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Little is known of the early history of the sacrament. By the 3rd cent. a developed system of public Penance had emerged. After the sinner had asked the bishop for Penance, he or she was enrolled in the order of penitents, excluded from Communion, and committed to a course of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; after a period whose length was determined by the gravity of the sin, the sinner was reconciled and rejoined the congregation. Penance could at that period be undergone only once in a lifetime and entailed lifelong continence.

A new system was developed in the W. under the influence of Celtic or Anglo-Saxon monk-missionaries. The Penance remained public, long, and arduous, but confession of the details of sin was private and absolution was gradually pushed back until it was granted on confession and before the Penance began. From this developed the ‘private Penance’ of today, with its confession, absolution, and light formal penance. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) required every Christian to confess his or her sins to the parish priest at least once a year. By 1500 the system of regular confession was sufficiently ubiquitous to be a major target of the Church's more radical critics. In the E. a similar development took place, though here Penance was bound up with spiritual direction, which was not confined to the priesthood, and absolution is not always mentioned. By the 15th cent. private confession to a priest, followed by a prayer for forgiveness, was a generally accepted practice among lay people.

The theology of Penance depends on the ability of the Church to intercede for sinners and the power of its ministers to absolve them. In the W. Church, however, it came to be held that post-baptismal sin must be atoned for in part by the punishment of the sinner. Owing to the grave inconvenience occasioned by long Penances, the system of commutation grew up. A Penance of years could be compressed into a single day by the payment of money or its place taken by the repeated recitation of the Psalter in an uncomfortable position. This idea of commutation affected the development of indulgences (q.v.).

The 1973 RC Order of Penance (now known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation) provides three rites, one of which allows the granting of absolution without individual confession of sins in the presence of a priest, but its use is severely restricted and those penitents who benefit from it are bound to confess their sins at a later date. In the C of E the use of Penance for those who wished for it was revived in the 19th cent. on the basis of the provisions in the BCP Visitation of the Sick. Several modern Anglican liturgies contain a rite for the Reconciliation of a Penitent.

See also Seal of Confession.

Subjects: Christianity — Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500).


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