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The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (commonly called Confession, Reconciliation or Penance) is one of seven sacraments of the Catholic Church and sacred mysteries of Eastern Christianity, in which the faithful obtain divine mercy for the sins committed against God and neighbour and are reconciled with the community of the Church (Cf. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 11 §2; CCC 1422). By this sacrament Christians are freed from sins committed after Baptism. The sacrament of penance is considered the normal way to be absolved from mortal sins which would otherwise condemn a person to Hell.
Catholics distinguish between two types of sin. Mortal sins are a "grave violation of God's law" that "turns man away from God". Someone who is aware of having committed mortal sins must repent of having done so and must confess them in order to benefit from the sacrament. Venial sins, the kind that "does not set us in direct opposition to the will and friendship of God", can be remitted by contrition and reception of other sacraments but they too, "constituting a moral disorder", "are rightly and usefully declared in confession".
Every sin involves "an unhealthy attachment to creatures", purification from which is called the temporal punishment for sin (as opposed to the eternal punishment merited by mortal sin). The satisfaction required of the penitent is not an essential part of the sacrament, because the primary effect of remission of guilt and eternal punishment is obtained without it; but it is an integral part, because it is required for obtaining the secondary effect of this purification or remission of temporal punishment.
The Code of Canon Law states: "A priest alone is the minister of the sacrament of penance." While in the English language, the word "priest" usually means someone received into the second of the three holy orders (also called the presbyterate) but not into the highest, that of bishop, the Latin text underlying this statement uses the Latin term sacerdos, which comprises both bishops and, in the common English sense, priests. To refer exclusively to priests in the more common English sense, Latin uses the word presbyter. In order to be able to absolve validly from sin, the priest (sacerdos) must have the faculty to do so granted to him either by canon law or by the competent Church authority.
There are three major periods in its development:
There are three major phases in the early Christian practice of penance:
Practically all writings of that period, for instance The Shepherd of Hermas, Didache or Letters of St. Ignace of Antioch, show that grave sins were not rare among Christians. Cyrille Vogel collected a list of twelve major sins named in the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers' writings. They are all various transgressions of the Ten Commandments:
Christians in the early communities of the Church obtained forgiveness for those sins by practising prayer, good deeds, fasting and alms-giving. This early way of penitential discipline received in modern times the name of public penance, mistakenly confused with public announcement of the excommunication because of a public and grave sin. Sometimes sinners did publicly speak about their sins, but testimonies of the early Church show that in most cases offences were known to the priest alone. When a penitent did publicly confess his/her sins, decision to do it was always private initiative of the person, a free act of Christian faith for spiritual motives. The public character of early penance should be understood as prayerful participation and support given by the community to a sinner, and not as public humiliation.
Multiple discussions began in the 3rd century, time of many persecutions, on how to exercise Church penance regarding grave sinners, e.g. lapsed Catholics, idolaters, adulterers, murderers. A controversy first resulted over Montanism, whose main supporter was Tertullian.
The primary source of information on the canonical penance in this period are sermons of Augustine of Hippo and of Caesarius of Arles. Special canons were issued by regional, local Church councils on how to deal with the public penance. Because of that it is called canonical penance.
Acts of ancient councils of this period show that no one who belonged to the order of penitents had access to Eucharistic communion – until the bishop reconciled him with the community of the Church. Canon 29 of the Council of Epaone (517) in Gaul says, that from among penitents only apostates had to leave Sunday assembly together with catechumens, before the Eucharistic part commenced. Other penitents were present until the end but were denied communion in the table of the Lord.
A new approach in the 7th century to the practice of penance first became evident in the acts of the Council of Chalon-sur-Saône (644-655). Bishops gathered in that council were convinced that it was useful for the salvation of the faithful when diocesan bishop prescribed penance to a sinner as many times as he or she would fall into sin (canon 8). The practice of so-called tariff penance was brought to continental Europe from the British Isles by Hiberno-Scottish and Anglo-Saxon monks. Because of its isolation Celtic Church for centuries remained fixed with its forms of worship and penitential discipline which differed from the rest of the Church. It had no knowledge of the institution of a public penance in the community of the church which could not be repeated, and which involved canonical obligations. Celtic penitential practices consisted of confession, acceptance of satisfaction fixed by the priest, and finally in reconciliation. They date back to 6th century. Penitential books native to the islands provided precisely determined penances for all offences, small and great. That kind of penance is called tariff penance.
