Public Penance In The Early Church

Public Penance

An undeniable proof both of the practice of confession and of the necessity of satisfaction is found in the usage of the early Church according to which severe and often prolonged penance was prescribed and performed. The elaborate system of penance exhibited in the “Penitentials” and conciliar decrees, referred to above, was of course the outcome of a long development; but it simply expressed in greater detail the principles and the general attitude towards sin and satisfaction which had prevailed from the beginning. Frequently enough the latter statutes refer to the earlier practice either in explicit terms or by reiterating what had been enacted long before. At times, also, they allude to documents which were then extant, but which have not yet come down to us, e.g., the libellus mentioned in the African synods of 251 and 255 as containing singula capitum placita, i.e., the details of previous legislation (St. Cyprian, Ep. xxi). Or again, they point to a system of penance that was already in operation and needed only to be applied to particular cases, like that of the Corinthians to whom Clement of Rome wrote his First Epistle about A. D. 96, exhorting them: “Be subject in obedience to the priests (presbyteris) and receive discipline [correctionem) unto penance, bending the knees of your hearts” (Ep. I “Ad Cor.”, lvii). At the close, therefore, of the first century, the performance ofpenance was required, and the nature of that penance was determined, not by the penitent himself, but by ecclesiastical authority.

Three kinds of penance are to be distinguished canonical, prescribed by councils or bishops in the form of “canons” for graver offences. This might be either private, i.e., performed secretly or public i.e., performed in the presence of bishop, clergy and people. When accompanied by certain rites as prescribed in the Canons, it was solemn penance. The public penance was not necessarily canonical; it might be undertaken by the penitent of his own accord. Solemn penance, the most severe of all, was inflicted for the worst offences only, notably for adultery, murder, and idolatry, the “capital sins”. The name of penitent was applied especially to those who performed public canonical penance. “There is a harder and more grievous penance, the doers of which are properly called in the Church penitents; they are excluded from participation in the sacraments of the altar, lest by unworthily receiving they eat and drink judgment unto themselves “(St. Augustine, “De utilitate agendae poenit.”, ser. cccxxxii, c. iii).

The penitential process included a series of acts, the first of which was confession. Regarding this, Origen, after speaking of baptism, tells us: “There is a yet more severe and arduous pardon of sins by penance, when the sinner washes his couch with tears, and when he blushes not to disclose his sin to the priest of the Lord and seeks the remedy” (Homil. “In Levit.”, ii, 4, in P. G., XII, 418). Again he says: “They who have sinned, if they hide and retain their sin within their breast, are grievously tormented; but if the sinner becomes his own accuser, while he does this, he discharges the cause of all his malady. Only let him carefully consider to whom he should confess his sin; what is the character of the physician; if he be one who will be weak with the weak, who will weep with the sorrowful, and who understands the discipline of condolence and fellow-feeling. So that when his skill shall be known and his pity felt, you may follow what he shall advise. Should he think your disease to be such that it should be declared in the assembly of the faithful-whereby others may be edified, and yourself easily reformed-this must be done with much deliberation and the skillful advice of the physician” (Homil. “In Ps. xxxvii”, n. 6, in P. G., XII, 1386). Origen here states quite plainly the relation between confession and public penance. The sinner must first make known his sins to the priest, who will decide whether any further manifestation is called for.

Public penance did not necessarily include a public avowal of sin. As St. Augustine also declares, “If his sin is not only grievous in itself, but involves scandal given to others, and if the bishop [antistes] judges that it will be useful to the Church [to have the sin published], let not the sinner refuse to do penance in the sight of many or even of the people at large, let him not resist, nor through shame add to his mortal wound a greater evil” (Sermo cli, n. 3). It was therefore the duty of the confessor to determine how far the process of penance should go beyond sacramental confession. It lay with him also to fix the quality and duration of the penance: “Satisfaction”, says Tertullian, “is determined by confession; penance is born of confession, and by penance God is appeased” (De poenit., viii). In the East there existed from the earliest times (Sozomen, H. E., VII, xvi) or at least from the outbreak of the Novatianist schism (Socrates, H. E., V, xix) a functionary known as presbyter penitentiarius, i, e, a priest especially appointed on account of his prudence and reserve to hear confessions and impose public penance. If the confessor deemed it necessary, he obliged the penitent to appear before the bishop and his council [presbyterium) and these again decided whether the crime was of such a nature that it ought to be confessed in presence of the people. Then followed, usually on Ash Wednesday, the imposition of public penance whereby the sinner was excluded for a longer or shorter period from the communion of the Church and in addition was obliged to perform certain penitential exercises, the exomologesis. This term, however, had various meanings: it designated sometimes the entire process of penance (Tertullian), or again the avowal of sin at the beginning or, finally, the public avowal which was made at the end—i.e., after the performance of the penitential exercises.

