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NPNF2-14. The Seven Ecumenical Councils
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Excursus on the Public Discipline or Exomologesis of the Early Church.

(Taken chiefly from Morinus, De Disciplina in Administratione Sacramenti Pœnitentiæ; Bingham, Antiquities; and Hammond, The Definitions of Faith, etc.  Note to Canon XI. of Nice.)

“In the Primitive Church there was a godly discipline, that at the beginning of Lent, such persons as stood convicted of notorious sin were put to open penance, and punished in this world that their souls might be saved in the day of the Lord; and that others, admonished by their example, might be the more afraid to offend.”

The foregoing words from the Commination Service of the Church of England may serve well to introduce this subject.  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 mortalia7575    Cyprian.  De Bono Patient., cap. xiv.), 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.”7676    Morinus, De Pœnitent., lib. v., cap. 5.  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 συγκλαίοντες, 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 χειμοζομένοι, 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 μεσάυλιον or atrium, with a font of water in the centre, styled a cantharus or phiala, or sometimes only an open portico, or προπύλαιον.  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 Færula 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 ἀκοῶμενοι, 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 Greek γονυκλίνοντες, or ὑποπίπτοντες, and 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 called συνεστῶτες, 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.  The practice of “hearing mass” or “non-communicating attendance” clearly had its origin in this stage of discipline.  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, or Holy Table (which names were indifferently used in the primitive Church), 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 Vestry; 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.

(Thomassin.  Ancienne et Nouvelle Discipline de l’Eglise.  Tom. I. Livre II. chap. xvj. somewhat abridged.)

In the West there existed always many cases of public penance, but in the East it is more difficult to find any traces of it, after it was abolished by the Patriarch Nectarius in the person of the Grand Penitentiary.

However, the Emperor Alexis Comnenus, who took the empire in the year 1080, did a penance like that of older days, and one which may well pass for miraculous.  He called together a large number of bishops with the patriarch, and some holy religious; he presented himself before them in the garb of a criminal; he confessed to them his crime of usurpation with all its circumstances.  They condemned the Emperor and all his accomplices to fasting, to lying prostrate upon the earth, to wearing haircloth, and to all the other ordinary austerities of penance.  Their wives desired to share their griefs and their sufferings, although they had had no share in their crime.  The whole palace became a theatre of sorrow and public penance.  The emperor wore the hairshirt under the purple, and lay upon the earth for forty days, having only a stone for a pillow.

To all practical purposes Public Penance was a general institution but for a short while in the Church.  But the reader must be careful to distinguish between this Public Penance and the private confession which in the Catholic Church both East and West is universally practised.  What Nectarius did was to abolish the office of Penitentiary, whose duty it had been to assign public penance for secret sin;7777    Vide, Thomassin.  Lib. cit. Livre II. Chapitre vii. § xiii. where the whole matter of Nectarius’s action is discussed. a thing wholly different from what Catholics understand by the “Sacrament of Penance.”  It would be out of place to do more in this place than to call the reader’s attention to the bare fact, and to supply him, from a Roman Catholic point of view, with an explanation of why Public Penance died out.  “It came to an end because it was of human institution.  But sacramental confession, being of divine origin, lasted when the penitential discipline had been changed, and continues to this day among the Greeks and Oriental sects.”7878    Addis and Arnold.  A Catholic Dictionary; sub voce Penance, Sacrament of.  That the reader may judge of the absolute candour of the writer just quoted, I give a few sentences from the same article:  “An opinion, however, did prevail to some extent in the middle ages, even among Catholics, that confession to God alone sufficed.  The Council of Châlons in 813 (canon xxxiij.), says:  ‘Some assert that we should confess our sins to God alone, but some think that they should be confessed to the priest, each of which practices is followed not without great fruit in Holy Church.…Confession made to God purges sins, but that made to the priest teaches how they are to be purged.’  This former opinion is also mentioned without reprobation by Peter Lombard (In Sentent. Lib. iv. dist. xvij.).”


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