Beginnings of practising the sacrament of penance in the form of individual confession as we know it now, i.e. bringing confession of sins and reconciliation together, can be traced back to 11th century.
In 1215 the Fourth Council of the Lateran made it canon law that every Catholic Christian goes to confession in his parish at least once a year. The specification to one's own parish was later dropped.
Although the issue of the institution of this sacrament by Jesus himself had been debated since the Council of Trent, in 1907 in Lamentabili Sane Exitu (items 46 and 47) Pope Pius X specifically reaffirmed the relevance of Gospel of John 20:22-23 to this sacrament, overriding any previous assertions. In Lamentabili Sane Exitu he quoted John 20:22-23: "Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained."
In the early Church, publicly known sins were often confessed openly or publicly in church. However, private confession was still used for private sins. Also, penance was often done before absolution rather than after absolution. Penances were and are assigned to expiate what is called the temporal punishment that remains due to sins even when the sins are forgiven, namely "an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory". In the early Church, the assigned penances were much more harsh. For example, it would not have been unusual for someone to receive a 10-year penance for committing the sin of abortion which the Catholic Church considers to be a grave or mortal sin. With more of an emphasis later placed on the Church's ability to expiate temporal effects of sin (by prayer, sacramentals and indulgences and most especially by The Sacrifice of the Mass) penances began to be lessened or mitigated.
During the Counter-Reformation of the 16th century, the sacrament of penance was transformed from a social to a personal experience, that is from a public community act to a private confession. It now took place in private in a confessional. It was a change from reconciliation with the Church to reconciliation directly with God; and from emphasis on social sins of hostility to private sins, called the "secret sins of the heart."
In the 20th century, during the Second Vatican Council new approaches were taken in the presentation of this sacrament, taking into account the concern of scrupulosity, or the exaggerated obsessive concern for detail. This further distinguished the role of penance from forms of psychotherapy.
Also in the 20th century, Pope John Paul II began a program of fostering and renewing the focus on this sacrament In 1984 he issued Reconciliatio et Paenitentia which cited the Gospel of Mark 1:15, where Jesus said: "Repent, and believe in the Gospel". In 2002 he issued Misericordia Dei which cited the Gospel of Matthew 26:73-75 which said Jesus was born to "save his people from their sins" and the teachings of Saint John the Baptist calling for repentance. Quoting the Epistle to the Romans 8:21, he stated that "Salvation is therefore and above all redemption from sin, which hinders friendship with God."
Catholics believe that no priest, however pious or learned, has of himself the power to forgive sins apart from God. However, through the absolution that the priest imparts God grants forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with the Church. In this way, God can and does accomplish the forgiveness of sins through the Catholic priesthood in the Sacrament of Penance, which is validly administered by any validly-ordained priest or bishop who has jurisdiction to absolve the penitent. A local ordinary may grant any priest, either permanently or for a limited time, the faculty to hear confessions, but is obliged to make sure by an examination or some other adequate means that the priest has the knowledge and character to do so. If the priest belongs to a religious institute, he is not to exercise this faculty without the at least presumed permission of his religious superior. The superior of a religious institute can give to any priest the faculty to hear confessions of the religious superior's subjects and of others who live day and night in the religious house. Any priest, even if laicised or without faculties to hear confessions, may both licitly and validly absolve from all censures and sins anyone who is in danger of death.
Any bishop ordinarily has the authority to hear confessions worldwide, unless the local bishop where the confession takes place or the penitent's own bishop has made an objection. The Pope, as the supreme earthly Catholic judge, and all cardinals, have the right to hear confessions of any Catholic anywhere in the world by virtue of Canon Law. A Catholic of one rite may have a confessor of another rite in communion with Rome. Major superiors, rectors of seminaries and heads of houses of formation, and heads of novitiates should not ordinarily be the ones to hear the confessions of those they supervise unless the person freely requests it of them (they may not make use of any information learned in confession when they are disciplining their charges because of the seal of confession). 
The form of Penance did not change for centuries, although at one time some confessions were made publicly. The role of the priest is as a minister of Christ's mercy. He acts in persona Christi. In the Catholic tradition, after making an examination of conscience, the penitent begins by saying, "Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been (state a time) since my last confession", or using more informal language. It has also been customary to state one's state in life (single, married, religious, seminarian, priest, age, gender, etc.) to aid the priest in understanding various sins, particularly in a time when most confessions did not take place face to face. Serious sins (mortal sins) must be confessed within at most a year and always before receiving Holy Communion, while confession of venial sins also is recommended. The intent of this sacrament is to provide healing for the soul as well as to regain the grace of God, lost by sin. The Council of Trent (Session Fourteen, Chapter I) quoted John 20:22-23 as the primary Scriptural proof for the doctrine concerning this sacrament.
