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Excursus on the Public Discipline or Exomologesis of the Early Church.



Excursus on the Public Discipline or Exomologesis of the Early Church.

(Taken chiefly from Morinus, De Disciplina in Administratione Sacramenti Poenitentiae; 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 mortalia1 ), 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."2 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 sugklai/ontej, 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 xeimozome/noi, 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 mesau/lion or atrium, with a font of water in the centre, styled a cantharus or phiala, or sometimes only an open portico, or propu/laion. 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 Faerula 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 a0kow=menoi, 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 gonukli/nontej, or u9popi/ptontej,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 wire 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 sunestw=tej, 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; be 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;3 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."4 That the reader may judge of the absolute can-dour 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 Chalons 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.)."

As many as were called by grace, and displayed the first zeal, having cast aside their military girdles, but afterwards returned, like dogs, to their own vomit, (so that some spent money and by means of gifts regained their military stations); let these, after they have passed the space of three years as hearers, be for ten years prostrators. But in all these cases it is necessary to examine well into their purpose and what their repentance appears to be like. For as many as give evidence of their conversions by deeds, and not pretence, with fear, and tears, and perseverance, and good works, when they have fulfilled their appointed time as hearers, may properly communicate in prayers; and after that the bishop may determine yet more favourably concerning them. But those who take [the matter] with indifference, and who think the form of [not] entering the Church is sufficient for their conversion, must fulfil the whole time.


Those who endured violence and were seen to have resisted, but who afterwards yielded go wickedness, and returned to the army, shall be excommunicated for ten years. But in every case the way in which they do their penance must be scrutinized. And if anyone who is doing penance shews himself zealous in its performance, the bishop shall treat him more lentently than had he been cold and indifferent.


The abuse of this power, namely, of granting under certain circumstances a relaxation in the penitential exercises enjoined by the canons-led, in later times, to the practice of commuting such exercises for money payments, etc.

In his last contests with Constantine, Licinius had made himself the representative of heathenism; so that the final issue of the war would not be the mere triumph of one of the two competitors, but the triumph or fall of Christianity or heathenism. Accordingly, a Christian who had in this war supported the cause of Licinius and of heathenism might be considered as a lapsus, even if he did not formally fall away. With much more reason might those Christians be treated as lapsi who, having conscientiously given up military service (this is meant by the soldier's belt), afterwards retracted their resolution, and went so far as to give money and presents for the sake of readmission, on account of the numerous advantages which military service then afforded. It must not be forgotten that Licinius, as Zonaras and Eusebius relate, required from his soldiers a formal apostasy; compelled them, for example, to take part in the heathen sacrifices which were held in the camps, and dismissed from his service those who would not apostatize.


