- THE PENITENCE. Second conversion

Created: Monday, 23 June 2014 Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Second conversion

1. – When the problem comes up, the questions that people raises upon the sacrament of penitence are diverse and deep. Even taking into account the renovation efforts carried out after de Vatican Council II, the sacrament continues in crisis. It is necessary to revise the tradition in the light of the Gospel. The knowledge of the changes that have taken place along history may help to solve the problem.
2.-   During the six initial centuries, public penitence is carried out: it assumes a second conversion process that takes place after the baptism. From the VII century, private penitence becomes normal; it takes place alone with the priest and may be repeated along all the life. Council Vatican II establishes the penitential rite revision in order to manifest “the nature and effects of the sacrament” in a clearer way. (SC 72).
3.-   Penitence is the same that conversion: it implies a change in mentality, heart and behaviour. During the first centuries the first conversion begins with the answer given to the first evangelization and it is developed in a catechumenal process culminating in the baptism. But, the baptized may commit grave sins. In this case, the second conversion is applied. It is necessary if it is desired to participate again in the life of the community.
4.-   The practice of the fraternal correction before situations that require conversion appears in the Gospel: If your brother has sinned against you, go and speak to him alone, and if he listens to you, you have won your brother. If he does not listen to you, take with you two or three others so that the case may be decided by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he still refuses to listen to them, inform the assemble church about him. But of he does not listen to the church, then regard him as a pagan or a publican. I say to you: whatever you bind on earth, Heaven will keep bound; and whatever you unbind on earth, Heaven will keep unbound. (Mt 18, 15-18). What it is said here to all of the disciples it is said, in a especial way, to Peter (16,19)
5. The words to bound and to unbound mean to separate the sinner from the community (excomunion) and to receive again in it. The resurrected Lord entrusts to his disciples the mission to forgive or to retain the sins: “Receive the Holy Spirit; for those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.” (Jn 20, 22-23). On his part, Paul says to the community of Corinth: “We are entrusted with the service of reconciliation” (2 Co 5, 19). The parables of the lot sheep, of the lost drachma and of the prodigal son emphasize God´s mercy (Lk 15)

6. In the New Testament, the clues of grave sins are not common, but thre are. So, in the community of Corinth the incestuous is taken out of the community (1 Co 5, 1-13). For anyone who has offended Paul, the apostle request the communion with him to be renewed (2 Co 2, 5-11): Paul’s adversaries try, by all means, to discredit him (10-12). There are discords, envies, angers, disputes, slanders, gossips, insolences, disorders” (12, 20). There are “those who sinned and they did not convert themselves from their acts of impurity, fornication and licentiousness” (12, 2¸see Acts 15, 29 and Lv 18).
7. Up to the VII century, the Church acknowledges three ways for the forgiveness of sins: 1) the baptism, that cleanse the man of any sin previously committed; 2) the daily penitence for the less grave sins, through the prayer, listening the Word, the property communication (1P 4,8), and the fasting; besides, from the beginning the liturgy includes a general confession of the sins that serves like a preparation for the Eucharist; 3) the public penitence, demanded for the grave sins, like adultery, homicide and apostasy (the abandonment of the faith). The Decalogue indicates, like summary, the limits out of which communion is not possible (Ex 20; see Lk 18,20). Talking about the fasting, it is said in the Hermas Shepherd, a book written in the II century: “You don’t know how to fast for the Lord, neither this useless fast you offer him is truly a fast…. Fast, for a change, for God a fast like this: you shall not make any evil in your life, but you shall serve the God with a clean heart; keep his commandments, walk on his precepts and no bad desire step up to your heart” (fifth Comp., 4-5).
8. Altogether with those of the New Testament, the most ancient testimonies upon the practice of the public penitence belong to those named the Apostolic Fathers. In Clement´s first letter, near the end of the I century, it is said: “Let us pray even us for those who are under sin so that modesty and humility are granted to them, so they may submit, not to us, but to God’s will”. (56,1). It is clearly established at the beginning of the Her mas Shepherd the principle of a unique penitence after the baptism. The Christian falling in grave sin  could resort to it only once in his life: “Those that with all their heart made penitence… and do not add again sins to sins, will receive from the Lord the cure of their passed sins”. (Eighth Comp. 3). At the beginning of the III century, Tertulian talks about the “second table (of salvation) after the wreck that means the loss of grace” (Upon the penitence, 4,2).
