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Sunday, March 28, 2021

Palm Sunday: On Canonical Penances

 ''A very great multitude spread their garments in the way and others cut down boughs from the trees, and strewed them in the way." (Matt. 21: 8.)

Today, we behold our Saviour entering Jerusalem in royal splendor, greeted by the loud acclamations of the people. According to the custom of the Orientals, some spread their garments in the way, others cut down branches of trees and strewed them in his path; and the multitudes that preceded and followed Him, cried out: "Hosanna to the Son of David: blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord."

In remembrance of this, the solemn entrance of Christ into Jerusalem--today, in our churches, palm-branches are blessed, distributed, and carried in procession. Herein, we behold one of the most imposing ceremonies of the whole ecclesiastical year. The palms are not blessed with simple and short prayers, but with benedictions of the first class, with many prayers and ceremonies closely resembling portions of the holy Mass. There is an Introit, for instance, an Epistle, Gradual, and Gospel; as also a Preface and Sanctus, all of which precede the blessing of the palms. Then follow some beautiful ceremonies. Bearing the blessed palms, the solemn procession proceeds to the church-door, which is closed; one part of the choristers remain with the priest outside of the church, while the others station themselves within. Thus stationed, they sing alternate verses of a hymn of praise and adoration to Christ their King and Redeemer. Thereafter, the deacon knocks at the church-door with the foot of the processional cross, the door opens and the holy Mass begins,--in which, for the first time, the Passion of our Lord is read.

The processional ceremonies are very ancient, and typify a beautiful thought, namely, that through the holy Cross of our Redeemer the prayers and desires of the world were heard and granted, and the gates of heaven (closed by sin) were again opened. The cross is, as you know, dear brethren, the emblem of penance, and since I have often spoken to you during the course of the Lenten season, urging you to cultivate that humble contrition of heart suitable to the spirit of this day, on this, the last Sunday before Easter, I will close my exhortations by pointing out to you:

The penitential discipline practised in the Catholic Church during the primitive ages; and the manner and cause of the alteration of such discipline in later times.

I. Although the essence of Christian penance for the remission of sins has been the same in every century, still the external form of penance was, from the first century until far into the middle ages, so different from the practice of our own times, that we cannot look back upon those ages of fervor without sentiments of shame and consternation.

1. Proceeding in spirit to one of the early Christian churches, we behold certain men and women, standing or kneeling, at all seasons of the year, outside of the sacred portals. They appear in sackcloth and ashes, with pallid faces and dishevelled hair. Sighing and weeping, they implore the passers-by to intercede for them with the head of the church, so that they may be permitted once more to enter the sacred precincts.

Passing on to the interior of the church, we see near the door, or in some other place set apart for them, other rows of men and women. They lie prostrate upon the ground, or they stand in their places; and pain and sorrow are depicted upon their faces and speak from their eyes. When the sermon is over, we see them cast themselves upon their knees, and beat their breasts. The bishop with all his attendants comes down from the sanctuary, and prays over them; he addresses a few words to them, and they arise and leave the church. They are not permitted to assist at holy Mass.

"Who are these men and women?" you ask me. They are the ancient penitents, who having fallen into grievous sins, must do penance for them according to the rules of the Church, before they can again be admitted to the communion of the faithful and the reception of the holy Sacraments.

2. According to the express teachings of Holy Writ, every sin draws after it its peculiar punishment; and even though the sin be blotted out and forgiven in the holy Sacrament of Penance, the punishment due to it is not always remitted by the priest's absolution, but according to the character and number of one's sins, must be borne and suffered. This thought, upon which rests all Christianity, or the atonement of Christ for the sins of the world, was a living one in the hearts of the first Christians, and it called forth the penitential discipline of that age. A remission of sins without a previous corresponding penance and punishment for them, was either not known at all in those days, or known only as an exception. There must be a proportion between the penance and the sin,--" The penance should not be lighter than the sin itself." (St. Cyprian.)

Only for very secret sins was absolution given in the early ages before the corresponding satisfaction for them had been performed; in like manner, to the sick and dying was granted absolution immediately after the confession of their sins. But even for such sins which were revealed in auricular confession, the corresponding penance was not left to the free will of the sinner, but was appointed by the Church. Gladly and willingly, the first Christians accepted such canonical penances, in order to be reconciled to God, to make satisfaction for their sins, and, (free from their guilt and punishment), to be once more restored to the fellowship of the faithful. It seemed better to them to perform the severest penances, prescribed by the Church, than, without repentance, to be cast away from the presence of their God.

