How did the early Christians confess?


I read this in my “Little Black Book” of Lenten reflections:

“Once upon a time, confessing one’s sins to another lay person or to monks or persons who were not priests was quite common. That changed with the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The council decreed that only confession to a bishop or priest fulfills the requirements for the sacrament or reconcilliation.”

My question is, was Trent just declaring something that was already supposed to be the rule, but people weren’t following it? Or was confessing sins to one another an accepted way to recieve the sacrament?

Also, are there some early church fathers’ writings on how the sacrament was administered in the first centuries?


I am not sure about the confessing-to-lay-people, but according to my friend, who is a priest, Confession in the early Church was like this:

A person has committed a mortal sin. The person will have to go to the cathedral to confess his/her sin before the Bishop and the entire Christian community. The bishop, upon hearing his/her confession, gives the person a penance that lasted a while (days, months, even years). The person who confessed the grave sin would have to sit with the other people who committed a mortal sin in a special place in the church. They were not able to receive Communion until their penance was completed. Once the penance was completed, the bishop, again, had the penitent come in front of the whole Christian community. The bishop would ask him/her if they completed their penance, if they have not done the mortal sin again, if they converted, etc. The bishop would also ask the penitent’s relatives and friends to be sure that the penitent had changes. Once the bishop was sure, he would absolve the person who confessed and the person would be able to receive Communion again and sit with the other people in Church.

This is what my parish priest said, but let’s see if anyone else could answer your question better.


I think that the way “penance” was thought of and expressed has changed and evolved along the way, throughout the centuries.
For example…it wasn’t until 1215 and the Fourth Council of the Lateran when it became made canon law that every Catholic had to go to confession at least once a year.

I think you are correct…that before the 16th century, it was more of a “public” confession rather than “private”. This is what I’ve read in history books.



Pax Christi!

Following this.

God bless.


This my understanding of how they did it also. The penance could even be a pilgrimage to the Holy Land that could take years and a lot of money. Can you imagine standing up in front of the community and confessing to adultery? The modern way works for me!



The persecutions led to a standardization of the sacrament of Confession. Unfortunately, there were Christins who denied their faith in the face of this crisis. They were called “lapsi”. Many desired to be reconciled with the Church. Some Church leaders did not feel they should be allowed to return. Many of them held that such serious sin could not be forgiven.The hard-liners were led by Novatian. (Vidmar, 28) But, Hermas argued that God wanted repentant sinners back, but not repeatedly. “For there is only one repentance for the servants of God”. (Bausch, 72) Pope Cornelius finally decided the issue. (Vidmar, 28) Confession then was normally given only once in a lifetime.

“Ignatius of Antioch at the close of the first century speaks of the mercy of God to sinners, provided they return” with one consent to the unity of Christ and the communion of the bishop". The clause "…He also says (Letter to the Philadelphians) “that the bishop presides over penance”. (

Tertullian (150-230AD) writes that deacons were sometimes the ordinary ministers of confession and reconciliation in the early days of the Church. (Bausch, 58)

At this time the Church held there were three sins which had to be confessed: adultery, apostacy, and murder. You appeared publicly before the bishop. You were enrolled in the “order of penitents”. The “new” Christians, after completing their public penance, were received back into the Church at the Easter Vigil. This “forgiveness only once” was the norm from the fourth through the sixth century. (Bausch, 72-73)

Irish monks in the 7th and 8th centuries introduced private confession. They were Celtic ascetics who frequently confessed their smallest sins. Since the monastery was an influential structure in Ireland, this practice spread to the laity. Eventually it was introduced to the mainland. (Bausch, 73)

By the 9th century, frequent confession was encouraged by Church leaders such as St. Boniface. Confession was not limited to three sins. (Bausch, 73)

The hearing of penance by deacons became an issue of the church in the 12th and 13th century.

“The Council of York (1195) decreed that except in the gravest necessity the deacon should not baptize, give communion, or “impose penance on one who confessed”…All these enactments,…make exception for urgent necessity.” . (

Use of Deacons as confessors was eventually abolished by the end of the 19th century.