The nature of these exercises varied according to the sin for which they were prescribed. According to Tertullian (De poenit., IX), “Exomologesis is the discipline which obliges a man to prostrate and humiliate himself and to adopt a manner of life that will draw down mercy. As regards dress and food, it prescribes that he shall lie in sackcloth and ashes, clothe his body in rags, plunge his soul in sorrow, correct his faults by harsh treatment of himself, use the plainest meat and drink for the sake of his soul and not of his belly: usually he shall nourish prayer by fasting, whole days and nights together he shall moan, and weep, and wail to the Lord his God, cast himself at the feet of the priests, fall on his knees before those who are dear to God, and beseech them to plead in his behalf”. At a very early period, the exomologesis was divided into four parts or “stations”, and the penitents were grouped in as many different classes according to their progress inpenance. The lower class, the flentes (weeping) remained outside the church door and besought the intercession of the faithful as these passed into the church. The audientes (hearers) were stationed in the narthex of the church behind the catechumens and were permitted to remain during the Mass of the Catechumens, i.e., until the end of the sermon. The substrati (prostrate), or genuflectentes (kneeling), occupied the space between the door and the ambo, where they received the imposition of the bishop’s hands or his blessing. Finally, the consistentes were so called because they were allowed to hear the whole Mass without communicating, or because they remained at their place while the faithful approached the Holy Table. This grouping into stations originated in the East, where at least the three higher groups are mentioned about A. D. 263 by Gregory Thaumaturgus, and the first or lowest group by St. Basil (Ep. cxcix, e. xxii; ccxvii, c. lvi). In the West the classification did not exist, or at any rate the different stations were not so clearly marked; the penitents were treated pretty much as the catechumens.

The exomologesis terminated with the reconciliation, a solemn function which took place on Holy Thursday just before Mass. The bishop presided, assisted by his priests and deacons. A consultation (concilium) was held to determine which of the penitents deserved readmission; the Penitential Psalms and the litanies were recited at the foot of the altar; the bishop in a brief address reminded the penitents of their obligation to lead henceforth an upright life; the penitents, lighted candles in hand, were then led into the church; prayers, antiphons and responses were said, and, finally, the public absolution was given. (See Schmitz, “Die Bussbucher u. die Bussdisciplin d. Kirche”, Mainz, 1883; Funk in “Kirchenlex.”, s. v. “Bussdisciplin”; Pohle in “Kirchl. Handlex.”, s. v. “Bussdisciplin”; Tixeront, “Hist. des dogmes”, Paris, 1905; Eng. tr.,St. Louis, 1910.) Regarding the nature of this absolution given by the bishop, various opinions have been put forward. According to one view, it was the remission, not of guilt but of the temporal punishment; the guilt had already been remitted by the absolution which the penitent received in confession before he entered on the public penance. This finds support in the fact that the reconciliation could be effected by a deacon in case of necessity and in the absence of a priest, as appears from St. Cyprian (Ep. xviii).

Speaking of those who had received libelli from the martyrs he says: “If they are overtaken by illness, they need not wait for our coming, but may make the exomologesis of their sin before any priest, or, if no priest be at hand, and death is imminent, before a deacon, that thus, by the imposition of his hands unto penance, they may come to the Lord with the peace which the martyrs had besought us by letters to grant.” On the other hand, the deacon could not give sacramental absolution; consequently, his function in such cases was to absolve the penitent from punishment; and, as he was authorized herein to do what the bishop did by the public absolution, this could not have been sacramental. There is the further consideration that the bishop did not necessarily hear the confessions of those whom he absolved at the time of reconciliation, and moreover the ancient formularies prescribe that at this time a priest shall hear the confession, and that the bishop, after that, shall pronounce absolution. But sacramental absolution can be given only by him who hears the confession. And again, the public penance often lasted many years; consequently, if the penitent were not absolved at the beginning, he would have remained during all that time in the state of sin, incapable of meriting anything for heaven by his penitential exercises, and exposed to the danger of sudden death (Pesch, op. cit., p. 110 sq. Cf. Palmieri, op. cit., p. 459; Pignataro, “De disciplina poenitentiali”, Rome, 1904, p. 100; Di Dario, “II sacramento della penitenza nei primi secoli del cristianesimo”, Naples, 1908, p. 81).

The writers who hold that the final absolution was sacramental, insist that there is no documentary evidence of a secret confession; that if this had been in existence, the harder way of the public penance would have been abandoned; that the argument from prescription loses its force if the sacramental character of public penance be denied; and that this penance contained all that is required in a sacrament. (Boudinhon, “Sur l’histoire de la pénitence” in “Revue d’histoire et de litterature religieuses”, II, 1897, p. 306 sq. Cf. Hogan in “Am. Cath. Q. Rev.”, July, 1900; Batiffol, “Etudes d’histoire et de theologie positive”, Paris, 1902, p. 195 sq.; Vacandard in “Dict. de theol.”, s. v. “Absolution”, 156-61;O’Donnell, “Penance in the Early Church”, Dublin 1907, p. 95 sq.) While this discussion concerns the practice under ordinary circumstances, it is commonly admitted that sacramental absolution was granted at the time of confession to those who were in danger of death. The Church, in fact, did not, in her universal practice, refuse absolution at the last moment even in the case of those who had committed grievous sin. St. Leo, writing in 442 to Theodore, Bishop of Fréjus, says: “Neither satisfaction is to be forbidden nor reconciliation denied to those who in time of need and imminent danger implore the aid of penance and then of reconciliation.” After pointing out that penance should not be deferred from day to day until the moment “when there is hardly space either for the confession of the penitent or his reconciliation by the priest”; he adds that even in these circumstances “the action of penance and the grace of communion should not be denied if asked for by the penitent” (Ep. cviii, c. iv,in P.L., LIV, 1011). St. Leo states expressly that he was applying the ecclesiastical rule (ecclesiastica regula).

