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Sacrament of Penance in Early Church:
(Reconciliation, Second Baptism, Penance, Confession)

* Sacrament of Penance - Part 1

* Sacrament of Penance - Part 2

* Sacrament of Penance - Part 3

In talking about the Sacrament of Reconciliation it is important to think about the different names given to it during the centuries. In the early Church this Sacrament was known as Second Baptism, for Baptism was the Sacrament of Forgiveness that brought salvation, and it was almost unthinkable that anyone who had been converted to Christ, and abandoned their old life of sin would return to sin after they had been baptized. “How can we who have died to sin go on living in it?” St Paul asks. “This we know: our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed and we might be slaves to sin no longer –you must consider your self dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus.” Romans 6: 2, 11. But the early Church soon found out that despite the idealism of their first conversion some Christians did fall back to their old ways of a sinful life after their initial conversion and baptism.

The early Christian saw this falling back to their sinful ways as a sign that some needed a re-conversion from their sinful ways, and a turning back to live like Jesus. It was natural therefore to see this new conversion as a Second Baptism, for Baptism was about Conversion, and involved a long preparation as we have already seen. The preparation for Baptism which involved prayer, penance, serving the community was aimed at bringing about this conversion in peoples lives. The follower of Jesus must live a life of continuous conversion drawing closer and closer to Jesus.

Conversion of life was at the heart of Baptism, and therefore must be at the heart of Second Baptism which became known as the Sacrament of Penance. The Early Church wanted to re-conversion for those who had fallen from their first conversion, and therefore it followed the same pattern for the Sacrament of Penance as it had done in preparation for Baptism and Confirmation. Those preparing for this Second Baptism entered what was called the order of penitents as those preparing for Baptism and confirmation entered the order of catechumens. The confession of sin was done privately, but that was the only part of the sacrament that was done in private. After they had made their confession of sin these penitents were enrolled in the order of Penitents with the imposition of Ashes. They then carried out whatever penance was assigned by the confessor, and these were public. Those penances were often very long and severe, sometimes lasting several years. During that time the penitents usually had special places in the Church, and commonly left the Eucharist after the Homily, just as those preparing for Baptism and Confirmation did.

When the penance was completed over a long period and conversion was judged to have occurred, the penitents were welcomed back into the order of the faithful with a rite of reconciliation. That rite of reconciliation was celebrated by the whole community usually on Holy Thursday, with the imposition of hands by the Bishop and the readmittance to the Eucharistic table. A person could only be admitted into the order of Penitents once in their life time in the early Church. This severe public penance was not required for all sins, and the most important list of sin requiring this discipline included Murder, Adultery, and Apostasy (renunciation of the faith). Lesser sins were understood to be forgiven through prayer, personal penance, almsgiving and the celebration of the Eucharist. Those who sinned seriously were given one opportunity to re-convert. If they sinned seriously after that the church left them to the mercy of God. As we can see the early church was very strict on those who committed serious sin. They had only one chance. This began with the private confession of sin, followed by the long penance, and then the reconciliation and readmittance to the Eucharist on Holy Thursday night. The great emphasis was put on the conversion of the person to Jesus, and the putting aside an old sinful way of life. The protracted penance was aimed at bringing about this conversion in the persons life. It was done inside the community, and the reconciliation was reconciliation to the community.

The reconciliation with the Community was a sign of the reconciliation with Jesus. As we can see this once only Sacrament of Penance was very difficult and demanding so people tended to put the penance of as long as possible. Indeed some left it off until they were very old or until death. And so a new form of Penance would have to emerge, with the three same elements—Confession of Sin, Penance to bring about Conversion, and Reconciliation. We won’t be surprised that the Irish had the foundation of an answer. The church in Ireland at that time was organised around the Monasteries. (To be continued)

* Sacrament of Penance - Part 2

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