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confessor

con·fes·sor / kənˈfesər/ • n. 1. / kōnˈfesər; ˈkänˌfesər; ˈkänfəˌsôr/ a priest who hears confessions and gives absolution and spiritual counsel. ∎  a person to whom another confides personal problems. 2. / kənˈfesər; ˈkänˌfesər/ a person who avows religious faith in the face of opposition, but does not suffer martyrdom. 3. / kənˈfesər/ a person who makes a confession.

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Confessor

Confessor.
1. In the early church, a person who suffered for ‘confessing’ (i.e. maintaining) the faith but not to the point of martyrdom. After the time of persecutions, the term was extended to apply to those whose lives were manifestly holy (as Edward the Confessor, declared to be so in 1161).

2. A Christian priest who hears (private) confessions and administers the sacrament of penance.

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confessor

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Confessor

CONFESSOR

A term stemming from the Latin verb confiteri (to declare openly); it came to be applied to all male saints who were not martyrs, but who, by their Christian lives, had publicly proclaimed their faith. This precise signification of the word confessor only gradually developed in the Church.

In the New Testament the Church taught the necessity of confessing one's faith by living it (1 Jn 2.14), and particularly of confessing it in the face of opposition (1 Jn 2.2225). Peter and Stephen set the example by facing suffering and death to proclaim their belief (Acts 4.20;7.56). Denying Christ risked denial by Christ before the Father (Mt 10.32).

First and Second Centuries. In the First century of the Church there seems to have been no fine distinction between the terms confessor and martyr. A Christian who suffered imprisonment, torture, exile, or hard labor in the mines, yet had not given his life for Christ, was called a martyr just as if he had shed his blood for his faith. Eusebius of Caesarea, in several places, attests that the term martyr was applied to the living. According to Eusebius, Hegesippus stated that the descendants of St. Jude, dragged before Domitian and dismissed as harmless after the emperor's interrogation, were venerated as martyrs (Ecclesiastical History. 3.20). Themison and Alexander, two acolytes strongly suspected of montanism, called themselves martyrs (Ecclesiastical History 5.18). Eusebius pointed out that some heretics coveted the title of martyr to obtain gifts and money (Ecclesiastical History 5.18).

In the second half of the second century, Christians began to make a distinction between those who died for the faith and those who simply suffered. According to the letter from the churches of Vienne and Lyons, the martyrs of Lyons, while still alive, begged their co-religionists not to give them the title of martyr. This, they said, should be reserved only for those who had proclaimed Christ by their deaths. They themselves were only lowly and humble confessors (Ecclesiastical History 5.2).

Tertullian stated that no one still subjected to the temptations of this world had the right to call himself a martyr (De pudicitia 22.3). Origen taught that only those who had proved their faith by pouring forth their blood could properly be called martyrs (Comment. in Joh. 2.34). Nevertheless, this distinction in terminology was not religiously observed. Martyr and confessor continued to be used indiscriminately. Tertullian addressed his book Ad martyres (197) to confessors whom he called candidates for martyrdom (benedicti martyres designati ). He frequently used the term martyr in the sense of confessor. Origen himself admitted that the word martyr could be applied to all who in any way witnessed to the truth (Comment. in Joh. 2.34).

In the Passio SS. Perpetuae et Felicitatis (ch. 2), Quintus, who died in prison, was called a martyr. St. Cyprian wished those who died in prison, even if not tortured, to enjoy the same honors as martyrs. Nevertheless, he calls those who languish in prison confessors. According to Cyprian, there are two grades of confessors: those who publicly proclaim Christ before a pagan judge, and those who privately confess him by fleeing to the desert to escape offering pagan sacrifices (De lapsis 3 ).

Third Century and Later. From the middle of the third century, the distinction between martyr and confessor became more common. Eusebius tells of a certain Seleucus, who first was a confessor, then a martyr (De mart. Palest. 2.20). Optatus of Milevis records a persecution that made martyrs of some people, confessors of others (De schism. Donat. 1.13). By the third century, then, although there was still some confusion of terminology, the word confessor gradually became associated with one who, although suffering for the faith, had not given his life for it.

After the termination of the Roman persecutions, Christian writers used the term confessor in a metaphorical sense, applying it to Christians who proclaimed their faith by their spiritual lives. Still living in the era of the martyrs, clement of alexandria (c. 150215) in Stromata (4.15.3) spoke of the Christian who testifies to Christ with a kind of spiritual martyrdom consisting of a pure life spent in observing the Commandments. Therefore, hermits and monks, who spent their lives in penance and prayer, took on the proportions of confessors of Christ.

In the Eastern Church, the first Christians to receive public veneration as confessors outside the times of persecution were Anthony (d. 356), Hilarion (d. 371), and Athanasius (d. 373). In the West the first publicly venerated confessors were bishops of the fourth century: Sylvester at Rome (d. 335), Martin in Gaul (d. 397); then, Severus at Naples (d. c. 409), Augustine in Africa (d.430), and Apollinaris at Ravenna (fifth century). These confessors had often suffered persecution in the defense of orthodoxy. The anniversaries of their deaths were kept, and their bodies were buried beneath altars. In his De gloria confessorum Gregory of Tours (538594) described bishops, abbots, monks, virgins, and holy women as confessors.

Though it was once thought that the term confessor was also to be identified with a medieval cantor chanting God's praise in the Divine Office, Bernard Botte has disproved it.

Bibliography: h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. cabrol, h. leclercq and h. i. marrou (Paris 190753) 3.2:250815. f. m. cappello, Enciclopedia Italiana de scienzi, littere ed arti (Rome 192939) 11:119. b. botte, Archivum latinitatis medii aevi 16 (1941) 137148. w. dÜrig, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 195765) 2:142. f. l. cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London 1957) 327.

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