Public penance

Repentance for and forgiveness of sins

  • Summary/Abstract

    This article deals with the early history of the penitential discipline. Assuming that repentance helped or contributed to receiving God’s forgiveness at the time of the Last Judgment, the Church began to impose penances (epitimia), after which the sinners received forgiveness after confession. This order, followed since the beginning of the 3rd century, has been changed several times. The practice of public penance, always and strictly followed by the western churches even in the 5th century, was abandoned by the eastern ones after the introduction of the office of presbyter presiding over penance was introduced in the second half of the 3rd century. Around the end of the 4th century, after the example of Constantinople, the eastern bishops abolished this office and, based on the assumption that each individual examined himself before participating in the liturgy, "absolved" the sinners from mandatory confession of what they had done and offered them "recommended penance" in private. The provision of canonical epistles and council decisions for the graded exclusion of sinners from participation in the holy liturgy officiated at in eastern churches was initially administered by the bishops, and by presbyters presiding over penance from the second half of the 3rd to the end of the 4th century. With the substitution of obligatory confession for the practice of private penance, the terminus post quem for the beginning of which was the abolishment of the office of presbyter presiding over penance, the application of graded exclusion from participation as a penance for a transgression was brought down only to those of the sinners who had chosen to make a confession. This was largely to condition the subsequent summarizing of the features of the individual categories of penance, which by means of their different degree "of liberty" "absolved" different parts of the severity of committed sin. The summarization, constituting a quantitative approach, followed the principle that the degree of difficulty was one but the quantity of its applications was directly proportionate to the severity (one penance done a different number of times). The penitential discipline in the West, strictly followed even after the beginning of 5th century, became the "most powerful means of leading the believers", while in the East its application received a private (secret) character, formalized to a "tariff penance" under the influence of monastic practice. Surprisingly, during the time of St. Theodore of Studios (+826) penance was not recognized as a sacrament.

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