In 1418, the idea of laymen hearing confessions arose.
“That this power does not belong to the laity is evident from the Bull of Martin V “Inter cunctas”… “whether he believes that the Christian . . . is bound as a necessary means of salvation to confess to a priest only and not to a layman or to laymen however good and devout” (Denzinger-Bannwart, “Enchir.”, 670)” . (

In 1520, this crisis reappeared when Martin Luther wrote that anyone could absolve since confession was merely a “symbol”. (Vidmar, 184)

“Luther’s proposition, that “any Christian, even a woman or a child” could in the absence of a priest absolve as well as pope or bishop, was condemned (1520) by Leo X in the Bull “Exurge Domine” (Enchir., 753).” . (

This, along with other issues brought to a head by the Reformation, resulted in the calling of the Council of Trent. "

"The Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, c. 6) condemns as “false and as at variance with the truth of the Gospel all doctrines which extend the ministry of the keys to any others than bishops and priests…”. (

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) is known for insisting that sins be confessed by number and kind. Dogma became difinitive, so there began a shift to moral theology. Confessions increased. Manuals were created outlining even the smallest sins to an excruciating degree. For instance, they would endlessly discuss exactly how much meat had to be consumed on a day of abstinence for it to become a mortal sin. This resulted in a very sin-conscious and scrupulous laity. (Bausch, 277)

Following Trent, things became very legalistic. Certain sins could only be forgiven by the bishop or the pope. Five steps for a good confession were required:
1. Examination of conscience
2. True sorrow for one’s sins
3. True commitment to change
4. Telling sins to the priest
5. Completion of one’s penance
Arguments over the strictness of the codes caused very divisive debates. (Bausch, 277)

While some in the 1600’s encouraged the sinner to confess to anyone present in the absence of the priest, this practice was never accepted by the Church.

“Since, therefore, the weight of theological opinion gradually turned against the practice and since the practice never received the sanction of the Church, it cannot be urged as a proof that the power to forgive sins belonged at any time to the laity.” . (

Following Vatican II, “the Decree on Religious Freedom recognized that all believers of any faith had the right to follow their consciences in matters of faith.” Catholics were unprepared to distinguish what is authentic Church doctrine. Since they no longer felt bound to certain practices, they ceased doing them. Confessions dropped off drastically. (Bausch, 423) This continues to be a problem in the Church.


Other posters are correct that very grave sins (adultery, murder, etc) were confessed in public to the bishop before the entire congregation with a likewise public and often very lengthy penance imposed. More “mundane” sins which we today would consider mortals sins that must be confessed were likely absolved during the penitential rite of the liturgy. It is my understanding that liturgical scholars believe that the priest’s absolution at the beginning of mass was, in ancient times, a true sacramental absolution given generally to the entire congregation, with public confession and penance reserved for the most grave sins. The “seal” of the confessional is certainly not a matter of doctrine, but rather of Church discipline. The Church has always had the authority to forgive sins, but the way in which she has done so has varied down through the centuries.


The Armenian Apostolic Church currently practices this sort of pubic confession/general absolution. It occurs immediately before the reception of Holy Communion. The deacon leads the people through an examination of conscience, and then the priest gives absolution. I’m pretty sure the Armenian Church used to practice individual confession more frequently, and I’m not sure if this is a restoration of an earlier practice, or an accommodation to the reality that confession has fallen into disuse.


According to my coworker, the Jehovah’s Witnesses still practice this, with those who are in what we would call mortal sin (disfellowshipped in JW vernacular) sit together in the back of the congregation until there restored to right relationship.


These are very helpful. I will definately check out the New Advent article. Thanks to everyone. :yup:


I think I had heard that as well. And it makes sense to have an absolution right before communion! I don’t know if it is still considered formally sacramental now, but it always feels good!


Interesting. I used to be a JW before converting and my family was forced into “excommunication.” We suffered a lot in that sect. They would look at us like we were demons. Once they noticed that we were in a store, they would run out. But we are happy in the Catholic Church now.


Yes! The modern way works for me too! :rotfl:
Maybe people did not commit too many or even did not commit any mortal sins at all in the Early Church. It would be very embarrassing to confess mortal sins in front of the whole community, especially the ones of impurity!


This is also listed in the CCC (I can’t remember the reference off the top of my head. Not as much detail either in the CCC).

One of the problems that came from the “Order of Penitents” in the early Church was that it obviously caused a great deal of embarrassment to the people who had to be enrolled. The “solution” that organically developed was that people simply didn’t get baptized until a ripe old age. Infants were “dedicated” to Jesus, but not baptized because they could do that later when they really needed to use their “get out of hell free card”. The Emperor Constantine was baptized on his deathbed for example.


Yes, the three big sins were apostasy, murder, and adultery. For anyone who had committed one of these three, the matter was probably already publicly known.

It’s true that many people put off baptism nearly until they were on their deathbed, since Baptism forgives all sin.

Apostasy–having denied the Christ and the Church–was a big sin, and as has been noted, there was some debate about allowing such persons to rejoin the Church. The order of penitents no doubt made it clear to the congregation that they were serious about their repentance.

