Forgiveness and Reconciliation
Part 2 History

 Chapter r22 The Patristic Period [400-799]

Summary Period #2

Preliminary Questions


History Grid

Patristic Theology of Justification

To Think About


Canonical Penance. Read Osborne, "Justification and Reconciliation in the Patristic Period, 150 to 700 A.D.," pp 52-83.

Richard M. Gula, S.S.  To Walk Together Again, Chapter 6 "Reconciliation Through the Ages" pp 187-226.

Monika K. Hellwig. Sign of Reconciliation and Conversion. Chapter 2: "Rites of Penance and Reconciliation in the Patristic Church."

Cyril Vogel. Le Pecheur et la penitence dans l'eglise ancienne. Paris: Cerf, 1966.

History Grid

History of the Sacrament of Reconciliation

Name(Jesus and Sub-apostolic Church)Canonical Penance (Order of Penitents)Celtic Penance (Tariff Penance)Scholastic ConfessionReconciliation
Dates30-300300-600  1974-present
Paradigm (Think...)Jesus in the GospelsBaptism   
Process (Stages)Former life
LiturgyBaptism-confirmation-eucharistOrder of Penitents:
MinistriesCommunity and its ministers and its overseerCommunity and its ministers and its overseer   
Positive AspectsPart of the ongoing journey of the holy ChurchA liturgical process involving the whole community 
Negative AspectsNo provision for exceptional tragic situationsOnce only; long and very hard; punishment 

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Patristic Theology of Justification

With the conversion of Constantine, the Church is able to develop more "public" rituals.  The process of conversion becomes more formalized with the development of the Catechumenate.  Sins are forgiven by the sacraments of initiation.

Before the conversion of Constantine, during the time of the persecutions, there were unfortunately some Christians who even after their baptism denied the faith.  When (after the persecution had ceased) they wanted to rejoin the community at the Eucharistic banquet.  In a community, many members of which had suffered terribly for not denying the faith and reneging on their baptism, a simple kiss of peace and then rejoining the community at Eucharist was considered "too easy" and did not validate the sufferings of those who had not denied the faith.

What to do?  Should they repeat the Catechumenate and be baptized again?  After much discussion on this issue it was decided that baptism was so radical a change that once you were baptized that event could never be repeated for any reason.  Consequently the Roman Church gradually developed a rite similar the the baptismal rite for these returning sinners.  It was modeled on the Catechumenate, involve the entire community, it was presided over by the overseer (who we would now call a Bishop, but remember the bishop presided at every gathering of the church -- priests as we know them were not invented yet) -- and as the first Catechumenate seemed not to have worked very well this second Catechumenate was much longer and much harder often lasting a lifetime.  It was however only for a select few persons.  The majority of Christians, thanks be to God, never had to experience this "second plank after shipwreck." 

Before the sacraments of initiation, a person entered the "Order of Catechumens";  before this "second baptism" a person entered the "Order of Penitents".  Paenitentia secunda, like the prebaptismal repentance, took place in the midst of the community.

After the time of the persecutions, a similar question arose about people who after Christian initiation fell back into their old ways of earning a living -- for example, selling statues of pagan gods (apostasy), being the town pimp and selling women for sex (adultery), being the village assassin (murder).  The community felt, and rightly so, if they were standing around the altar of the Lord for the Eucharist and the extended their hands to one another in peace and reconciliation, and the person next to them was known to be the town assassin, it seemed that he should repent and choose a new profession before joining them at the Eucharistic table!

As these rituals for reconciliation of public penitents developed, they were closely regulated by the rules (cannons) of the church and thus the ritual came to be called "canonical penance".  (The term "public penance" can be confusing because it was not the confession that was public, it was the sin that was public.  Everyone knew about it -- it was in the headlines and on the evening news.  The person did not have to confess the sin to the liturgical leader, he knew that already, the person presented himself to the leader of the community, the pastor, and ask to be admitted into the order of penitents.  The process involved the entire community in various roles, much as the rites for Christian initiation for adults do today.  It was a liturgical event.

This ritual (sacrament) remained on the books until 1614, but in later years was seldom used.  It simply died out.  It did not grow organically into another form of reconciliation.

[Beginning of indulgences.]  Imprisoned Christians provided apostates with letters of recommendation requesting or even granting reconciliation.

It has become increasingly clear that private confession in any form even approaching our modern understanding did not exist in the ancient Church. Confession for the ancient Church was praising God for compassion to the sinner.  Pope Leo I in 459 was angry at hearing of penitents being required to read off a list of their sins in public and forbids it. Innocent I, in a letter written in 416, stated that Holy Thursday was the traditional day in Rome for the reconciliation of penitents.

The self-righteous character of canonical penance, sharply distinguishing between sinners and saints, eventually led to sinners avoiding it and saints entering it.

The word penance itself lost its original meaning of conversion and began to take on the connotations of difficulty, sacrifice, and penalty.

To Think About

Are there any aspects of this rite that would be pastorally useful today?

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