“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned” is the traditional opening line to the Catholic Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. The now private sacrament is based on a New Testament scene, Matthew 3:6, where people are publicly confessing sins before being baptized by John the Baptist.
1981 was the year the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only was released. There is a scene where Bond wanders into a church and goes into the confessional box (small room with a latticed door). Bond says, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” To which Q replies, “That’s putting it mildly, 007!” while dressed as a priest. So, what are James Bond and Q doing? Is the phrase even in the Bible?
Forgiveness is a popular theme amongst Abrahamic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Confessing sins or transgressions is a fairly common occurrence in other religions as well, sometimes even publicly. However, the sacrament James Bond pretended to seek is primarily a Catholic tradition, although other churches, such as Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox, have a very similar practice.
A Brief History Behind Reconciliation (Confession)
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” This line, and the more American alternative, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned” are lines said at the start of the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation, also known as confession. While not a direct Biblical quote, they are inspired by similar words.
In addition, the sacrament has a long and complicated history, and even its name has evolved and varied.
Confession Was Common Before Christianity
Christianity came out of the Judeo tradition. Thus, the tendency to confess transgressions was already a widespread practice and is mentioned in the Tanakh; the Jewish canonical collection made up of the Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim. Although translations and interpretations can be substantially different, a fair chunk of the Old Testament used by Christian faiths originates from the Tanakh.
An example of this can be found in the Old Testament Leviticus 16:21, where over the head of a goat, Aaron is to “confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites.”
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Christian Confession Began as Part of Baptism
St. John the Baptist was the first to introduce a more Christian concept/version of confession. But, of course, this was well before Christianity was an established religion, as Jesus had not even died yet, and both John the Baptist and Jesus were, in fact, Jews.
But John was the first to introduce baptism and before he cleansed people of all their transgressions, they were to confess. This was done publicly and resembled nothing of the current practice. In John’s version of baptism; people announced all their wrongs, were baptized, and their soul was all clean and shiny, free of the taint of sin.
This is where Christians arrived at joining the ideas of baptism and rebirth. This cleansing of the soul, starting anew, is a new start, or as some Christians call it, “Born Again.”
However, as lovely as this all sounded, it began to cause an intellectual crisis for some. It begs the question, “What happens if you sin again?” After all, humans have never been presented as perfect beings by any stretch of the imagination. So, there you could be, all shiny from baptism, walking off, stub your toe, and yell out, taking your Lord’s name in vain (number two of the 10 Commandments), what then?
Debating Numerous Baptisms Vs. Confession
The failure of humans to be perfect post baptism caused a great deal of drama and debate in early Christianity. On the one hand, there was the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15:21, where the wicked young man decides he will tell his dad, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” Despite the son’s horrendous behavior, the father welcomes him home and throws a party.
On the other hand, some people did some hideous things, even back then, that went far beyond an occasional slip of the tongue. Nor was God in the Bible always throwing parties for all who did wrong. For example, in Hebrew 6:4-8, there is the ominous line: “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened [and now] fallen away, to be brought back.” Thus, casting people out was a popular solution.
But the finality of casting people out did not sit well with many, especially as forgiveness was supposed to be an integral tenet of Christianity. So, the idea of a second baptism was proposed and established for certain situations. However, it was an enormous process reserved for only the worst sins, and those who went through it had to undergo an incredibly harsh and time-consuming version of penance, such as fasting.
Constantine The Great Becomes Christian & Changes Everything
The second baptism system suited followers until the 4th century when Constantine the Great found Jesus. Suddenly, Christianity went from something akin to a small cult to a dominating religion. With so many people hopping onto the trend, there became an overwhelming number clambering for a first baptism, never mind the second.
One of the consequences of this chaos was people would stay as a catechumen. They were essentially students-for-life in the process of preparing for their baptism. In this way, they didn’t have to risk getting baptized and then truly screwing up and needing a second, which was now becoming an unmanageable process.
Popes, Confession, & Lent
By the 5th century, Christianity started to become a bit more organized, including appointing a pope. Gradually the public confession began to drift to a more private conversation between a person and a religious leader, such as a monk.
Private confession wasn’t a completely new idea, as there has been evidence of it since the First Council of Nicaea. But over time, this personal experience, rather than a large one before a baptism, became the norm, especially in preparation for Lent.
Confession Continues to Evolve
As time moved on, confession continued to evolve. In the Middle Ages, Tariff Penance became popular, where God didn’t just wash your soul clean; money did. This proved to be incredibly problematic for a host of reasons. This includes the obvious issue of rich people buying themselves out of sin while the poor might be “doomed” because they couldn’t pay themselves clean for a minor misstep.
In the thirteenth century, the Fourth Council of the Lateran was held, and confession was established as something all practicing Catholics had to do at least once a year. This established it as a more regular practice, and it became more and more common, further separating it from baptism.
The Modern Practice of Reconciliation
The modern practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation continues to evolve to this day. However, the most significant modern seismic shift was Vatican II, which impacted all aspects of the Catholic faith, including what language mass was said in. Thus, while confession is no longer so formal, often done face to face, and does not have to perfectly follow the prescribed format, “Forgive me, Father,” remains a typical opening.
Will Priests Choose Jail Over Telling Your Sins?
A common curiosity of the sacrament to outsiders is the priest’s vow never to tell anyone the confession they heard. To do so would break the “confessional seal,” and they could be thrown out of the church.
Quoting Canon 983.1 of the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism states, “...It is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason” (No. 2490). Thus, nothing is to break it, even the threat of being sent to jail. This has been looked at as both heroic and covering up injustice and crimes.
Related Reading: Spiritual Father Vs. Mentor – The Difference
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” It is a commonly quoted line, even heard in the movies. It is part of a religious sacrament that has seen massive change and continues to evolve and be debated to this day.