But, holding off on Baptism until the deathbed is sort of presuming on God’s favor, since no one knows when death will take him.


The Columban Missionary Fathers told me that St. Columban is the big influence in the movement towards individual confession.


That’s true. St. Columban was a major force setting up many monasteries in Europe. It was through Irish monks like him that the practice spread.


OK, y’all. This is what I was looking for It is from New Advent, (thanks for the link, chefmomster2!), and it tells where the practice of confessing to lay people came from. When I first read this in my “Little Black Book”, I was a bit alarmed! :eek: Maybe you’ll see why:

"The minister (i.e., the confessor)
From the judicial character of this sacrament it follows that not every member of the Church is qualified to forgive sins; the administration of penance is reserved to those who are invested with authority. That this power does not belong to the laity is evident from the Bull of Martin V “Inter cunctas” (1418) which among other questions to be answered by the followers of Wyclif and Huss, has this: “whether he believes that the Christian . . . is bound as a necessary means of salvation to confess to a priest only and not to a layman or to laymen however good and devout” (Denzinger-Bannwart, “Enchir.”, 670). Luther’s proposition, that “any Christian, even a woman or a child” could in the absence of a priest absolve as well as pope or bishop, was condemned (1520) by Leo X in the Bull “Exurge Domine” (Enchir., 753). The Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, c. 6) condemns as “false and as at variance with the truth of the Gospel all doctrines which extend the ministry of the keys to any others than bishops and priests, imagining that the words of the Lord (Matthew 18:18; John 20:23) were, contrary to the institution of this sacrament, addressed to all the faithful of Christ in such wise that each and every one has the power of remitting sin”. The Catholic doctrine, therefore, is that only bishops and priests can exercise the power.
These decrees moreover put an end, practically, to the usage, which had sprung up and lasted for some time in the Middle Ages, of confessing to a layman in case of necessity. This custom originated in the conviction that he who had sinned was obliged to make known his sin to some one — to a priest if possible, otherwise to a layman. In the work “On true penance and false” (De vera et falsa poenitentia), erroneously ascribed to St. Augustine, the counsel is given: “So great is the power of confession that if a priest be not at hand, let him (the person desiring to confess) confess to his neighbour.” But in the same place the explanation is given: “although he to whom the confession is made has no power to absolve, nevertheless he who confesses to his fellow (socio) becomes worthy of pardon through his desire of confessing to a priest” (P.L., XL, 1113). Lea, who cites (I, 220) the assertion of the Pseudo-Augustine about confession to one’s neighbour, passes over the explanation. He consequently sets in a wrong light a series of incidents illustrating the practice and gives but an imperfect idea of the theological discussion which it aroused. Though Albertus Magnus (In IV Sent., dist. 17, art. 58) regarded as sacramental the absolution granted by a layman while St. Thomas (IV Sent., d. 17, q. 3, a. 3, sol. 2) speaks of it as “quodammodo sacramentalis”, other great theologians took a quite different view. Alexander of Hales (Summa, Q. xix, De confessione memb., I, a. 1) says that it is an “imploring of absolution”; St. Bonaventure (“Opera’, VII, p. 345, Lyons, 1668) that such a confession even in cases of necessity is not obligatory, but merely a sign of contrition; Scotus (IV Sent., d. 14, q. 4) that there is no precept obliging one to confess to a layman and that this practice may be very detrimental; Durandus of St. Pourcain (IV Sent., d. 17, q. 12) that in the absence of a priest, who alone can absolve in the tribunal of penance, there is no obligation to confess; Prierias (Summa Silv., s.v. Confessor, I, 1) that if absolution is given by a layman, the confession must be repeated whenever possible; this in fact was the general opinion. It is not then surprising that Dominicus Soto, writing in 1564, should find it difficult to believe that such a custom ever existed: “since (in confession to a layman) there was no sacrament . . . it is incredible that men, of their own accord and with no profit to themselves, should reveal to others the secrets of their conscience” (IV Sent., d. 18, q. 4, a. 1). Since, therefore, the weight of theological opinion gradually turned against the practice and since the practice never received the sanction of the Church, it cannot be urged as a proof that the power to forgive sins belonged at any time to the laity. What the practice does show is that both people and theologians realized keenly the obligation of confessing their sins not to God alone but to some human listener, even though the latter possessed no power to absolve.”


This I found in the Didache:
“In the congregation thou shalt confess thy transgressions” (Didache 4.14) and “On the Lord’s Day come together and break bread . . . having confessed your transgressions that your sacrifice may be pure.” (Didache 14.1)


This is so sad. I was right in there with those who believed that confession was not necessary. Hey, I just made a public confession! :smiley:

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit