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“Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.” This simple phrase from Roman Catholic dogma conjures up images of famous Hollywood confessions and dramatizations, but the real root of the phrase has a much more obscure past. Not only found in modern Catholicism, the confession of sin, along with the confession of faith, can be seen in religious practices throughout the world. The simplest definition Webster gave the confession of sin is “a written or oral statement acknowledging guilt, made by one who has been accused or charged with an offense” (Bookshelf). However, Webster also recognizes the less thought of definition of the confession of faith as “an avowal of belief in the doctrines of a particular faith; a creed” (Bookshelf).
The double-edged meaning of the word “can be partially explained by the etymology” (Eliade 1). The word confession derives from the Latin word confiteor which means to “confess a sin or fault,” but in a more general since the word can also mean “to acknowledge or avow.” Thus, with the understanding of the Latin root, one may speak of the sinner who confesses his sin, or of the martyr who confesses his faith. Regardless of which usage is being applied, the religious rules of the confession must be followed. It must take place in front of a recipient, or one who hears the confession. “In many cases, it is preformed in the interest not only of the one confessing but also of the community to which both the confessing person and the recipient belong” (Eliade 1). With an understanding of the underlying meanings of the confession one may begin to explore the development of the phenomenon and its function in modern religion.
A common way to view the confession of sin is as one part of the entire sacrament of penance. The confession along with the elements of prayer, sacrifice, and penance lead up to the act of absolution or forgiveness ( Gentz 280). In early Christian religion the confession began as a “ritualized group avowal of sin as part of Sunday worship;” moreover, in Judaism it developed into the annual congregational confession of sins known as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (Gentz 290). Both examples of early confession resemble today’s modern idea of publicly professing one’s faith and acknowledging one’s sins before a recipient, in this case being the congregation as a whole, but it wasn’t until later in Eastern and Western Christianity that the individual confession emerged.
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The exact origin of the confession is unknown, but there are many theories surrounding the development of this institution. One approach conceived by Raffaele Pettazzoni states that the confession originated from forms of magic, specifically the magic of the spoken word. A ritual intended to expel or eliminate a sin by means of its verbal expression, “it was conceived of as a kind of substance that was charged with destructive or obstructive power” (Elaide 2). This theory, however, elicited “scholarly objections” from the Viennese cultural-historical school, which maintained that “Pettazzoni’s unilinar reconstruction of history…could in fact mean a return to a farfetched evolutionism” Elaide 2).
The modern definition of confession began in first century Christianity as the church practice a penance for sins that were considered to be “mortal” or “capital” sins. The act began as the sinner entered the “order of the penitents through a confession rendered before the bishop” (Elaide 4). Gradually the form of private confession was introduced, and from the seventh century onward a new form of reconciliation came into practice. “In Western Christianity the private form of confession emphasized the accusation made by the penitent, while in Eastern Christianity the spiritual personality of the priest was stressed” (Elaide 4). Also during this time period the seal of confession began to emerge. This seal binds the priest who hears the confession not to divulge the secrets of the confessional to anyone other than God (Bookshelf).
Finally, the confession as we know it today has played an important part in religious customs throughout history. Although much of the origin of the confession is unknown, humanity can still appreciate the evolution of this institution. Millions of religious people hold it as a sacred, and throughout time philosophers and theologians have attested to its healing ability.