution from the bishop or priest.

After the legalization of the Church by Constantine, the Church fathers continued to emphasize the importance of confession. St. Ambrose (d. 397) wrote, “It seemed impossible that sins should be forgiven through penance; Christ granted this power to the Apostles and from the Apostles it has been transmitted to the office of priests" (De poenitentia). Similarly, St. Athanasius (d. 373) asserted, “As the man whom the priest baptizes is enlightened by the grace of the Holy Ghost, so does he who in penance confesses his sins, receive through the priest forgiveness in virtue of the grace of Christ" (Contra Novatus). By the mid-400s and the pontificate of Leo I, private confession under the seal of secrecy became the norm to safeguard the reputation of the penitent and to attract others to the sacrament.

Therefore, we go to confession because it is a sacrament given to us by Christ, and it has always been a practice of the Church. This sacrament reconciles us first with God: “The whole power of the sacrament of Penance consists in restoring us to God’s grace and joining us with Him in an intimate friendship" (Catechism, #1468). Secondly, the sacrament reconciles us with the Church: “It must be recalled that… this reconciliation with God leads, as it were, to other reconciliations, which repair the other breaches caused by sin. The forgiven penitent is reconciled with himself in his inmost being, where he regains his innermost truth. He is reconciled with his brethren whom he has in some way offended and wounded. He is reconciled with the Church. He is reconciled with all creation" (John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia).

This sacrament is so important in our sharing in the life of Christ, the Church has even mandated its practice. To prevent laxity, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) required that “every faithful of either sex who has reached the age of discretion should at least once a year faithfully confess all his sins to his own priest. He should strive as far as possible to fulfill the penance imposed on him, and with reverence receive at least during Easter time the sacrament of the Eucharist": This rule is still a precept of the Church, commonly called the “Easter Duty." The Council of Trent in 1551 in its Doctrine on the Sacrament of Penance asserted that since mortal sin “kills" the life of God in our souls, these sins must be confessed and absolved through the Sacrament of Penance (a principle repeated by Pope John Paul II in The Splendor of Truth). Trent also said “it is right and profitable" to confess venial sins.

We could end the answer here. However, regular confession is a healthy spiritual practice. Each sincere Catholic needs to periodically– every month or two– do a good examination of conscience holding himself to the standard of Christ. Each person should reflect on how well he has lived a “Christ like life" by following the commandments and the teachings of the Church. Perhaps one’s failures are not so much commissions as they are omissions. For all of these, we bring our soul to the Lord and receive forgiveness. The healing grace of the Sacrament of Penance washes away sin and gives us the strength to avoid that sin again. The more we love the Lord, the more we are aware of the smallest sins and the more we want to say, “Lord, I am sorry. Please forgive me." I am sure this is why Pope John Paul II goes to confession weekly, as did Mother Teresa during her life. We too ought to take full advantage of this beautiful sacrament which draws us closer to the Lord.



  1. Lloyd Reply

    Oh Almighty God please bless my girl and me I need you in our life

  2. michael Reply

    thank you lord Jesus for giving us the Sacrament of Penance,Your Ocean of Mercy and Love,thank you for the chance of going to Heaven to be with You and the Father,bless us Lord upon our journey on earth while We carry our cross everyday

  3. Pauline Thogo Reply

    The Sacrament of Penance is a life transforming Sacrament: I always get rejuvenated whenever I approach Christ through this Sacrament. Thank you Jesus for your infinite goodness and mercy to me, a sinner. In te confido Iesu!!! Pauline

  4. Michael Ruppert Reply

    This is free therapy.
    When you are finished talking with the
    Priest. You always feel better.

  5. Christfollowing Reply

    The teachings of Christ in the Bible clearly state that man’s sins are to be forgiven as He forgave sins. Where in the Bible is it stated that man must delineate sin? The apostles were to forgive sins. In the Bible, Christ tells the woman to go and sin no more. She had been accused of sinning by others. It is not said that she confessed specificity to a sin.

    At one time in my life, general forgiveness was available to all. The priest absolved (forgave) sin. However, it was required to make a private “confession” —- without delineating sins. Then the practice of general absolution was stopped.

    Re-instituting general forgiveness, either in a group or individual practice will accomplish the teaching of Christ and most likely bring back many to the Church.

  6. Spencer Reply

    I see a lot of words, but the few of them supporting confession to a priest came from a priest. Not one verse from gods written word supports these claims. Confess your sins to Jesus Christ, for he is the one that saves.

    1. Mortadella Reply

      I completely agree. And how is it that a priest, who is just as fallible as any other human being and can even sin, is supposed to self-righteously be able to give a divine God-like process such as forgiveness from the one and only Almighty Father, God Himself? How about some of those filthy, perverted priests that have ruined boys’ lives and even driven some of them to such confusion, anguish and self-hatred that they’ve committee suicide? Does God happily forgive/bestow forgiveness through such a filthy human to another innocent human that in the midst of still having never been caught yet of such deviance and sacrilege of abusing a child or teen and still can partake in such filthy abuse while still handing out forgiveness because he hasn’t as of yet been caught. That’s absolute nonsense. Can you imagine the hypocrisy of a sinful priest who himself hasn’t been absolved of ongoing sin yet magically has the right to bestow God’s forgiveness on others? Pray directly to God for forgiveness, He knows whether you are genuinely sorry for your sins and whether you genuinely want to repent! I still attend Catholic mass every Sunday but this is one “sacrament” that is totally taken out of context from the Bible to justify some sort of requirement to magically get yours sins forgiven through a man that is just as privy to sin (no matter how hard they try not to) as any other human being, and I have grown to completely disagree with this MAN-MADE TRADITION. It’s nothing more than a tradition. If the Bible doesn’t expressly tell us that is how it is to be done, then how could the Church ever tell it’s flock that it is the one and only path to forgiveness?! GOD KNOWS THE TRUTH!

  7. Bessong Ernest Reply

    What an experience, I want to believe those who have’nt done this should try and see what relief they will find in them after passing confession. This sacrament is perfect.

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