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The Catholic Doctrine

PENANCE – Understanding What Penance Is In The Catholic Doctrine

Morgan Jeoc



The Catholic church has seven sacraments, Sacrament of Penance is one of them. The sacrament of penance also known as reconciliation or confession was instituted by Jesus Christ as a means of receiving God’s forgiveness and reconciling the sinner with the church.

John 20:23 – “Whose sin you forgive are forgiven them, and who’s sin you retain are retained“.
No doubt, it is God that forgives sins but the medium to obtain this forgiveness is also obtained through the priests. That is to say, when a Catholic priest forgives sins, he does that by exercising the power granted by Christ to his apostles, and down the line to ordained priest.

Non-Catholics react the same way the Pharisees reacted when they commented he’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sin except God? (Mark 2:7). The truth is that God has given such authority to men.

Mathew 9:8
When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to man“.

As Christ was sent by his father to forgive sins, so did Christ send his apostles and their successors to forgive sins.

Going by the instructions of St James in the early days of the church; James 5-16 – “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed“.

In the far back AD70, Penitents confess their sins openly In presence of the church assembly. During this era, an instruction which order the church to read the statement of confession and further instructed members not to step into the church with a guilty conscience was observed.  It is advised according to the doctrine to confess one’s sins on the lord’s day which the Christians are expected in the church to break bread and offer thanksgiving to God so that the sacrifice offered may be pure. Similarly, in the epistle of St Barnabas we read: “Confess your sins. Do not come to prayer with a guilty conscience”. (Epistle of Barnabas, 19:12, A.D 74 in ACW, 6:63)

An Artistic illustration from a 1595 edition of the Roman Pontifical, depicting the act of public penitents reception on Holy Thursday. (PHOTO: Pitts Theological Library, Candler School of Theology at Emory University.)

The Practice of Penance In the Early Church

The concrete form in which the church has exercised this power received from the Lord has varied considerably over the centuries. The reconciliation of Christians who had committed particularly grave sins after the Baptism during the first centuries was tied to very rigorous discipline. Examples of such sins include Idolatry, Murder and adultery. The penitents had to do public penance for their sins, often for years before receiving reconciliation. During those days, penitents with grave sins had to stand at the entrance to the church with ashes sprinkled over their bodies to show their repentance. These penitents also requested prayers from those who walked into church.

It is recorded that during the seventh century, Irish missionaries, inspired by the Eastern monastic tradition, took to continental Europe the private practice of penance, which took to continental public and prolonged completion of penitential works before reconciliation with the church. From that time on, the sacrament has been performed in secret between the penitent and the priest. This new practice envisioned the frequenting of this sacrament. It allows the forgiveness of grave sins and venial sins to be integrated into one sacramental celebration. In its main lines, this is the form of penance that the Church has down to our days.