Penance In The Early Church
Perhaps it will some day come to pass, some decades or centuries hence, that some small number of Catholics defend the status quo of the Church against further compromise with the world. They may consider Vatican II to be orthodox and consider themselves to be “traditionalists”, having no awareness of how compromised the faith, morals and discipline of the Church had already become. Perhaps they would be like unto the current “traditionalists” who think that they are “traditional” in maintaining a pre-Vatican II, 1950s status quo and who have no awareness of, or interest in, how the doctrine of the faith and sacramental discipline had already been compromised through the centuries.
The Jansenists sought to approximate to the spirituality – the faith and discipline – of the early Church, for the good of the faithful and the glory of God. They considered that the Church in their day had already become gravely compromised with the spirit of the world and that the Jesuits were at the forefront of further compromise. In his book, On Frequent Communion, Antoine Arnauld pointed out that in the early Church, the faithful were wont to be appointed lengthy penance for their sins, to be performed before they could be absolved and admitted to communion. They would have to first show clear signs of genuine conversion from their sins. And the faithful often abstained from holy communion as a penitential remedy for their venial sins, frequent communion being considered appropriate for those who had attained a great love of both God and righteousness and who had a great detachment from the spirit of the world and from venial sins.
Consider the following canon from the first ecumenical council of Nice (325). Those who had lapsed from the faith without persecution were to spend twelve years as public penitents before they might be readmitted to the sacraments – and then of course only if a sincere conversion be evidenced by perseverance in a new life.
“Concerning those who have fallen without compulsion, without the spoiling of their property, without danger or the like, as happened during the tyranny of Licinius, the Synod declares that, though they have deserved no clemency, they shall be dealt with mercifully. As many as were communicants, if they heartily repent, shall pass three years among the hearers; for seven years they shall be prostrators; and for two years they shall communicate with the people in prayers, but without oblation.”
That was quite normal for grave sins. It was understood that, given the weakness of fallen humanity, stern discipline and censure is required to guide the penitent. Yet today, people can sin mortally several times in a week, be absolved in the morning and appointed the recitation of an “hail Mary” as a penance, sin further in the evening, confess before mass and receive holy communion, to fall again before dinner and repeat the same next Saturday – because, we are told, “the sacraments are a remedy not a reward.” Yet easy access to the sacraments is no adequate substitute for serious discipline. The result of this lax Jesuitical discipline is quite what one would expect. Being held to no exertion or reform, none is forthcoming. I would guess that the sacramental discipline of even most so-called “traditional” chapels is extremely poor, compared to that of the early Church of the Fathers. In Vatican II churches, penance and reform have largely become a thing of the past, which is just more of the same compromise with the spirit of the world; the true spirit of the Church has been gradually displaced over the centuries. The Jesuits are quite victorious in their long battle to subject the Church of God to worldliness.
We present below a discussion of how the architecture of churches in the early Church was structured around the then-usual practice of public penance. Penitents were ordered into several grades and churches had formal areas where penitents were publicly exposed during the liturgy for years. Indeed, the first grade would be required to repent outside the building in an area there provided. Unfortunately the change in architecture would today appear indicative of the absence from our churches of serious penitential discipline or genuine conversion. Lax priests and frequent communion stand in their stead. Henry Percival compiled the following discussion as a note to the canon of Nice cited above. He gave the terms used in Greek as well as in Latin for the orders of penitents and the areas in the churches but I have not attempted to use a Greek font.
Excursus on the Public Discipline or Exomologesis of the Early Church
(Taken chiefly from Morinus, De Disciplina in Administratione Sacramenti Poenitentiae; Bingham, Antiquities; and Hammond, The Definitions of Faith, etc.)
In the history of the public administration of discipline in the Church, there are three periods sufficiently distinctly marked. The first of these ends at the rise of Novatianism in the middle of the second century; the second stretches down to about the eighth century; and the third period shews its gradual decline to its practical abandonment in the eleventh century. The period with which we are concerned is the second, when it was in full force.
In the first period it would seem that public penance was required only of those convicted of what then were called by pre-eminence “mortal sins” (crimena mortalia), viz: idolatry, murder, and adultery. But in the second period the list of mortal sins was greatly enlarged, and Morinus says that “Many Fathers who wrote after Augustine’s time, extended the necessity of public penance to all crimes which the civil law punished with death, exile, or other grave corporal penalty.” In the penitential canons ascribed to St. Basil and those which pass by the name of St. Gregory Nyssen, this increase of offences requiring public penance will be found intimated.
