In this 2013 file photo, a World Youth Day pilgrim goes to confession at one of several portable confessionals set up at Quinta da Boa Vista park in Rio de Janeiro. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

The Evolution of Penance

The Sacrament of Reconciliation has undergone significant changes during the history of the Church

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For a Catholic, no words are more profound and heart-stirring than those a priest proclaims to us in the confessional: “Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Called the Sacrament of Confession, Penance or Reconciliation, in every era the Church has provided this channel of grace for the sinner to seek healing, absolution and reconciliation with their Creator.

Early Debate about Penance

Penance comes from the Latin word paenitentia, meaning repentance or contrition. Among the first theologians there was serious controversy about penance and the forgiveness of sin once a person was baptized. One group argued that there could be no forgiveness after baptism; others claimed that repentance and forgiveness were possible but only once in a lifetime, and among the latter group some advocated that only certain sins could be forgiven.

We have this extract from “The Shepherd,” a work concerning penance written by Hermas in A.D. 140-155.

‘‘‘I have heard,’ I said … ‘that there is no other penance save that one when we descend into the water and receive remission of our earlier sins.’ He answered, ‘You have heard rightly … for he who receives remission of sins ought not to sin again, but should remain chaste … But I say to you that after that great and holy calling [baptism] if anyone … should sin, he has one chance of penance. If, however, he sin again, and does penance, it is useless, for with difficulty he will have life.’”


The Role of the Priest

Jesus said to his apostles, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:23). There is nothing ambiguous here. What an awesome responsibility! By the power of the Holy Spirit, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a priest can loose the chains of and remit sin; he can save us from the fires of hell.

St. John Chrysostom reminded us that angels and archangels do not have the power to take away sin — only the priest! The saint said:

“Priests have received a power which God has given neither to angels nor to archangels. … Whatever priests do here on earth, God will confirm in heaven, just as the master ratifies the decision of his servants. Did he not give them all the powers of heaven? … God has given to priests powers greater than those given to our parents; and the differences between the powers of these two is as great as the difference between the future life and the present. … Our parents begot us to temporal existence; priests beget us to the eternal.”


First Converts’ Need for Penance

The converts to Christianity, especially in the three centuries after the Resurrection and Ascension, knew that being baptized and following the teachings of Jesus Christ could lead to persecution, even death, at the hands of the Romans; yet people still sought Christianity.

Convinced that the return of Jesus was imminent, the newly baptized were committed to a Christ-like lifestyle without sin. It was considered unlikely that people would forfeit everything to follow Christ, be willing to die for their beliefs and then break their baptismal promises; thus confession and penance were not emphasized. Many individuals thought baptism freed them from the likelihood to sin, but people did sin after baptism, and the Church sought a way to reconcile the contrite sinner with a merciful God.

Keys to the Kingdom

The early Fathers well knew the Gospel according to Mathew 16:19, where Jesus gives the Church the authority to forgive sins, saying to Peter: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” In the early Church the emphasis was on binding; today it is more on loosing.

Christ hands St. Peter the keys to the
Kingdom in this unidentified image.

The symbolic keys Jesus gave Peter represent power and authority. In biblical times, when the master was away from home, he gave his trusted servant the keys to his house; the high steward in a king’s court possessed the keys to open and close the court. These individuals were delegated authority on behalf of the master or king in the way Jesus delegated to Peter.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses binding and loosing, saying: “The ‘power to bind and loose’ connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church. Jesus entrusted this authority to the Church through the ministry of the apostles and in particular the ministry of Peter, the only one to whom he specifically entrusted the keys of the kingdom” (No. 553).

Once in a Lifetime

At first, post-baptism repentance mostly was practiced for grievous, scandalous, public sin like murder (including abortion), apostasy or adultery. These sins resulted in severe, lengthy and public penances. By the second century, especially in the East, people widely held that penance for mortal sin was available only once in a lifetime — that is, as there was (is) no second baptism, there was no second penance. Those who sinned again were at the mercy of God.

Between A.D. 387-90, St. Ambrose wrote: “Rightly are they reproved who think that they can do penance repeatedly; for they are making a farce of Christ. Indeed, if they truly did penance, they would take no thought of repeating it afterwards. For just as there is one baptism, so, too, is there one penance, which, however, is done publicly; for it is necessary to repent of daily sin; this latter, however, is of lesser faults, the former of the more grave.”

Other theologians of the time referred to penance as “the plank available after the shipwreck.”

Public Penance

No Christian living in those early centuries believed you could commit mortal sin, go to confession and be quickly forgiven. Confession was to be heard by a bishop for serious, public sins. Mortal sins were sins against both God and all other Christians, and there could be no easy reconciliation. The penitent’s life was meant to be seriously disrupted.