3. The greater and more grievous the sin, the heavier was the penance for it. The ancient Fathers and Doctors of the Church divided sins into three classes:

a. Those grave crimes by which great public scandal was given;
b. Those which, although very grievous, were committed more privately; and
c. Light and trifling offenses, commonly called venial sins.

In the first centuries, the manner of penitential discipline, as well as its duration, were not fixed by law. This was left in each church to the wisdom and judgment of the bishop or his representative. In the case of the incestuous Corinthian who was excluded from the Church by St. Paul, but who, after a short penance was again restored to membership, we see that the fervor of the penitent's zeal and contrition was the gauge by which the pastors of the different churches applied the law of canonical penance. But, by degrees, the whole system of penance was regulated by corresponding ecclesiastical law. Grievous sins and crimes demanding public ecclesiastical penance, were rare in the first two centuries of Christianity; hence, it was scarcely necessary then to lay down general laws on that head. St. Cyprian is the first of the Fathers of the Church who speaks of certain common ordinances respecting the punishment of the penitent and the length of its continuance. But these regard only the sin of apostasy from the faith, and were merely a hint to the African bishops to receive again into the communion of the faithful those who had actually apostatized.

In the second half of the third century, however, men became more corrupt. There raged in those days not only continued persecutions, but also great civil revolutions; and the wars of the Persians, Goths, and other barbarous nations, devastated the Church, which was still languishing under the stroke of the tyrant. The schisms of Novatian and of Paul of Samosata, assailed her from within. The moral condition of the faithful grew worse, and the number of sinners daily increased more and more. The penitential canons which formerly dealt only with apostates, had to extend their limits. The multitude and variety of the scandals of those times made it necessary to adapt the Penances to the number and quality of the sins confessed. It behooved the Church to pass laws regulating her penitential discipline for the whole of Christendom, so that a uniform treatment of penitents might be observed, and limits set to the torrent of destruction which was inundating the world.

There were four grades through which the sinner, according to the number and grievousness of his sins, had to pass, before he could be again restored to the communion of the faithful, allowed to assist at the sacrifice of the Mass, and receive Communion. These were

a. The Weepers, who stood just outside the church-door, and with tears implored those who entered to intercede for them with the ecclesiastical superiors;

b. The Hearers, who stood in the vestibule, inside the first door of the church;

c. The Prostrates, who knelt among the Catechumens inside the church; and

d. The Standers, who stood erect in the midst of the assembled faithful.

a. The Weepers, according to St. Gregory, stood outside of the door of the vestibule of the church, and were not permitted to enter it, even for their protection in rough and stormy weather. Teqtullian says expressly, when speaking of sins of impurity, which were included in the first class: "We do not remove such sinners merely from the churchdoors, but from every covered building appertaining to the church, because they are not vicious sinners, but monsters of iniquity."

b. After the penitent had passed the appointed time in the first grade, he was admitted to the second, among the Hearers. He was permitted then to lay aside the garb of the penitent, unless he voluntarily desired to wear it. The place in which these penitents stood, was the inner court of the church. They were called Hearers, because they were allowed to remain during the instruction, the reading of the holy Scriptures, and the sermon. After that, like the Catechumens, they were obliged to withdraw.

c. The third grade of penitents was that of the Prostrates. These were permitted to enter the door of the church, but had to remain in the lowest place. Fasting and mortification of the body, zealous, fervent prayer, and night-watches were prescribed for them. Certain priests were appointed to watch over their conduct, and their manner of fulfilling these penitential works. When the sermon was over, they approached the bishop and the clergy, and prostrating themselves at the entrance to the sanctuary, confessed their sins. Having received the imposition of hands and the blessing of the bishop, they were dismissed with encouraging exhortations to perseverance in penance. They were, however, permitted to be present at Mass.

d. After passing through this grade, they were admitted to the fourth class or the Standers. Therein, they laid aside all public tokens of grief and penance. They had their place behind the faithful, and were permitted to hear Mass, to join with the congregation in hymns of praise and thanksgiving, and to take part in the prayers of the Church, but, as yet, they were excluded from the reception of holy Communion. When the penitent had completed his appointed time in this grade of penance, he was absolved from sin and its punishment, and re-admitted to the holy Communion.

