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The Sacrament of Penance (No 2)

(Second Baptism, Penance Confession,

Reconciliation) in the Early Church:



* Sacrament of Penance - Part 1

* Sacrament of Penance - Part 2

* Sacrament of Penance - Part 3

In our last article on the Sacrament of Penance in the early Church on “The Second Sunday of Lent” we have seen that the Sacrament of Penance followed the same pattern as the Sacrament of Baptism and Confirmation in the Early Church. The people who had applied for entry into the Christian Community through Baptism and Confirmation had first to prove that they had gone through a process of Conversion, and were continuing to do so during their lives.

We noted the importance of listening, and reading the Word of God in this whole process. In Baptism and Confirmation the Christian Community celebrated the fact that this Conversion had come about through the working of God in their lives. CONVERSION was the important process. We saw too that in order to bring about this Conversion they entered a time of prayer fasting and good works for about three years. Then process was known as the Cathechumenate, and the people who were preparing to enter the Christian Community were known as “Catechumens”. We noted too that after three years they started a more intense form of preparation for forty days which became known as Lent. On Holy Saturday night they were accepted into the Christian Community, and they joined the Christian Community for the celebration of Mass.

This process of Conversion was also known as First Forgiveness, as Jesus forgave all their sins in Baptism. The early Christians didn’t expect the early converts to Christianity to sin again, so when some did sin seriously, they had to begin a new process of Conversion, as the first process hadn’t been adequate, or had been defective. If they committed the serious sins of Adultery, Murder, or Apostasy (denying the faith) they entered a new time of prayer and fasting to bring about authentic CONVERSION. They were known as Penitents, and entered the time of Penitents. This time of Penance could last many years, and was begun on Ash Wednesday with the Ashes. It lasted until the Conversion had taken place. Again the process involved was to ensure that Conversion had taken place. We notice the importance of listening and reading the Word of God, prayer, penance, and fasting. We notice too the fact that it was a Community Sacrament in which the people prayed and fasted for the penitent, and received the penitent back into the Community through Reconciliation.

If CONVERSION had not taken place there was nothing to celebrate so therefore there was no Sacrament to celebrate. This is a thought for our own lives, and our own Celebration of the Sacrament. Have we anything to celebrate? If Conversion had taken place the Penitent was received into the Christian Community again, usually at the Holy Thursday Mass. They couldn’t celebrate Mass until the Reconciliation took place. They left Mass after the Homily. They were then reconciled to the Community and allowed to celebrate the Eucharist with the Christian Community. The Sacrament could only be received once in a lifetime in the Early Church. If someone sinned seriously again they were left to the grace and mercy of God.

However there was another form of the Sacrament of Penance which taking place in Ireland. As the Church was organised around the Monasteries the Abbot of the Monastery was equivalent to a bishop. Here the custom grew up of confessing ones sins to the Abbot, then carrying out the penance, and coming back for the Absolution or Reconciliation.

So when the Monks went to the Continent to preach the Gospel, they brought this form of the Sacrament of Penance with them. They brought also the “Penitential Books” which were books which stipulated the penance to be given for a particular sin. Again the Penance could last for years, and were very difficult. The difference was that the Sacrament could be received many times in life. Two forms of the Sacrament of Penance came into existence. There was now Public Penance for Public Sins, and Private Penance for private sins, but the Penance in each case were long and difficult, and designed to bring about this Conversion of life. In fact the Penance was so difficult that many people tended to put of the Sacrament off, until later in life. In an effort to make the Forgiveness of God more available the church brought in “Substitutions”.

In other words prayers were introduced as substitutions for the long and difficult Penance. Not only was the Penance substituted by Prayers, but the custom was introduced of giving the Absolution or Reconciliation immediately. This meant that the Absolution or Reconciliation came before the Penance as it does today. The reason was simple. The priests were missionary priests, and therefore moved from one place to another. They might not be around for the absolution or reconciliation. Now the order of the Sacrament was changed with Confession---Absolution---and Penance. This form of penance was accepted by the Council of Trent which added the provision that sins must be confessed by number and kind.

Then came the heresy of Jansenism which emphasised the fact that man was totally evil, and couldn’t resist sin on his own. This introduced a period of frequent confession was we have experienced it in the Church up until in the thirties and forties. Sin was seen more as a law which people broke very often, so they must confess sin as often as possible and certainly before receiving Holy Communion. The Church condemned this heresy but its effects introduced a great sense of guilt in people which was hard to rid heal.

During the Second Vatican Council an effort was made to return to the Sacrament in side the context of our relationship with God and the Christian community. Sin was not the breaking of a law, but the breaking, or weakening of a relationship with God and our neighbour. The sacrament of penance became know as the sacrament of Reconciliation, for we are reconciled with the Community, and through the Community with God. This community dimension of the Sacrament is again emphasized. The priest represents the Community and the Lord. But the emphasis goes further for in the second rite of reconciliation the people come together to prepare for the Sacrament to prepare through listening to Gods Word and through Prayer. We see the emphasis yet again on Confession of Sin, Conversion, and Reconciliation. This is a very short summary of the history of the sacrament of Penance but I do hope it does give some insight into the essential elements in the sacrament. We celebrate the work of God in our lives in bring about Conversion and Reconciliation. If there is no Conversion or reconciliation we have nothing to celebrate.

John Halton


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