9. Saint Jerome, in his book “De viris ilustribus” written about the 392, introduces us to Saint Paciano (310-391) “Paciano, Barcelona bishop, on the skirts of the Pyrenees, of a correct eloquence and so much lit up for his life as for his diction, composed several brief treaties, among them the Cervus and against the novacians. He died in the extreme old age, under emperor Teodosio”.  He also wrote about the baptism and a penitential exhortation, in which he talks about the sins that require public penitence: “We are submitted to very few precepts, but these, unavoidable: precepts very easy to keep”. It is necessary to avoid the three capital sins: idolatry, homicide and adultery: “We, with the Holy Spirit, have decided not to put any other burden on you except what is necessary: You are to abstain from blood from the meat of strangled animals and from prohibited marriages. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15, 29), “here is the compendium of the whole New Testament. Although underestimated the holy spirit by many offences, he only left these sins under capital punishment. The remaining sins are taken care of by means of good works” (Paraenesis, 3 and 4; PL 13, 1083 and 1084).

10. The terrible Decio´s persecution (249-251) provokes many withdrawals. Rome and Cartage Churches adopt measures, taking into account the diverse situations. On one side are those who have offered sacrifices of animals to the pagan gods, the “sacrificati”. Other have limited themselves to offer incense to the gods, the “purificati”. Others have fraudulently obtained a certificate to have accomplished the imperial orders, the “libellatici”. In Rome pope Cornelius embraces those who have withdraw from the faith, the “lapsi” or apostates, after the opportune penitence. In a more severe way, Cyprians makes the same in Cartage. Nevertheless, Novacians, roman priest, supportive of the pure or “kazaroi”, denies any reconciliation to the apostates.
11. During the first centuries, the second conversion penitential process  was like follows: At the beginning, the confession as a sins disclosure was really less necessary : the sin is public, due to the intimate and familiar character of the Christian communities. The sinner is separated from the community. The confession as an acknowledgment of the own sin, is publicly manifested with the entry in the order of the penitents. The bishop signals a penitence period according to the gravity of the sin. Once accomplished the penitence, which consists in delivering satisfactory signs of conversion, reconciliation was celebrated with the return to the community of the sinner.
12 This process still appears in the III council of Toledo (year 589), in which it is advised that “in some Spanish churches, men perform penitence for their sins, not according to the canons, but in a reprehensible way that includes to ask for reconciliation to the priest every time they sin”. It is also said that “in order to finish with this execrable practice, this saint council establishes that the penitence must be administered according to the canonical way of the ancients” (Can 11). The separation from the community is neither always carried out nor it is done everywhere in the same manner. According to a Nicea´s Council disposition (325, canon 11), the sinner must be included with the catechumens.
13. Already in the fifth century, changes begin to take place: the private character of the penitence (Saint Leon Magnus) and the reiteration (Saint John Chrisostomus). Some of his contemporaries condemned John horrified because his teaching and practice of the following: “If you sin a second time, carry out penitence a second time, and every time you fall in sin, come to me and I will cure you”. So, while the public penitence is decaying, the private penitence begins to be practiced; this late one will slowly extend through all the Latin Church, upon all thanks to the Irish monks. The sacramental penitence is applied in a more personal and flexible way. The official resistance opposed to it was useless: about the year 1000 it already was practice by all the Church.
14. In the East the public penitence coincides with that of the West in its most essential aspects, although its disappearance was much quicker. In their letters great bishops like Saint Athanasia of Alexandria and Saint Basil of Cappadocian  (fourth century) establish that the penitence must be imposed for the gravest sins. The penitence is thought like a soul cure and means a dialogue that trends to discover the opportune remedy. It is possible to observe already since 391 in the Eastern Churches a softening of the public penitence. In its place the individual (monastic) confession delivered to a spiritual director, not necessarily a priest, appears more and more. The strength to erase the sins is also attributed to some liturgical elements like the incense smoke: the confession is delivered to the incensory. In the Reformation Churches, the Augsburg Confession (1530) recommends the private confession, but in general, disaffection to that practice is the normal conduct. Without have never been abolished, it disappears about the year 1800.
