Penance from the Sixth Century

The sacrament of penance underwent a dramatic change from the end of the sixth century; Irish and Anglo-Saxon monk-missionaries, who had not known the older system of public penance, began fanning out across Europe, founding or refounding Christian communities, and introducing the 'monastic' practice of penance. This involved private confession to a spiritual father (or mother), reception of an appropriate penance (which was aimed more at restoring the balance of the moral universe than at reconciliation with the community), and private prayer of pardon or blessing after the penance was completed. The monk-missionaries brought with them 'penitentials' or handbooks for hearing confession on a one-to-one basis. Originally developed in sixth-century Ireland by such figures as St Finnian (d. 549) and St Columbanus (d. 615), the penitentials were composed over a period of three centuries in Latin and Old Irish, and varied in length and sophistication. The earlier models provided little more than lists of sins and the penance or 'tariff' appropriate to right the balance for each sin. The tariff was adjusted according to the rank of the sinner, the rank of the person offended against, and the objective seriousness of the sin; later penitentials drew on the Bible and early Christian writers. Besides making penance a private and non-liturgical matter, the monk-missionaries put an end to the practice of once-in-a-lifetime reconciliation for grave sins and to any necessary connection of penance with Lent and Easter. Satisfaction for the sins committed loomed large and became more punitive and less therapeutic or medicinal. Severe and sometimes long-lasting penances were imposed in the spirit of the punishment fitting the crime.174

174 On the penitentials see H. Connolly, The Irish Penitentials: Their Significance for the Sacrament of Penance Today (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1995).

The Third Council of Toledo tried to maintain the old system of reconciliation only once in a lifetime, which entailed groups of penitents completing a period of 'satisfaction' before being readmitted to communion. It rejected the Celtic practice as an abominable presumption (ND 1607). Around 650, however, we find the new penitential practice approved by another regional council, the Council of Chalons-sur-Saone, which also tried to establish some episcopal control over the monastic practice of penance. The severity of the penances imposed meant, however, that fewer Christians practised sacramental penance. Some penitent sinners found other persons to take on the penance and prayers for them. 'Chantries' or foundations to support a priest or a group of priests were endowed to celebrate Mass for the soul of the founder or foundress. The reception of the sacraments of reconciliation and of the Eucharist fell into decline.

In an attempt to correct this situation, the Fourth Lateran Council prescribed that the faithful who had 'reached the age of discretion should at least once a year faithfully confess all their sins in secret to their own priest' and receive communion (DH 812; ND 1608). Strict sanctions were imposed for any breach of the secrecy or 'seal' of confession: any priest who revealed a sin 'manifested to him in the tribunal of confession' was not only to be deposed from his priestly office but also 'consigned to a closed monastery for perpetual penance' (DH 814; ND 1609). This conciliar decree shows that repeated absolution for sins committed by the baptized was officially accepted and deemed necessary for their proper Christian life. The spread of the Dominican, Franciscan, and other orders in the thirteenth century made the practice of confession more frequent in some Christian circles.175 But despite the desire of Lateran IV to increase sacramental practice, many limited themselves to confession and communion once a year.

In 1439 the Council of Florence spelled out more fully what the sacrament of 'penance' involved: (1) 'contrition of the heart, which requires that one be sorry for the sin committed with the resolve not to sin in the future'; (2) 'oral confession which requires that sinners confess to their priests in their integrity all the sins they remember'; (3) 'the words of absolution spoken by the priest who has authority to absolve';

175 See P. Biller and A. J. Minnis, Handling Sin: Confession in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1998).

(4) 'satisfaction for the sin according to the judgement of the priest, which is mainly achieved by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving' (DH 1323; ND 1612).

In 1551, in response to the claim of some of the Reformers that sinners could and should renew their baptismal justification by means of interior conversion, the Council of Trent pushed to an extreme the non-communal, individualistic approach to the sacramental rite of penance as effecting the sinner's 'reconciliation with God' (DH 1674; ND 1621).176 The Council distinguished two kinds of contrition: 'perfect' or 'sorrow of the soul and detestation of the sin committed together with the resolve to sin no more' motivated by love of God; and 'imperfect' which 'commonly arises either from the consideration of the heinousness of sin or from the fear of hell and of punishment'. Such imperfect contrition or attrition 'disposes one to obtain the grace of God in the sacrament of penance' (DH 1676—8; ND 1622—4). More was said about the confession of sins than was the case with Lateran IV and the Council of Florence: the former had enjoined 'faithfully confessing all one's sins'; the latter had referred to Christians naming 'in their integrity all the sins they remember'. Trent also distinguished between what the sacrament required of the faithful and what it did not: 'all mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious' had to be confessed 'specifically and in particular'. As regards 'venial sins', the Council stated that it is 'right and profitable' to confess them, but there is no strict need to do so: they may be omitted and 'can be expiated by many other remedies' (DH 1679-80; ND 1625-6). Whereas the Council of Florence had attributed to the priest both a 'judgement' in deciding on some 'satisfaction' to be performed and an 'authority to absolve', Trent, wanting to show the insufficiency of the evangelical language of Martin Luther, specified that absolution does not merely consist in 'proclaiming the Gospel [of divine mercy] or of declaring that the sins have been forgiven'; absolution 'has the pattern of a judicial act in which the priest pronounces sentence as a judge' (DH 1685; DH 1628). The Council thus encouraged many subsequent generations of Catholics to speak of 'the tribunal of penance'. Finally, whereas the Council of Florence, as we also saw above, recognized the judgement of the priest in imposing satisfaction, which 'is mainly achieved by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving', Trent insisted on 'the duty' of priests 'to impose salutary

