Christianity Knowledge Base

Penance (via Old French penance from the Latin Poenitentia, the same root as penitence, which in English means repentance, the desire to be forgiven, see contrition; in many languages only one single word is derived) is, strictly, repentance of sins as well as the actual name of the Catholic Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation/Confession. Penance and repentance, similar in their derivation and original sense, have however come to be symbolical of conflicting views of the essence of repentance, arising out of the controversy as to the respective merits of "faith" and "good works."

Roman Catholicism[]

In the Catholic Church, the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (formerly called Confession), consists of three parts: contritio, confessio, satisfactio.

Contritio is in fact repentance as Protestant theologians understand it, i.e. love of God, which resulted in sorrow for sins committed, and long before the Reformation the schoolmen debated the question whether complete "contrition" was or was not in itself sufficient to obtain the Divine pardon. The Council of Trent, however, decided that no reconciliation could follow such contrition without the other parts of the sacrament, which form part of it (sine sacramenti voto, quod in ilia indudatur}. Contrition is also distinguished from "attrition" (attritio), i.e. amoral repentance due to fear of punishment. It was questioned whether a state of mind thus produced would suffice for obtaining the benefits of the sacrament; this point was also set at rest by the Council of Trent, which decided that attrition, though not in itself capable of obtaining the justification of the sinner, is also inspired by God and thus disposes the soul to benefit by the grace of the sacrament.

In this Sacrament, the penitent (repentant sinner, known as confessant) accuses himself of his sins to an ordained priest (known as confessor). The priest may then offer advice and imposes a particular penance to be performed. The penitent then prays an Act of Contrition, the priest administers absolution, thus formally forgiving the penitent of his sins, and finally sends him out with words of dismissal.

Other Christian denominations[]

Penance is also practiced in other Christian traditions, and is particularly stressed in traditions formed by a Calvinist or Zwinglian sensibility. The Reformers (e.g. Puritans), upholding the doctrine of justification by faith, held that repentance consisted in a change of the whole moral attitude of the mind and soul (Matthew 13:15; Luke 22:32), and that the divine forgiveness followed true repentance and confession to God without any reparation of "works." Nonetheless, there has traditionally been a stress on reconciliation as a precondition to fellowship.

In the Anglican Communion, confession and absolution is generally not viewed as a sacrament, although some hold that it is one of the five "lesser" sacraments, since it was not ordained by Christ. Confession is generally performed corporately in response to an exhortation by the priest. After a period of silent confession, a spoken general confession is said by the congregation. The pronouncemnet of absolution follows. The form of these and other prayers are generally penitential in nature, and prayer has traditionally been the venue for the expression of penance in Anglicanism. Some Anglicans participate in private, aural confession during which time the priest may counsel penitential acts. Private penance and secret confession was introduced by the Irish monks, as well as the penitential books describing in detail all sins with the appropriate penance attached to each. Such penance is rarely a precondition to absolution, but is viewed today rather as a healing and prophylactic activity.

Penance in non-Christian faith traditions[]

In eastern religions (Hinduism, etc.), acts of hardship committed on oneself (fasting, lying on rocks heated by the Sun, etc.), especially as part of an ascetic way of life (as monk or 'wise man') in order to attain a higher form of mental awareness (through detachment from the earthly, not punishing guilt) or favours from (the) God(s).

Penitential activity after confession[]

In a sacramental understanding of the term, "penance" applies to the whole activity from confession to absolution. Generally speaking, however, it is used to characterise the works of satisfaction imposed or recommended by the priest on or to the penitent. Traditionally, penance has been viewed as a punishment (the Latin poena, the root of pen(it)ance, means "punishment"), and varying with the character and heinousness of the offences committed. In the feudal era "doing penance" often involved severe and/or public discipline, which could be both harsh and humiliating but was considered edifying. Public penances have, however, long been abolished. Traditional forms still include prayers, while corporal punishments such as the wearing of a cilice and public humiliations have become rare, even in monastic practice. More recently, taking in account the insights of pastoral theology and psychology, penances have tended to move towards acts that positively or negatively reinforce the penitent's behaviour.

"Penance" also refers to acts that a believer imposes on him or herself outside of the sacramental context. Penitential activity is particularly common during the season of Lent and Holy Week (mainly the Passion week, inspired by Christ's suffering; hence in some cultural traditions still including flagellantism or even voluntary crucifixion) and, to a lesser extent, Advent, when penance is often combined with acts of self-discipline, such as fasting, voluntary celibacy, or other privations. In the Roman Catholic tradition especially, such acts of self-injury are sometimes called mortification of the flesh because of the belief that an unrestrained corporeal body endangers salvation, unless controlled by the spirit, serving to detach the penitent of his worldly passions, as to draw him into closer union with God.

More commonly, however, penitential acts consist simply of prayers, fasting, and charitible work or giving, or a combination thereof. Such penance is frequently accompanied by a requirement for the penitent to be reconciled with anyone against whom he or she has sinned. The most common penances involve the recitation of standard prayers, such as the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary, meditation on particular scriptural passages, or praying the rosary with special penitential intentions.

Public penance[]

Performing penance in public, as opposed to the privacy of the confessional chair, gives it the character of public humiliation, which is often more 'punishing' than the intrinsic pain or discomfort of the deed. Such practices are now uncommon, but still exist in certain traditions, particularly those of Anabaptist or Calvinist Christianity, or the Jehova's Witness tradition.

In societies in which religion and the state are integrated, public penance can actually be a mode of judicial punishment, as the state religion is imposed by law. This is not infrequent, for example, in Islamic societies. In some societies or faith traditions, the common venue for the humiliation is before one's community in the place of worship, preferably during the main weekly service; or altenatively outdoors, so the whole community can witness it, and hopefully be disuaded from offending similarly.

Certain places of worship were or are actually equipped with permanent stands for the public penitents, such as the cuttie-stool in Scotland. Other common elements are humbling prescriptions to wear such distinguising features as a white sheet (in England to be rented from the church warden!) and/or wand, being barefoot, bareheaded, even barelegged.

The practice is well reported from colonial Virginia and New England, where it was enforced by the officers of the law, sometimes even at pain of death- in fact the morally repentent nature of true penance is thus perverted to humiliation as a means of social coercion.

Private Penance[]

Private penance and secret confession was introduced by the Irish monks. Now it is done more commonly than public penance which might not even be done any more at all.

Penance in art and fiction[]

  • Colin Kapp. 1972, 1973. Patterns of Chaos. New York: Award Books. No ISBN. Pp. 31-36.

Penance in movies:

  • Penance (2004)
  • Penance (1999)
  • "I Confess". Warner Brothers, 1953. Alfred Hitchcock, Dir. Starring: Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter
  • Sadhna (1958) aka "The Penance"
  • The Bell of Penance (1912)
  • A Daughter of Penance (1916)
  • Who Killed Brett Penance? (1995) (VG)
  • Proper Penance (1992) (V)
  • Veruntreute Himmel, Der (1958)
  • The Reckoning (2003)
  • Fatima (1997) (TV)
  • Confession (2005)
  • Constantine (2005)
  • "Nightmare Cafe" (1992)
  • An optional superboss in the international version of Final Fantasy X (2001)

See also[]

  • Order of Penance, an early name for the Friars Minor
  • Final Fantasy, Penance is an enemy in the Final fantasy 10 video game for PS2

Sources and references[]


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