The History of the Sacrament

In order to understand better the theology behind the sacrament, we should look also at the history of the sacrament.

“During the first five centuries of the Christian era, Syriac and Byzantine Christianity would have come to possess the apostolic canons and constitutions, as well as the canons of the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople, and of the Synods of Neocaesarea, Gangre, Laodicea, and Antioch…  Later the discipline of penance would become quite varied, eventually declining and even falling prey to abuses among the Jacobites and Nestorians.” (Chapungco, p. 105)

“East and West began to diverge as the West began to include more and more acts in its catalogue of offenses that required the intervention of the Church’s authorities.  For its part, the East left it more and more to spiritual directors and holy people to help to heal the sinfulness of those who had recourse to them.  The great theologian and bishop Saint Symeon of Thessalonica (died 1022) went so far as to remove the hearing of confessions from the work of the clergy and entrusted it exclusively to the ministry of the monastics—lay monastics at that!  This divergence points to two very different attitudes between the two Churches. …

“The east tends to use a medical model for the sacrament.  That is, a spiritual guide discerns spirits, the way a physician would examine symptoms, and prescribes remedies for the spiritual illness if needed.  Generally in the East the ministry of reconciliation is entrusted to those who prove themselves skilled at it.  Priestly ordination alone does not necessarily qualify one to perform this ministry in some Easter Churches. [comment: the same is true in the West]

… “When penance was no longer a lengthy public matter, the Western Church took the concept [of indulgences] and applied it to the residual punishment due to sin that an individual might face after death.  The Byzantine Church simply discarded references to indulgences in its penitential practices.” (Appleyard, pp. 22-23)

It is interesting to point out that, in Russia:

“At diocesan conferences after the first [Russian] revolution of 1905, in several places the clergy resolved ‘to abolish private confession and replace it with general confession…. This amounts to abolishing the Orthodox Faith, since without confession the attitude toward religions life as a constant inner struggle is lost, and it is precisely this which distinguishes our faith from the Lutheran and Stundist heresies [Stundists were the forerunners of the Russian Baptists].” (Confession, p. 13)

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3 Responses to The History of the Sacrament

  1. Deacon Lopez says:

    Gerber, Thanks for such a beautiful presentation of “The Eastern Tradition in the Sacrament of Confession.” It is of great help to know a bit of the other Catholic Rites. As you mentioned, they are part of the Catholic Christian tradition. Those Rites deserve more attention from us. I, personally, do not know much about them. One can see, nonetheless, the efforts of Rome for keeping tie relationships with the Eastern Rites. They are part of our heritage. I think that with a genuine cooperation both East and West could grow closer to Christ.
    To study the history of both East and West is always interesting and at the same time inspirering. History allows us to understand the complexity of the development of the Rites throughout the centuries. We are not to judge from a 21st century mindset but to learn how our ancestors dealt with their own challenges. We, as Roman Rite Eastern Rites, face our own challenges proper to the time of a declining of the Christian values of a secular society at large. We ought to remind ourselves that the sources of unity are Christ and the Holy Spirit. Our human efforts must be led by the advocacy of the Holy Spirit.

  2. Tim Foy says:

    My understanding of our practice of individual confession is that it grows out of monastic traditions from Ireland — how did individual confession come about in the East? Did the monastic traditions where even the lay faithful could hear confessions have a similar breakthrough on their own independent from Roman tradition? Also, although I assume the answer is “no”, were women laity also hearing confessions?

    • ajgerber says:

      I could not find anything that supports a claim that lay people, or women for that matter, heard confessions in the East. There is a connection to the Greek monasteries of the past, but I could not find much more information on the matter– not because of a lack of looking, but because the vast majority of information on this topic is written in French, German, or Greek, languages in which I, sadly, have no proficiency.

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