From the fourth century the penitents of the Church were divided into four classes. Three of these are mentioned in the eleventh canon, the fourth, which is not here referred to, was composed of those styled flentes or weepers. These were not allowed to enter into the body of the church at all, but stood or lay outside the gates, sometimes covered with sackcloth and ashes. This is the class which is sometimes styled hybernantes, on account of their being obliged to endure the inclemency of the weather.
It may help to the better understanding of this and other canons which notice the different orders of penitents, to give a brief account of the usual form and arrangement of the ancient churches as well as of the different orders of the penitents.
Before the church there was commonly either an open area surrounded with porticoes, called atrium, with a font of water in the centre, styled a cantharus or phiala, or sometimes only an open portico. The first variety may still be seen at S. Ambrogio’s in Milan, and the latter in Rome at S. Lorenzo’s, and in Ravenna at the two S. Apollinares. This was the place at which the first and lowest order of penitents, the weepers, already referred to, stood exposed to the weather. Of these, St. Gregory Thaumaturgus says: “Weeping takes place outside the door of the church, where the sinner must stand and beg the prayers of the faithful as they go in.”
The church itself usually consisted of three divisions within, besides these exterior courts and porch. The first part after passing through “the great gates,” or doors of the building, was called the Narthex in Greek, and Faerula in Latin, and was a narrow vestibule extending the whole width of the church. In this part, to which Jews and Gentiles, and in most places even heretics and schismatics were admitted, stood the Catechumens, and the Energumens or those afflicted with evil spirits, and the second class of penitents (the first mentioned in the Canon), who were called the audientes, or hearers. These were allowed to hear the Scriptures read, and the Sermon preached, but were obliged to depart before the celebration of the Divine Mysteries, with the Catechumens, and the others who went by the general name of hearers only.
The second division, or main body of the church, was called the Naos or Nave. This was separated from the Narthex by rails of wood, with gates in the centre, which were called “the beautiful or royal gates.” In the middle of the Nave, but rather toward the lower or entrance part of it, stood the Ambo, or reading-desk, the place for the readers and singers, to which they went up by steps, whence the name, Ambo. Before coming to the Ambo, in the lowest part of the Nave, and just after passing the royal gates, was the place for the third order of penitents, called in Latin Genuflectentes or Prostrati, i.e., kneelers or prostrators, because they were allowed to remain and join in certain prayers particularly made for them. Before going out they prostrated themselves to receive the imposition of the bishop’s hands with prayer. This class of penitents left with the Catechumens.
In the other parts of the Nave stood the believers or faithful, i.e., those persons who were in full communion with the Church, the men and women generally on opposite sides, though in some places the men were below, and the women in galleries above. Amongst these were the fourth class of penitents, who were consistentes, i.e., co-standers, because they were allowed to stand with the faithful, and to remain and hear the prayers of the Church, after the Catechumens and the other penitents were dismissed, and to be present while the faithful offered and communicated, though they might not themselves make their offerings, nor partake of the Holy Communion. This class of penitents are frequently mentioned in the canons, as “communicating in prayers,” or “without the oblation;” and it was the last grade to be passed through previous to the being admitted again to full communion. At the upper end of the body of the church, and divided from it by rails which were called Cancelli, was that part which we now call the Chancel. This was anciently called by several names, as Bema or tribunal, from its being raised above the body of the church, and Sacrarium or Sanctuary. It was also called Apsis and Concha Bematis, from its semicircular end. In this part stood the Altar, behind which, and against the wall of the chancel, was the Bishop’s throne, with the seats of the Presbyters on each side of it, called synthronus. On one side of the chancel was the repository for the sacred utensils and vestments, called the Diaconicum, and answering to our Sacristy; and on the other the Prothesis, a side-table, or place, where the bread and wine were deposited before they were offered on the Altar. The gates in the chancel rail were called the holy gates, and none but the higher orders of the clergy, i.e., Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, were allowed to enter within them. The Emperor indeed was permitted to do so for the purpose of making his offering at the Altar, but then he was obliged to retire immediately, and to receive the communion without.
S. Ambrogio’s in Milan, 11th century,
with its weepers’ atrium.