This 19th-century engraving from France shows a penitent kneeling before a bishop during a public confession. Bridgeman Images

People believed that the remedy for grievous public sin was most effective if the penance likewise was done in public. Thus the assigned punishment (and, for a while even, the confessed sin) often was announced in front of the Christian community. There was no vindictiveness intended, as the purpose was for the entire community to pray for the sinner’s reconciliation. Penitential periods could last for months or years, and it was difficult to determine how much punishment was enough. Absolution was given only after the assigned penance was completed.

For lesser sins there was a kind of testing ground — that is, the sinner confessed the sin to a spiritual adviser, and the adviser evaluated if the sin necessitated public penance and should be brought to the bishop. In his homily on the Psalms, the theologian Origen (183-252) said that the sinner should take their sins to a “physician” (spiritual adviser) and, “If after much deliberation, he has understood the nature of your illness and judges that to be cured it must be exposed to the assembly of the whole Church, follow the advice of that expert physician.” Bishops normally did not hear venial sins. Such sins could be removed by intense sorrow, charity, prayers and receiving the Eucharist on a frequent basis. The focus of confession was on moral violations considered as offenses against both God and the sinner’s Christian brothers and sisters who believed (still believe) they were all part of the mystical Body of Christ.

Penance Assigned

There is evidence that in some areas those who confessed mortal sin would be brought together on Ash Wednesday, and the bishop would assign each a public penance. In his 1881 book “The Beauties of the Catholic Church,” Father F.J. Shadler wrote: “The penitents would remain at the church door, dressed in penitential robes, with bare heads and bare feet, and in silence and humility await the arrival of the bishop and clergy, who were to introduce them into the church. When they entered the church, the whole congregation fell upon their knees and recited the seven penitential psalms for the sinners; then the bishop arose, sprinkled the new penitents with holy water, strewed ashes upon their heads, admonished them in an earnest address to perform faithfully and contritely the penance enjoined, and again led them forth from the church, saying: ‘On account of your sins you must now be expelled from the church, as Adam was driven by God from paradise on account of his disobedience.’’’

Punishment varied but typically included denying the sinner from receiving holy Communion and worshipping with his neighbors. The individual basically was excommunicated. Often they had to go on long pilgrimages, many couldn’t marry or, if married, had to refrain from spousal intimacy; some couldn’t hold public office. While not necessarily the norm, there were locations where sinners were grouped together in what was known as the order of penitents.

Order of Penitents

The order of penitents typically was made up of four different groups in a kind of ascending order or gradual progression from one group to another. First the penitents were part of the weepers. Dressed in sackcloth and marked with ashes, these sinners stood at the entrance of the place of worship, begged forgiveness and asked those going inside to pray for them.

An antique illustration showing Catholics in line waiting to receive the Sacrament of Confession. Restored Traditions

After months or longer, the penitents, now known as the hearers, were allowed to stand inside the church, where they could not see their neighbors at Mass but could hear the readings and homily. When the catechumens were dismissed from the Mass, the hearers also were required to leave. They next graduated to a group called the kneelers and would kneel or prostrate themselves in the church during the Mass. Again, they left with the catechumens and, while departing, received a blessing from the bishop.

Finally the penitents moved into a group called the standers or bystanders, who were allowed to worship with their neighbors through the entire Mass but still could not receive Communion. This progression from one group to another might take years. Once an individual completed the assigned penance, he or she could receive absolution and return into full communion with the Church. The normal time for being readmitted and reconciled with the community was on Holy Thursday. (See sidebar on St. Basil for an example of an order of penitents.)

Bishops curtailed or reduced the period of penance when they believed necessary; these interruptions eventually would lead to the concept of indulgences.

Impact of Public Penance

While public penance (and earlier public confession) did divert some people from serious sin, there was an unintentional negative effect. Entering into an order of penitents, being singled out through distinctive clothing or doing penitential acts known to the community was severely humiliating and not only marked Christians for life but, coupled with the fact that you could receive penance only once, kept many from confession or even seeking baptism until the end of life. As Christianity became more widespread, the severity and incrimination of public penance became a major controversy for the Church.

Domenico di Niccolo dei Cori’s engraving from the 15th century shows a priest offering the Sacrament of Penance. Bridgeman Images

Beginning in the fifth century, first in Ireland and later in Europe, there was a movement away from public penance. This move largely was perpetuated by the advent of monasticism. Initially, men exiled themselves into the wilderness in the manner of St. John the Baptist. Later, men and women began communities where they sought a full-time life of poverty, prayer, Scripture readings and obedience to the Gospel message. This way of life, which greatly influenced ordinary Christians, included confession not limited to mortal sin. The concept of penance became increasingly centered on reconciliation with God and less on the church community.

For those in the monastery, and soon widespread, confession was a means of spiritual growth, and assigned penances initially were gentler than the demands of earlier public penance. In addition to private confession and penance, this growing, unofficial rite did not prohibit repeated confession. The practice of repetitive confession — repetitive forgiveness — was modeled after the teaching of Jesus: to forgive “not seven times but 77 times” (Mt 18:22).

