The Sacrament of Reconciliation: Definition, History & Symbols

Instructor: Matthew Helmer

Matt is an upcoming Ph.D. graduate and archaeologist. He has taught Anthropology, Geography, and Art History at the university level.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the most important penance rituals practiced by Catholics around the world. In this lesson, learn what the sacrament is, its history, and its important symbols.

Penance, a Worldwide Religious Phenomenon

Regardless of your religious denomination, penance rituals are crucial parts of world history and human nature. The act of penance occurs in cultures worldwide. In Islam, for instance, penance is sought through the process of Tawba, literally meaning 'return or repent,' which involves a direct appeal to God for forgiveness. Followers of Judaism take a similar path to penance through the process of Teshuva, which means 'to return.'

Catholics seek absolution through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which is an act of penance that involves a person receiving forgiveness for their sins. It differs from the other traditions by allowing a person to appeal for forgiveness directly from priests and religious leaders. Below, we will cover the intriguing process of what is required to receive forgiveness from God through another human being.

History of the Sacrament of Reconciliation

Penance has taken a number of different forms throughout early Christianity, some of which might terrify us today. For instance, the earliest recordings of the Sacrament of Reconciliation during the first few centuries AD describe the sacrament as a public event. People were required to openly recite their sins in front of their community, and afterward they were excommunicated from the church for a time before being absolved and allowed to rejoin.

Imagine having to go in front of your friends, families, and neighbors to openly declare your sins today! After re-entering the community, the absolved persons received the Eucharist, which is blessed bread and wine believed to be transformed into the body and blood of Christ. As we will see, the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation work together in Catholic forms of ritual penance.

The beginnings of modern-day confession occurred when Christianity spread throughout Western Europe, around 600 AD. At this time, monks were an important part of the religious community, making one's religion a more private affair among the public, religious leaders, and God. Rather than openly confessing to the community, Catholic practitioners requested forgiveness directly from religious officials who acted as mediators between the public and God. Receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation usually involved some form of fasting, repetitive chanting of religious songs and prayers, and sometimes public acts of humiliation to deter people from sinning again.

During the weeks leading up to Easter is a period known as Lent, when the act of penance intensifies. Among most Catholics, Lent is a period of fasting, self reflection, and confession. However, more extreme forms of penance occurred during Lent in medieval times, and some of them still occur today.

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