Confession to a priest in the confessional booth is one of the well known practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Most Protestant churches reject it on the grounds that we should confess to Christ not a priest. Nevertheless the story of how it came into existence is instructive.

Throughout the Middle Ages sins were not confessed in private but in public. To sin was to sin not only against God but against the church. Thus it was a public matter and confessed publicly. Even where confession was made in private the contents of the confession were often made public. What’s more penance was usually seen as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Sin after your confession and penance and you were lost forever. Sin could be forgiven only once.

St. Patrick of Ireland changed all this. Growing up in Britain he had experienced the humiliation of having his sin made public and the terror of believing it could be forgiven only once. When he went to Ireland as its first Christian missionary he established a new practice. Confession would now take place in private and be kept private – the sin was no one else’s affair. It was between the sinner and God alone. What’s more confession would be repeatable as necessary, acknowledging the fact that everyone sinned pretty much all the time and that God’s forgiveness was always available.

Whatever we make of the practice today, Patrick’s innovation highlights important realities surrounding sin, confession and forgiveness. Yes we all sin regularly; yes we are called to confess our sin to God; yes God’s forgiveness is freely available; and no, people should not be publicly humiliated for their sin.

Source: Reported in T Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilisation (Hodder 1995)

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