These were radical and serious departures from existing Church penitential practices — and not easily accepted by everyone. But the die was cast; repeatable, secret confession, accompanied by secret penance, would be part of the Church’s future.

St. Basil on the Order of Penitents

An example of an order of penitents is provided by St. Basil the Great (330-97). In A.D. 375 he was asked how to respond to the sin of incest. Basil wrote: “After coming to an awareness of that dread sin, let him [the penitent]be a weeper for three years, standingat the door of the houses of prayer and begging the people entering there for the purpose of praying to offer in sympathy for him, each one, earnest petitions to the Lord. After this let him be admitted for another three years among the hearers only; and when he has heard the Scriptures and the teachings, let him be put out and not be deemed worthy of prayer. Then, if he has sought it with tears and has cast himself down before the Lord with a contrite heart and with great humility, let him be given submission for another three years. And thus, when he has exhibited worthy fruits of repentance, let him be admitted in the 10th year to the prayer of the faithful without Communion. And when he has assembled for two years in prayer with the faithful, then let him finally be deemed worthy of the Communion of the good.”


Penitential Books

As the concept of private or secret penance grew, there was the development of “penitential books” used by confessors in many locations. These books listed various sins and questions for the confessor to ask the sinner, and it identified the penance most likely suited for a particular sin; each sin had a corresponding penalty. The priest heard your sin and then could identify the appropriate penance in a penitential book. While perhaps less severe and not necessarily public, the assigned penances were more akin to those of the early centuries than those dispensed in the first monasteries.

The penitential books required penances such as self-flagellation, lengthy periods of prayer or fasting, even long pilgrimages, some of which could not be carried out in a lifetime. The penalties became so rigid and lengthy that the penitential books fell into disuse.

A Church Sacrament

Sometime between the ninth and 11th centuries confessors gradually began to give absolution before the penance was carried out. Long, arduous penances were becoming a thing of the past. With few exceptions, no longer did the sinner have to satisfy the penance before gaining absolution, and now confession not only was secret but repeatable. In the 13th century, penance was added as a Church sacrament and has become the primary sacrament for the forgiveness of sin — the supreme act of God’s mercy.

In 1215, the Council of Lateran IV mandated once-a-year confession. Three hundred years later, the Council of Trent and the council’s subsequent catechism established uniformity in the administration of the Sacrament of Penance. That catechism confirmed, “Baptism is to be administered but once and cannot be repeated; Penance may be administered and becomes necessary as often as we may have sinned after Baptism.” Additionally, the Council of Trent catechism addressed how penance had changed: “But in the process of time the severity of ancient discipline was so relaxed and charity grew so cold that, in our days, many of the faithful think inward sorrow of soul and grief of heart unnecessary for obtaining pardon, imagining that a mere appearance of sorrow is sufficient.”

Vatican II

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) brought significant revisions to the Sacrament of Penance. One council document, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, reads, “The rites and formulas for the Sacrament of Penance are to be revised so that they more clearly express the nature and effect of the sacrament” (No. 72). From this language came revisions implemented by the Ordo Paenitentiae (Order of Penance) issued in 1974 through the Congregation of Divine Worship. The ordo would emphasize the early belief that sin impacts the entire Christian community.

A priest offers absolution during confession at the FRAT Catholic youth

Some have concluded that the ordo placed increased emphasis on reconciliation and less on penance. More confessional boxes were replaced with confessional rooms where face-to-face confessions were now allowed rather than solely behind a screen. From the early Church until the 16th century, confession was face to face with the penitent sitting beside or kneeling at the feet of the priest. In the 16th century, the confession booth with a screen was introduced in an effort to eliminate any possible inappropriate behavior between a female penitent and a priest in the face-to-face situation. The 1974 Order of Penance swung the pendulum back, permitting face-to-face confession.

The reintroduction of confession face to face impacted the traditional so-called chamber of justice (confessional) concept and focused the sacrament on a celebration of God’s mercy, a celebration between the priest and the penitent. The priest no longer is viewed so much as an authoritative figure, but one who gently guides the sinner to reconciliation.

The 1974 order established three forms of penance: first, the traditional Saturday afternoon individual confession with priest and penitent; second, several penitents in a communal reconciliation service, often during Lent and Advent, which includes prayer, Scripture readings, a homily, guided examination of conscience and several priests hearing individual confessions and granting individual absolution; third, a communal gathering that does not include individual confessions, but participants recite their sins to themselves, quietly claim contrition and then a priest gives general absolution. The third form has certain restrictions and is supposed to be limited in use. The most notable change since Vatican II has been the introduction of the twice-a-year penance services that are held in many parishes.

The merits and demerits of these services and the impact on the Sacrament of Penance are widely debated. But no matter the forum used in the evolution of penance, the priest remains the conduit to God’s mercy.

D.D. EMMONS writes from Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, and is a longtime contributor to OSV publications.

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