176 See K. J. Lualdi and A. T. Thayer (eds.), Penitence in the Age of Reformation (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000).

and proportionate satisfactions.in accordance with the nature of the crime and the ability of the penitents'. They should not 'connive at' the sins of others and 'deal too leniently with them by imposing only some sort of light penance for very grave faults'. The Council added that satisfaction imposed 'is meant not merely as a safeguard for the new life and as a remedy to weakness, but also as a vindicatory punishment for former sins' (DH 1692; ND 1633).

The institutes of priests that came into existence in the sixteenth century, as well as such later groups as the Passionists and the Redemptorists, propagated this teaching on penance. The elaborate confessionals in baroque and then neogothic churches across Europe and other parts of the world bear witness to the diffusion in Western Catholicism of the practice of sacramental penance along the lines prescribed by the Council of Trent. The new institutes for religious women which sprang up in the nineteenth century played a major role in spreading the Tridentine discipline when they prepared small children for their first confession and communion (see Ch. 2). In the twentieth century, through the parish schools they staffed, religious women also did much to promote more frequent communion, which brought with it more regular reception of the sacrament of penance or 'confession' as it had come to be called.

What many centuries of Catholics largely ignored was its relevance to the community. They considered 'confession' a private event and means of personal grace. They did not appreciate that, unlike sins committed before baptism and entrance into the Christian community, the sins of the baptized affect the Church and, in smaller or greater ways, rupture the communion of the people of God. The once-in-a-lifetime penitential discipline of early Christianity was obviously severe, in that it excluded sinners from participating in the Eucharist and readmitted them only when they had completed a notable period of satisfying for their sins. But that old discipline clearly appreciated both the harm baptized Christians did to the whole body of Christ by their sins and the fact that repentance entails the desire to be reconciled and share again fully in the life of the community. In a brief but important paragraph, the Second Vatican Council signalled a recovery of a communal perspective of sin, repentance, and reconciliation: 'Those who approach the sacrament of penance receive pardon from the mercy of God for the offences committed against him, and at the same time are reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, example, and prayer works for their conversion' (Lumen Gentium, 11).

The enduring fruit of this renewed sense that sacramental penance reconciles sinners with God and with the Church came in December 1973 with the Ordo Paenitentiae (Order of Penance) of Pope Paul VI. This document introduced a new name, 'the sacrament of reconciliation'; treated the sacrament from an ecclesial perspective; and provided a formula of absolution that corresponds to that reality:

God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. 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, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The 1973 Ordo offers three rites for celebrating the sacrament: reconciliation of individual penitents, reconciliation of many penitents who are absolved individually, and reconciliation of many penitents who make a public confession of sins and together receive a general absolution.

The first rite incorporates the personal caring for sinners, introduced by the monk-missionaries from the sixth century and officially endorsed by Lateran IV, the Council of Florence, and the Council of Trent. While allowing for something traditionally dear to Eastern Christians, spiritual direction, nevertheless, the first rite does not clearly exhibit its communal dimension. The second rite brings penitents together for a service of prayer, hymns, readings from the Bible, and a homily before they are absolved individually by one or other of a group of priests who attend the service. This rite combines a personal ministry (the monastic tradition) with the social and ecclesial dimension retrieved in modern times from the public penance of early Christianity. The third rite patently maintains the communal character of reconciliation, has proved popular in parishes across the world, but does not include the personal attention to penitents of the first and second rite. Moreover, the obligation of confessing grave sins individually, affirmed by the Council of Trent (see above), is not replaced by general confession and absolution. When such grave sins are absolved in such a communal rite, they are afterwards to be explicitly confessed to a priest.

Finally, just as baptism entails a salvific encounter with Christ, so too does the sacrament of reconciliation. He brings about the forgiveness of all sins, those committed before and after baptism (see 1 John 2: 2). In special, albeit different, ways both baptism and the sacrament of reconciliation actualize the ministry of Christ to sinners which he initiated in his earthly lifetime and will continue to the end of time. He never ceases to be the 'humble doctor', so cherished by Augustine.177 The reformed rite of penance, with its Liturgy of the Word and its prayers of thanksgiving and praise, makes clear that the sacrament involves an encounter with Christ who is present in the assembly (of at least two persons), in the proclamation of the word, in the sacramental sign of the imposition of hands, and in the person of the minister, who is to embody Christ's forgiving love.

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