Confession has come a long way over the past 14 centuries. CNS photo/Andrew Biraj, Reuters

The evolution of the penitential rite

By  Marc B. Cels, Catholic Register Special
  • January 9, 2015

Penance in Medieval Europe, 600-1200 by Rob Meens (Cambridge University Press, softcover, 290 pages, $29.99).

At a time when the Sacrament of Penance is in decline, a new history of early Medieval penance helps put today’s apparent crisis in a much longer perspective. Rob Meens offers a scholarly overview of the formative period when sacramental confession emerged. He takes readers back to when Catholicism appeared very different from what we expect today, a journey which some might find unsettling, others enlightening.

During its first six centuries, Christianity had no sacramental confession as we would recognize it. There were certainly various forms of doing penance for one’s sins, but the Church only had formal rituals to discipline notorious sinners — adulterers, murderers and the like. Penitents were given one last chance by undergoing very difficult, public penances. Even after being reconciled by their bishop, many still suffered restrictions.

Regular confession developed among the early Christian monks. They confessed infractions against their monastic rule of life and sought advice from more senior monks on how to root out their sins. The monks of seventh-century Ireland began hearing the confessions of laypeople associated with their monasteries. They also wrote books called penitentials, listing sins and their corresponding penance. Meens’ book is a careful study of the surviving copies of these books.

The penances mainly consisted of fasting on a reduced diet for days, weeks or even years, depending on the severity of the sin. Long fasts could be commuted to something shorter but more intense, such as sleeping three nights at the tomb of a saint, reciting 100 psalms or doing 100 genuflections. Alms, of course, could also be substituted.

Students have long been titillated by the strangeness of the sins involving difficult cases of sex or violence. Some of what the Irish monks cover in their little manuals, however, don’t really seem to be matters of morality at all — consuming blood, urine, carrion or something the dog has nibbled. Are these perhaps temptations when on a long fast? Some penances read more like compensations for crimes or civil suits. Indeed, Meens shows that penance was used in settling disputes in “Dark Age” Europe, a time when families defended and avenged their members.

Irish missionaries carried penitentials and the practice of confession through Anglo-Saxon England and to the empire of Franks, approximately France, Germany and northern Italy. Rulers such as Charlemagne (who ruled over most of Western Europe from 800 to 814) encouraged penance as part of government-sponsored religious reforms. Some bishops started mandating that Christians confess their sins to their parish priest at Lent. Ensuring that the people of the empire obeyed God’s rules and made up for their failings would ensure good weather, healthy crops and, most importantly, victory to the ferocious Frankish armies.

Penance could also have political implications, just as apologies from modern politicians do today. Charlemagne’s heir, Louis the Pious, took penance very seriously, undergoing public penance twice, going so far as to resign his crown to his son.

Pious or not, the Frankish empire collapsed. Nevertheless, when subsequent rulers and bishops wanted to avert some crisis, such as the Viking invasions of England, they dusted off the instructions that the Irish and Franks had formulated, spreading the custom of confession. Still, it remains really hard to know how commonly people confessed in an age without seminaries and when few priests could even read the penitentials Meens now studies.

Meens’ book ends with Pope Innocent III and his Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. That ecumenical council made sacramental confession to one’s priest, at least once a year in preparation for Easter, a requirement of all Catholics. This rule made universal a ritual that had gradually developed and spread through the Latin Church for 600 years. Still, it was a far cry from the frequent and fastidious confession practised in the first half of the 20th century, for which some Catholics now pine.

Despite the many changes and shifts in emphasis over time, we can discern some continuity in penance. On the one hand, Christians have always been moved, some more than others, to seek divine grace by bringing their sins and hurts to the Church and its ministers for reconciliation. On the other hand, efforts to define, formalize and force the sacrament have had mixed results. The long history of penance teaches that it has and can be adapted to changing needs.

(Cels is professor of history and humanities at Athabasca University in Edmonton.)

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.