15. In the private penitence the penitential process is as follows: The sinner, repented, confesses his sin to the priest, who imposes him a satisfaction (very severe at the beginning) and, when this has been accomplished, absolution is granted. From the eighth century, the sins confession passes its name to the sacrament of the penitence. From the ninth century the custom is to grant the absolution at the end of the confession, before the satisfaction is carried out, and in this way we arrive to the present penitential form.
16.-     The fourth Letran council in 1215 imposes the annual confession of the grave sins, once reached the age of reason (DS812). This precept appears in the Catholic Church Catechism as follows: “Every believer reaching the age of reason must confess the grave sins of which he has conscience at least once a year” (num. 1457; CDC, c.989). Nevertheless, the Gospel does not establish by law the moment of conversion: the prodigal son comes back when he comes back (Lk 15,20). Same happens with Zaccheus (Lk  19,1-10), the publican (18,13-14; Ps 51,19), the sinner woman (Lk 7,47-50), the adulterous woman (Jn 8,10-11), Peter (Lk 22,60-62), the good thief (23,42-43). It is necessary to go back to the Gospel fountains.
17. According to the Trent council (1551), the sins are forgiven by the priest absolution, requiring on the part of the penitent: contrition, confession and satisfaction  (DS 1673). Detailed sins confession is urged. (DS 1679). Heart’s contrition (perfect repentance) gives the man an immediate justification before God, even before receiving the sacrament of the penitence, which, at least implicitly must be desired (DS 1677). Attrition (imperfect repentance) does not reach pardon, but places the sinner in disposition to obtain it through the sacrament of penitence (DS 1678). The priest is judge and doctor; like judge he must know the cause to be able of judgment; like doctor he must know the illness to be able of curing it (DS 1679,1680). The absolution is like a judicial act in which the priest pronounces the sentence in the penitence court (DS 1685). It is supposed that the Church always practiced from the beginning “the way to confess in secret, alone with the priest” (DS1706), which does not corresponds to the historic truth. Trent’s doctrine and the roman Ritual (1614) provoked an increase  of the penitential sacramental practice, that is even applied to the venial sins (devotion confession). Saint Charles Borromeo ( dead about 1584) introduced the use of the confessionary.
18. The children’s confession is a totally unknown practice in the initial centuries of the Church. Children’s confession is imposed not like a possibility but like an obligation, above all from Pius X, who recommends the frequent communion in the conscientious years of the infancy. (Quam singulari, 1910; Catechism, numbers 1420-1422; CDC, c 914). We must recall here Jesus attitude towards the children and his anger because of his disciples attitude: “Let the children come to me and don’t stop them, for the kingdom of God belongs to those like these”. (MK 10,14). It should be added now: Don’t impose it to them. By the same reason.
19. In the eleventh century French bishops and confessors began to deliver indulgences, id est, the remission of the penitential actions due to the sins. About the year 1300 Boniface VIII established an universal jubilee. In it, plenary indulgence was granted to every one peregrinating to Rome and met some conditions there. At the end of the middle age the indulgences becomes a money source that popes and bishops handle to their discretion. Against reformers opposition, Trent’s council establishes the doctrine upon indulgences: for living people like absolution and in intercession form for the dead (DS 1447 foll.).
20. The new Ritual of the Penitence (1975) presents three different celebration ways: a) individual; b) communitarian (several or many penitents, confession and individual absolution; c)collective (of an exceptional character: many penitents, confession and posterior individual absolution). The Ritual underlines three fundamental aspects for the sacrament renovation: conversion, God’s Word, community. According to the second Vatican Council, “ liturgical actions are not private actions, but Church celebrations” (SC 26); so that, in general, the communitarian celebration of the sacraments “must be preferred, as far as possible, to an individual, almost private, celebration” (SC 27).
*    Dialogue: About the sacrament of penitence
- Most important questions about the sacrament of penitence
- The sacrament is in crisis
- It anguishes to many people
- It raises a general rebound, it is a control means
- It rouses general indifference
- During the first centuries is applied to grave sins
- It is necessary to revise the tradition in the light of the Gospel
- It has sense even today
- Without conversion, it is an empty and useless act
- Without the Word of God, a fundamental reference is missing
- Without a community, it is an individual, perhaps anonymous, ac