The words of absolution in the Roman Rite take this form:
The essential words are: "I absolve you from your sins." Then the priest invites the penitent to "give thanks to the Lord, for he is good" and dismisses the penitent with some words.
The pre-1974 form of absolution was somewhat different, and expressed in Latin.
Before the absolution, the penitent makes an act of contrition, a prayer declaring sorrow for sin. It typically commences: "O my God, I am heartily sorry..." . The Catholic Church teaches that the individual and integral confession and absolution (as opposed to collective absolution) is the only ordinary way in which a person conscious of mortal sins committed after baptism can be reconciled with God and the Church. Perfect contrition (a sorrow motivated by love of God rather than of fear of punishment) removes the guilt of mortal sin even before confession or, if there is no opportunity of confessing to a priest, without confession, but the obligation to approach the sacrament continues. Such contrition includes the intention of confessing when and if the opportunity arrives.
Receiving the sacrament of penance from a priest is distinct from receiving from him pastoral counseling or psychotherapy - even if that priest is one's spiritual director or a member of the pastoral team of one's parish. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church have insisted on this point in order to avoid confusion, as both confidential processes have distinct roles in church life.
A revised rite of the Sacrament of Reconciliation was given to the Church by Pope Paul VI on December 2, 1973. The new rite presents the sacrament in three different ritual forms:
The first form — The Rite for Reconciliation of Individual Penitents — is similar to the way most Roman Catholics remember "confession"; however, provision is made for the reading of sacred Scripture, and the penitent is given the option of speaking to the priest face-to-face or remaining anonymous (usually behind a screen). The priest may offer advice and gives a suitable penance. The priest pronounces absolution (the prayer for absolution was revised and extended) and the rite concludes with a short thanksgiving.
The second form — The Rite of Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution — usually begins with readings from scripture, hymns, prayers, a homily and an examination of conscience, followed by a call to repentance. Private confession and reconciliation follow and a final thanksgiving, blessing and dismissal. Paul VI said in 1974 that he hoped this communal rite would "become the normal way of celebration."
The third form — The Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with General Confession and Absolution — is similar to the second, except that the penitents do not make an actual confession, but only manifest contrition (general confession). The prayer of absolution is given collectively or "generally" to all those gathered to celebrate the sacrament (general absolution). The penitents are obliged to actually confess each grave sin in their next confession. Form three is intended for emergencies and other situations when it is not at all possible for the priest(s) to hear all the individual confessions. This rite has been discouraged for widespread use by the Vatican in many countries recently.
The Code of Canon Law requires all Catholics who have attained the age of discretion to confess serious sins at least once a year, although frequent reception of the sacrament is recommended. Traditionally, the sacrament has been received during the liturgical seasons of Lent or Advent, or prior to special times in life such as confirmation or marriage. Canon Law 920 requires all Catholics to receive communion during the Easter season. This implies that serious sins, if any, be confessed at least once a year. This is commonly known as the second precept of the Church.
Frequent confession has been recommended by Popes. Confession of even venial sin, while not strictly required, is "strongly recommended by the Church." (CCC 1458) According to Pius XII and Pope John XXIII, "We particularly recommend the pious practice of frequent confession, which the Church has introduced, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, as a means of swifter daily progress along the road of virtue." Paul VI said that frequent confession is "of great value."
Because of what he considered misinformation on this topic, he strongly recommended this practice and warned that those who discourage frequent confession "are lying."
For Catholic priests, the confidentiality of all statements made by penitents during the course of confession is absolute. This strict confidentiality is known as the Seal of the Confessional. According to the Code of Canon Law, 983 §1, "The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason." Priests, and anyone who witnesses or overhears the confession (say, an interpreter, caregiver, or aide of a person with a disability), may not reveal what they have learned during confession to anyone, even under the threat of their own death or that of others. This is unique to the Seal of the Confessional. Many other forms of confidentiality, including in most states attorney-client privilege, allow ethical breaches of the confidence to save the life of another. A priest, or anyone else who witnesses or overhears any part of the confession, who breaks that confidentiality incurs latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication reserved to the Holy See (Code of Canon Law, 1388 §1). In a criminal matter, a priest may encourage the penitent to surrender to authorities, however, this is the extent of the leverage he wields: he cannot make this a condition of the absolution and he may not directly or indirectly disclose the matter to civil authorities himself.
