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The History Of The Sacrament Of Penance

June 17, 2017 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


It was on that first Easter Sunday night, as we saw last week, that our resurrected Lord gave to the Church one of her greatest gifts: He instituted the Sacrament of Penance by breathing upon the apostles in the Upper Room and pronouncing those wondrous words: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22-23).
He thus offered baptized Christians who sever themselves from friendship with Jesus by falling into grave sin “a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], n. 1446).
We also saw last week that the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is not only personal, but communal and ecclesial. As the servant of God, Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, explains in The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism, “it is communal in reconciling the sinner first and mainly with God but also with others who are offended by sin. It is ecclesial because the sacrament restores (or increases) our friendship not only with God, but also with the Church” (n. 1330). Reconciliation with the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, is inseparable from reconciliation with God (cf. CCC, n. 1445).
The Catechism next devotes two rather lengthy paragraphs to the historical development of the discipline and celebration of the sacrament. It prefaces its treatment by acknowledging that “over the centuries the concrete form in which the Church has exercised this power received from the Lord has varied considerably” (CCC, n. 1446).
In her earliest years, “there was little emphasis on the Church’s power to reconcile sinners, since baptism itself took away sin,” writes Dr. James Hitchcock. “The primary emphasis was therefore on the faithful preservation of baptismal grace” (History of the Catholic Church [HCC], p. 47).
In The Catholic Catechism (TCC), Fr. Hardon explains why this should not be surprising by recalling the high expectations demanded of early believers. As recorded in the letters of St. Paul and in the Acts of the Apostles, the first Christians were subjected to extreme persecution for the faith; indeed, many were martyred including all of the Twelve except John. “The Spirit of God was miraculously active in producing heroic virtue that converted thousands to Jesus Christ,” says Fr. Hardon. “Those who sinned grievously were at first not numerous” (TCC, p. 482).
For baptized believers who did sin grievously during Christianity’s early years, reconciliation with God and the Church was possible through what came to be known as solemn penance. Forgiveness “required heavy penances, such as fasting, wearing rough garments, not bathing or shaving, and abstaining from marital relations,” says Dr. Hitchcock. “Some theologians thought that the gravest sins — murder, apostasy, adultery, abortion — could be forgiven only once in a lifetime. The period of probation after confession was long (a quarter of a century in extreme cases), during which the individual was excommunicated” (HCC, p. 69).
Penances mentioned by Fr. Hardon include distant pilgrimages and seclusion in a monastery for years (cf. TCC, p. 483).
Catholic doctrine holds, however, that this form of rigorous public penance in the early Church was complemented from the beginning by private administration of the sacrament. This is attested to in a document written in 459 by St. Leo the Great which reproved bishops of Campania in Italy for presuming to act “against the apostolic regulation” by demanding public confession of sin. The epistle Magna Indignatione forcefully states:
“What is demanded of the faithful is clearly not that an acknowledgement of the nature of individual sins written in a little book be read publicly, since it suffices that the states of consciences be made known to the priests alone in secret confession….Confession is sufficient which is first offered to God, then also to a priest, who serves as an intercessor for the transgressions of the penitents. For then, indeed, more will be able to be incited to penance, if the conscience of the one confessing is not exposed to the ears of the people” (Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, n. 323).
“From this declaration,” affirms Fr. Paul Haffner, “it is clear that the safeguarding of the reputation of the penitent is of Apostolic tradition” (The Sacramental Mystery [TSM], p. 146).
At the same time, Pope Leo the Great did not stipulate that penance had to be private: “He was advocating private confession with a public penance in cases of sins which were not generally known” (ibid.). Thus, even though it was known that the person was expiating for a serious offense, others did not have knowledge of what the transgression was.
To this part of the history of the Sacrament of Penance belong the Penitential Books. These were “sets of books containing directions to confessors in the form of prayers, questions to be asked, and exhaustive lists of sins with the appropriate penance prescribed,” explains Fr. Hardon. “The wide use of the Penitential Books with the specified directives to priests indicates the corresponding regularity of private penance in the Church from patristic times” (TCC, p. 483).
From the foregoing discussion, it is evident that although private confession and penance was practiced during the patristic years, the Church’s primary emphasis for the sacrament was public reconciliation of those guilty of mortal sins. It was “during the seventh century [that] Irish missionaries, inspired by the Eastern monastic tradition, took to continental Europe the ‘private’ practice of penance, which does not require public and prolonged completion of penitential works before reconciliation with the Church” (CCC, n. 1447).
Moreover, the sacrament could now be often repeated and thus applied to small offenses. “Therefore, from the seventh and eighth centuries onwards, the practice of confessing venial sins developed” (TSM, p. 149).
In the words of the Catechism, “this new practice envisioned the possibility of repetition and so opened the way to a regular frequenting of this sacrament. It allowed the forgiveness of grave sins and venial sins to be integrated into one sacramental celebration. In its main lines this is the form of penance that the Church has practiced down to our day” (CCC, n. 1447).
However, a major denial of the sacrament’s necessity and efficacy was looming — it was in the 16th century that the so-called Reformers of Protestantism rebelled against the sacrament.
The Sacrament of Penance was challenged on many fronts by the Reformers, especially the Church’s teaching of the necessity to confess one’s sins to a priest. They claimed that the sacrament originated at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.
However, as the Council of Trent affirms, “The Church did not, through the Council of Lateran, ordain that the faithful of Christ should confess, a thing which it knew to be necessary, and instituted of divine right, but that the precept of confession should be fulfilled, at least once a year, by all and each, when they should have attained to years of discretion” (session 14, chapter 5).
Thus, as explained in the Catholic Encyclopedia, “the Lateran edict presupposed the necessity of confession as an article of Catholic belief and laid down a law as to the minimum frequency of confession — at least once a year.” It is interesting to note that even the Reformers admitted its existence for over three centuries.

The Same Fundamental Structure

Following the Second Vatican Council, the Church published the New Rite of Penance (Ordo Paenitentiae), which was “an occasion for the rediscovery of the ecclesial dimension of the sacrament of Penance, with penitential services for the preparation for individual confessions” (TSM, p. 151).
It devotes a full chapter to the “Rite of Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution.” This rite is often celebrated in parishes toward the end of the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent in preparation for the Solemnities of Christmas and Easter, respectively.
Nonetheless, the Church continues to emphasize her constant tradition regarding the individual nature of the sacrament. In his 1979 encyclical Redemptor Hominis, Pope St. John Paul II stressed this very point:
“Although the participation by the fraternal community of the faithful in the penitential celebration is a great help for the act of personal conversion, nevertheless, in the final analysis, it is necessary that in this act there should be a pronouncement by the individual himself with the whole depth of his conscience and with the whole of his sense of guilt and of trust in God” (n. 20 § 7).
It is evident, then, that “beneath the changes in discipline and celebration that this sacrament has undergone over the centuries, the same fundamental structure is to be discerned” (CCC, n. 1448). It continues, as it was on the day of its institution, to be the ordinary means provided by the Lord for baptized believers who have fallen into serious sin after Baptism to recover the grace necessary for salvation.
As St. John Paul entreats the faithful in his 1984 apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, it would “be foolish, as well as presumptuous, to wish arbitrarily…to claim to receive forgiveness while doing without the sacrament which was instituted by Christ precisely for forgiveness” (n. 31 § 2).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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