Shortly before, St. Celestine (428) had expressed his horror at learning that “penance was refused the dying and that the desire of those was not granted who in the hour of death sought this remedy for their soul”; this, he says, is “adding death to death and killing with cruelty the soul that is not absolved” (Letter to the bishops of the provinces of Vienne and Narbonne, c. ii). That such a refusal was not in accordance with the earlier practice is evident from the words of the Council of Nicaea (325): “With respect to the dying, the ancient canonical law shall now also be observed, namely, that if any one depart from this life, he shall by no means be deprived of the last and most necessary viaticum” (can. xiii). If the dying person could receive the Eucharist, absolution certainly could not be denied. If at times greater severity seems to be shown, this consisted in the refusal, not of absolution but of communion; such was the penalty prescribed by the Council of Elvira (306) for those who after baptism had fallen into idolatry. The same is true of the canon (22) of the Council of Arles (314) which enacts that communion shall not be given to “those who apostatize, but never appear before the Church, nor even seek to do penance, and yet afterwards, when attacked by illness, request communion”. The council lays stress on the lack of proper disposition in such sinners, as does also St. Cyprian when he forbids that they who “do no penance nor manifest heartfelt sorrow” be admitted to communion and peace if in illness and danger they ask for it; for what prompts them to seek (communion] is, not repentance for their sin, but the fear of approaching death” (Ep. ad Antonianum, n. 23).

A further evidence of the severity with which public penance, and especially its solemn form, was administered is the fact that it could be performed only once. This is evident from some of the texts quoted above (Tertullian, Hermas). Origen also says: “For the graver crimes, there is only one opportunity of penance” (Hom. xv, “In Levit.”, c. ii); and St. Ambrose: “As there is one baptism so there is one penance, which, however, is performed publicly” (De poenit., II, c. x, n. 95). St. Augustine gives the reason: “Although, by a wise and salutary provision, opportunity for performing that humblest kind ofpenance is granted but once in the Church, lest the remedy, become common, should be less efficacious for the sick . . . yet who will dare to say to God: Wherefore dost thou once more spare this man who after a first penance has again bound himself in the fetters of sin?” (Ep. cliii, “Ad Macedonium”). It may well be admitted that the discipline of the earliest days was rigorous, and that in some Churches or by individual bishops it was carried to extremes. This is plainly stated by Pope St. Innocent (405) in his letter (Ep. vi, c. ii) to Exuperius, Bishop of Toulouse. The question had been raised as to what should be done with those who, after a lifetime of licentious indulgence, begged at the end forpenance and communion. “Regarding these”, writes the pope, “the earlier practice was more severe, the later more tempered with mercy. The former custom was that penance should be granted, but communion denied; for in those times persecutions were frequent, hence, lest the easy admission to communion should fail to bring back from their evil ways men who were sure of reconciliation, very rightly communion was refused, while penance was granted in order that the refusal might not be total. . . . But after Our Lord had restored peace to his Churches, and terror had ceased, it was judged well that communion be given the dying lest we should seem to follow the harshness and sternness of the heretic Novatian in denying pardon. Communion, therefore, shall be given at the last along with penance, that these men, if only in the supreme moment of death, may, with the permission of Our Saviour, be rescued from eternal destruction.”

The mitigation of public penance which this passage indicates continued throughout the subsequent period, especially the Middle Ages. The office of poenitentiarius had already (390) been abolished in the East by Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, in consequence of a scandal that grew out of public confession. Soon afterwards, the four “stations” disappeared, and public penance fell into disuse. ln the West it underwent a more gradual transformation. Excommunication continued in use, and the interdict was frequently resorted to. The performance of penance was left in large measure to the zeal and good will of the penitent; increasing clemency was shown by allowing the reconciliation to take place somewhat before the prescribed time was completed; and the practice was introduced of commuting the enjoined penance into other exercises or works of piety, such as prayer and almsgiving. According to a decree of the Council of Clermont (1095), those who joined a crusade were freed from all obligation in the matter of penance. Finally it became customary to let the reconciliation follow immediately after confession. With these modifications the ancient usage had practically disappeared by the middle of the sixteenth century. Some attempts were made to revive it after the Council of Trent, but these were isolated and of short duration.

Written by Edward J. Hanna. Transcribed by Donald J. Boon.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York