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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
(I) is a name for those members of the Church who, having offended the laws of God or the ecclesiastical canons, seek reconciliation. Penance (q.v.), in the primitive Church, as Coleman, from Augusti, remarks, was wholly a voluntary act on the part of those who were subject to it. The. Church not only would not enforce it, but refused even to urge or invite any to submit to the penitential discipline. It was to be sought as a favor, not inflicted as a penalty. The offending party had, however, no authority or permission to prescribe his own duties as a penitent. When once he had resolved to seek the forgiveness and reconciliation of the Church, it was exclusively the prerogative of that body to prescribe the conditions on which this was to be effected. No one could even be received as a candidate for penance without permission first obtained of the bishop or presiding elder. The period of penitential probation differed in different times and places, but in general was graduated according to the enormity of the sin, some going so far in their rigor, (See NOVATIAN), as, contrary to the clearly expressed sense of the Church, to carry it even beyond the grave. In the earlier ages much depended upon the spirit of each particular Church or country; but about the 4th century the public penitential discipline assumed a settled form, which, especially as established in the Greek Church, is so curious that it deserves to be briefly described. Sinners of the classes already referred to had their names enrolled, and were (in some churches, after having made a preliminary confession to a priest appointed for the purpose) admitted, with a blessing and other ceremonial, by the bishop to the rank of penitents. This enrollment appears to have commonly taken place on the first day of Lent.
The penitents so enrolled were divided into four distinct classes, called by the Greeks προσκλαίοντες, ἀκροώμενοι, ὑποπίπτοντες , and συνιστάμενοι; and by the Latins flentes, audientes, substrati, and consistentes — that is, the mourners or weepers, hearers, kneelers, and co- standers. The duties required of penitents consisted essentially in the following particulars:
1. Penitents of the first three classes were required to kneel in worship, while the faithful were permitted to stand.
2. All were required to make known their penitential sorrow by an open and public confession of their sin. This confession was to be made, not before the bishop or the priesthood, but in the presence of the whole Church, with sighs and tears and lamentations. These expressions of grief they were to renew and continue so long as they remained in the first or lowest class of penitents, entreating at the same time in their behalf the prayers and intercessions of the faithful. Some idea of the nature of these demonstrations of penitence may be formed from a record of them contained in the works of Cyprian. Almost all the canons lay much stress upon the sighs and tears accompanying these effusions.
3. Throughout the whole term of penance all expressions of joy were to be restrained, and all ornaments of dress to be laid aside. The penitents were required, literally, to wear sackcloth, and to cover their heads with ashes. Nor were these acts of humiliation restricted to Ash-Wednesday merely, when especially they were required.
4. The men were obliged to cut short their hair, and to shave their beards, in token of sorrow. The women were to appear with disheveled hair, and wearing a peculiar kind of veil.
5. During the whole term of penance, bathing, feasting, and sensual gratifications, allowable at other times, were prohibited.
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Penitents'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/p/penitents.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.