There are limited cases where portions of a confession may be revealed to others, but always with the penitent's permission and always without actually revealing the penitent's identity. This is the case, for example, with unusually serious offenses, as some excommunicable offenses are reserved to the bishop or even to the Holy See, and their permission to grant absolution would first have to be obtained.
The sacramental seal can bring penalties if misuse is attempted. "With due regard for c.1388, whoever by any technical instrument records or publishes in the mass media what was said in the sacramental confession by the confessor or the penitent, real or feigned, by him/herself or another person, incurs a latae sententiae excommunication. This decree goes into effect the day of promulgation." Confession is the best known example of theology's internal forum, dealing with individual issues of conscience. A violation of the privacy of the forum is a serious matter.
Civil authorities in the United States are usually respectful of this confidentiality, but in Eugene, Oregon in 1996, jail authorities with the approval of the local District Attorney, clandestinely recorded the sacramental confession of a jailed suspect without the knowledge of the priest or the penitent. Following official protests by then local Archbishop Francis George and the Holy See, the tape was sealed but has never been destroyed. The 9th Circuit Court ruled that the taping was in violation of the First and Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and issued an injunction against any further tapings.
The Sacrament of Penance is the only ordinary way for the forgiveness of mortal sins committed after Baptism. Nevertheless, mortal sins are already forgiven by contrition (not attrition, hence also called perfect contrition), as the Church teaches. The difference between perfect contrition and attrition is that the former is grounded in charity and filial fear, while attrition (which does suffice for Confession) is grounded in fear only. A customary prayer is invoked that, if said and meant, is equivalent to an act of contrition.
Contrition by necessity includes the votum sacramenti, that is the (at least implicit) will to subject one's sins to the Sacrament instituted as ordinary way of forgiveness, because one cannot on the one hand love God above all for His goodness He has in himself and desire His forgiveness, and on the other hand reject the ordinary means of the said forgiveness. In a sacramental sense, it may perhaps be said that it is by this way that the effect of forgiveness and re-bestowment of grace through works (cf. Baptism of desire which works in a similar way). As to the time, a Catholic faithful has to confess the mortal sins committed after his last Confession at least once a year, which is traditionally done in preparation for the Easter Communion, and certainly at the hour of death when it then still can be done (for which reason any priest, even an excommunicate or laicized one, has power to validly and licitly hear Confessions at that moment). Also, even if by contrition he is already in the state of grace again, he still has to refrain from Holy Communion until Confession.
There is thus always hope for the salvation of a deceased person, because though one may know that she committed objectively mortal sins, one never knows for certain a) whether subjectively her sins were mortal at all (full knowledge? deliberate and complete consent?), b) whether she had contrition or still developed it in the final moments of life.
Confession to laity and deacons is unusual and is not the Sacrament. Nevertheless the teaching of mediaeval theologians that in the absence of a priest or where only concerning venial sins it can remit the sins as well  has never been dismissed by the Church. Later theologians, however, made clear that in the absence of a priest with faculties, there is no obligation to confess, not even at the hour of death; there is only the obligation to make an act of contrition.
Beginning in the Middle Ages, manuals of confession emerged as a literary genre. These manuals were guidebooks on how to obtain the maximum benefits from the sacrament. There were two kinds of manuals: those addressed to the faithful, so that they could prepare a good confession, and those addressed to the priests, who had to make sure that no sins were left unmentioned and the confession was as thorough as possible. The priest had to ask questions, while being careful not to suggest sins that perhaps the faithful had not thought of and give them ideas. Manuals were written in Latin and in the vernacular.
Such manuals grew more popular as the printed word spread, and recently have made the transition to electronic form as well. The first such app to be approved on the iPhone was mistakenly reported by many mainstream press outlets as an app for confession itself; in reality the app in question was an electronic version of this long-standing tradition of material to be used in preparing oneself to make a good confession.
In general practice, after one confesses to one's spiritual father, the parish priest (Who may or may not have heard the confession but canonically should have) covers the head of the person with his Epitrachelion (Stole) and reads the prayers of repentance, asking God to forgive the transgression of the individual.
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Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as "the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace."