The term “confessor” is used in several different ways, especially within the Catholic faith. In the literal sense, a confessor is simply someone who confesses something. The term is also used in the Catholic tradition to describe someone who has the authority to hear confessions and offer absolution. It also describes people who have been persecuted, but not actually martyred, while professing faith in Christianity. The second sense of the term is probably the most common and widely known.
Many faiths have a tradition of confession and penitence, in which people discuss their sins or wrongful actions with a religious authority. Depending on the faith, the religious authority may suggest ways in which the confessor might atone for these sins, and sometimes he or she may be able to offer absolution. The process of confession is supposed to be a reflective, cathartic experience, ideally allowing the confessor's faith to grow and become more complex by forcing him or her to think about the nature of faith and morality.
In the Catholic Church, the tradition of penitence, confession, penance, and absolution is very old. Someone who wishes to make a confession must approach a confessor, a church authority who has been authorized to hear confessions. As a general rule, a genuine sense of penitence is required to confess, and once someone has confessed, the confessor may suggest a penance such as doing service to the poor, saying a set number of prayers, or performing some other act to atone for the sins discussed. Finally, the confessor grants absolution, in which someone is freed from sin.
In order to become a confessor, someone must usually be a qualified priest or minister. In religions which lack a tradition of explicit confession and absolution, church authorities are certainly allowed to offer religious counsel and advice, and people are encouraged to discuss troubling acts with their religious officiants. As a general rule, discussions had with a religious mentor are considered private.
The term “confessor” also has some specific meanings historically in Catholic tradition. Until around the fourth century, a confessor was someone who had suffered for his or her faith, but who was not actually killed for it. People who are killed for their faith are known as martyrs; confessors might have been tortured, exiled, or imprisoned for their faith. Over time, the term also came to be used to describe prominent figures who demonstrated outstanding faith, knowledge, and virtue. Churches and other edifices were erected in their honor, a marked departure from the period when churches were built primarily to honor martyrs. In the modern sense, this type of confessor is worthy of veneration due to his or her great acts.