II. In the course of time, the canonical discipline of the Church was gradually altered. Already at the end of the fourth century, a change was introduced into the Eastern churches. Private penances superseded the earlier public ones. It was left to the zeal of individual penitents to perform the penitential works imposed upon them by the priests in satisfaction of their sins. Still the penitential exercises of those days continued very severe, and they bear no proportion to those of the present time. We find in the Eastern churches, many centuries later, the traces of the ancient penitential discipline. The primitive canonical penances continued longer in the Roman Church. In her, the four grades of penitents existed until the eighth century; and even if milder observances, in the course of time, prevailed, yet the old penitential ordinances and grades were not changed. From the eighth century, the ancient severity of penance disappeared; and private penances took the place of public ones.

From that period, the penitential ordinances assumed a new form, according to the character of the times. The moral standard of the faithful was gradually lowered. The migration of tribes which had overturned all existing order in most European countries; and the wandering to and fro of nations without home or country, had brought with it a frightful corruption of morals. The Church sought to interpose her authority, and she held the nations, by threats of great punishments, to Christian order and morality. From the beginning of the seventh century, confession was entirely separated from the penitential ordinance. The Church instructed her priests to impose upon sinners, in confession, private penances.

The ancient grades of penance, in general, still remained in force at that time; but they assumed an altered form corresponding to the character of the period. The third grade, the class of Prostrates, which was so important in primitive times, entirely disappeared, and there remained only the other three grades of the so-called Weepers, Hearers and Standers. But aside from these penitential ordinances, grievous sins, at that time, were punished by the refusal of the holy Sacraments, and by the most rigorous fasts.

About the eleventh century, a substitute for the ancient ecclesiastical discipline came in vogue. Its means of reparation were not selected with a view of lightening the burden of ordinary practices of penance, but of aggravating them, and they were besides very varied in their character. One could satisfy the ecclesiastical penance by a rigorous fast; another, by scourging himself with a discipline. He who voluntarily inflicted on his flesh a certain number of blows could ransom himself from the canonical penances. In the thirteenth century, these Flagellants, as the latter were called, marched through cities and villages in great multitudes, and, singing the Penitential Psalms, scourged themselves with cords and sharp thorns unto blood. The Church was compelled to pronounce against these exhibitions of penance, inasmuch as the Flagellants declared such bloody practices to be necessary for the forgiveness of sin, and commanded by God.

Pilgrimages also took the place of ecclesiastical penance. The pilgrims wore iron bands around their bodies, on their necks, and on both arms, and were then sent forth to journey through the wide world. It was especially to great shrines, and to the holy See at Rome, that penitents travelled in order to receive the remission of their punishment. The penitential discipline of the epoch degenerated almost into inhumanity, and Church History relates punishments voluntarily inflicted on themselves by the penitents of those times, before which our softliving Christians of the nineteenth century cannot but shudder. The easiest substitute for penance at that time was the embracing of the religious state. Entrance into a Religious Order was then esteemed a second baptism; and all sins and crimes were believed to be atoned for thereby.

Later still, came the Crusades. He who through devotion and for the purpose of wresting the Holy Land from the hands of the infidels, became a Crusader, received as his reward the remission of all ecclesiastical punishments. Prayer and almsdeeds were, also, regarded then as substitutes for the canonical penances. Thence it came to pass that the ancient canonical penances of the Church were almost wholly abolished ; and from the twelfth century, they really ceased. Thenceforward, the priest imposed a penance in the confessional, and left it to the zeal and piety of each of the faithful, through voluntary penitential works, to make atonement for his or her sins. In her love and compassion for the weakness of her children, the Church, from that time forward, granted frequent and rich Indulgences in order to supply, through the merits of Jesus Christ, what is wanting to human tepidity and imperfection.

Two thoughts must impress themselves upon our minds when we consider the penitential canons in the different centuries. First, we must acknowledge that the essence of the holy Sacrament of Penance remained the same in all centuries, although the penance for sin varied. Confession, the avowal of sins, and their sacramental absolution, were the same in every century. Only the satisfaction for sin changed according to the character of the times. Nevertheless, it is with profound sorrow that we contemplate the change in penitential discipline; and the gradual decline of the ancient canonical observances. Looking back upon the first centuries of Christianity up to the Middle Ages, behold how grievously we have fallen from our first zeal for penance. Will the few prayers and good works which we perform after confession, suffice to satisfy the justice of God for sins which formerly could only be atoned for by such rigorous and austere penances? Must we not arouse ourselves today, to a greater zeal and fervor, striving to make satisfaction here on earth lest we be punished more severely in eternity! A contrite and humbled heart, which atones for sin by voluntary penitential works, the Lord will not despise; and that which we cannot accomplish through our own strength we may supply by the frequent gaining of Indulgences, by which the remission of the punishment due to our sins is granted to us. Amen.


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