This canon (which in the Prisca and the Isidorian version stands as part of canon 11) deals, like it, with cases which had arisen under the Eastern reign of Licinius, who having resolved to "purge his army of all ardent Christians" (Mason, Persec. of Diocl. p. 308), ordered his Christian officers to sacrifice to the gods on pain of being cashiered (compare Euseb. H. E. x. 8; Vit. Con. i. 54). It is to be observed here that military life as such was not deemed unchristian. The case of Cornelius was borne in mind. "We serve in your armies," says Tertullian, Apol. 42 (although later, as a Montanist, he took a rigorist and fanatical view, De Cor. 11), and compare the fact which underlies the tale of the "Thundering Legion,"-the presence of Christians in the army of Marcus Aurelius. It was the heathenish adjuncts to their calling which often brought Christian soldiers to a stand (see Routh. Scr. Opusc. i. 410), as when Marinus' succession to a centurionship was challenged on the ground that he could not sacrifice to the gods (Euseb. H. E. vii. 15). Sometimes, indeed, individual Christians thought like Maximilian in the Martyrology, who absolutely refused to enlist, and on being told by the proconsul that there were Christian soldiers in the imperial service, answered, "Ipsi sciunt quod ipsis expediat" (Ruinart, Act. Sanc. p. 341). But, says Bingham (Antiq. xi. 5, 10), "the ancient canons did not condemn the military life as a vocation simply unlawful. ... I believe there is no instance of any man being refused baptism merely because he was a soldier, unless some unlawful circumstance, such as idolatry, or the like, made the vocation sinful." After the victory of Constantine in the West, the Council of Aries excommunicated those who in time of peace "threw away their arms" (can. 2). In the case before us, some Christian officers had at first stood firm under the trial imposed on them by Licinius. They had been "called by grace" to an act of self-sacrifice (the phrase is one which St. Augustine might have used); and had shown "their eagerness at the outset" ("primum suum ardorem," Dionysius; Philo and Evarestus more laxly, "primordia bona;" compare th\n a0ga/phn sou th\n prw/thn, Rev. ii. 4). Observe here how beautifully the ideas of grace and free will are harmonized. These men had responded to a Divine impulse: it might seem that they had committed themselves to a noble course: they had cast aside the "belts" which were their badge of office (compare the cases of Valentinian and Valens, Soc. iii. 13, and of Benevoins throwing down his belt at the feet of Justina, Soz. vii. 13). They had done, in fact, just what Auxentius, one of Licinius' notaries, had done when, according to the graphic anecdote of Philostorgius (Fragm. 5), his master bade him place a bunch of grapes before a statue of Bacchus in the palace-court; but their zeal, unlike his, proved to be too impulsive-they reconsidered their position, and illustrated the maxim that in morals second thoughts are not best (Butler, Serm. 7), by making unworthy attempts-in some cases by bribery-to recover what they had worthily resigned. (Observe the Grecised Latinism benefiki/oij and compare the Latinisms of St. Mark, and others in Euseb. iii. 20, vi. 40, x. 5.) This the Council describes in proverbial language, probably borrowed from 2 Pet. ii. 22, but, it is needless to say, without intending to censure enlistment as such. They now desired to be received to penance: accordingly they were ordered to spend three years as Hearers, during which time "their purpose, and the nature (ei\doj) of their repentance" were to be carefully "examined." Again we see the earnest resolution of the Council to make discipline a moral reality, and to prevent it from being turned into a formal routine; to secure, as Rufinus' abridgment expresses it, a repentance"fructuosam et attentam." If the penitents were found to have "manifested their conversion by deeds, and not in outward show (sxh/mati), by awe, and tears, and patience, and good works" (such, for instance, Zonaras comments, as almsgiving according to ability), "it would be then reasonable to admit them to a participation in the prayers," to the position of Consistentes, "with permission also to the bishop to come to a yet more indulgent resolution concerning them," by admitting them to full communion. This discretionary power of the bishop to dispense with part of a penance-time is recognized in the fifth canon of Ancyra and the sixteenth of Chalcedon, and mentioned by Basil, Epist. 217, c. 74. It was the basis of "indulgences" in their original form (Bingham, xviii. 4, 9). But it was too possible that some at least of these lapsi might take the whole affair lightly, "with indifference" a0diafo/rwj-not seriously enough, as Hervetas renders-just as if, in common parlance, it did not signify: the fourth Ancyrene canon speaks of lapsi who partook of the idol-feast a0diafo/rwj as if it involved them in no sin (see below on Eph. 5, Chalc. 4). It was possible that they might "deem" the outward form of "entering the church" to stand in the narthex among the Hearers (here, as in c. 8, 19, sxh=ma denotes an external visible fact) sufficient to entitle them to the character of converted penitents, while their conduct out of church was utterly lacking in seriousness and self-humiliation. In that case there could be no question of shortening their penance, time, for they were not in a state to benefit by indulgence: it would be, as the Roman Presbyters wrote to Cyprian, and as he himself wrote to his own church, a "mere covering over of the wound" (Epist. 30, 3), an "injury" rather than "a kindness" (De Lapsis, 16); they must therefore "by all means" go through ten years as Kneelers, before they can become Consistentes.

There is great difficulty about the last phrase and Gelasius of Cyzicus, the Prisca, Dionysius Exiguus, the pseudo-Isidore, Zonaras and most others have considered the "not" an interpolation. I do not see how dropping the "not" makes the meaning materially clearer.

Concerning the departing, the ancient canonical law is still to be maintained, to wit, that, if any man be at the point of death, he must not be deprived of the last and most indispensable Viaticum. But, if any one should be restored to health again who has received the communion when his life was despaired of, let him remain among those who communicate in prayers only. But in general, and in the case of any dying person whatsoever asking to receive the Eucharist, let the Bishop, after examination made, give it him.


The dying are to be communicated. But ifany such get well, he must be placed in the number of those who share in the prayers, and withthese only.

Van Espen.

It cannot be denied that antiquity used thename "Viaticum" not only to denote the Eucharist which was given to the dying, but also to denote the reconciliation, and imposition of penance, and in general, everything that could be conducive to the happy death of the person concerned, and this has been shown by Aubespine (lib. 1, Obs. cap. ii.). But while this is so, the more usual sense of the word is the Eucharist. For this cannot be denied that the faithful of the first ages of the Church looked upon the Eucharist as the complement of Christian perfection, and as the last seal of hope and salvation. It was for tiffs reason that at the beginning of life, after baptism and confirmation, the Eucharist was given even to infants, and at the close of life the Eucharist followed reconciliation and extreme unction, so that properly and literally it could be styled "the last Viaticum." Moreover for penitents it was considered especially necessary that through it they might return to the peace of the Church; for perfect peace is given by that very communion of the Eucharist. [A number of instances are then cited, and various ancient versions of the canon.] Balsamon and Zonaras also understand the canon as I have done, as is evident from their commentaries, and so did Josephus Aegyptius, who in his Arabic Paraphrase gives the canon this title: "Concerning him who is excommunicated and has committed some deadly sin, and desires the Eucharist to be granted to him."

This canon is found in the Corpus Juris Canonici, Gratian, Decretum Pars. II. causa xxvi, Quaes. VI., c. ix.

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