Public penance and confession


Recently I gave a short class on the history of confession in the Catholic Church. Among other interesting topics covered was the ancient practice of public penance. In the first centuries, sinners guilty of particularly serious sins, especially homicide, adultery and idolatry, were required to publicly confess their sins and beg for prayers so that they be publicly readmitted to communion by the bishop during Holy Week. Needless to say confession was not very popular for its “public humiliation” component.

Over time, and especially through the compassionate practices of Celtic monks, the Church began to see individual and private confession as the most effective and gospel inspired practice. This, Deo gratias, has become the common practice to our day, at least in the Western Church tradition. Some elements of public penance still remain, such as priests’ use of a violet stole and the raising of his right hand (showing public authority), the public space of a church for the sacrament, and the imposition of a penance at every confession. The intercessory prayer of the priest following absolution recalls the prayers of the Church for those early penitents, who were, of course, not so very different from us. Insert yourself into this tradition, and get to confession during Lent… and pray for confessors!

Here’s a fun account of the steps for a good (private) confession …

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