4. Different classes of Penitents
Antiquities of the Christian Church
XVII. Of the Discipline of the Ancient Church
4. Different classes of Penitents
Neither Tertullian nor Cyprian make any mention of different classes of penitents. It is therefore to be presumed that this distinction into several classes was made at a later period. They are first mentioned in the equivocal epistle of Gregory Thaumaturgus, bishop of Neocaesarea, from A. D. 244 to A. D. 270. This classification was fully known in the fourth century, and probably was first established in the latter part of the third century, or beginning of the fourth.
The penitents were divided into four classes or degrees, as follows:
- *, flentes, mourners, or weepers. These were rather candidates for penance, than actual penitents. They were wont to lie prostrate in the porch of the church. Sometimes they knelt or stood, entreating the faithful and the clergy to intercede for them for their forgiveness and reconciliation. Tertullian says, "they were accustomed to fall down at the presbyter's feet, and kneel to the friends of God and entreat all the brethren to intercede for them." These were probably called *, hiemantes, because they remained in the open air, not being permitted, on any occasion, to enter within the sacred enclosure of the church. Others suppose that demoniacs were designated by this name, from the convulsions to which they were subject.
- *, audientes, hearers. These were permitted to enter within the doors, and to take their station in the narthex, or lowest part of the house, where they were allowed to hear the reading of the Scriptures and the exposition of them, but were denied the privilege of joining in the prayers of the church. Basil and others prescribe three years as the term of their continuance in this order. They were regarded as sustaining the same relations to the church as the first class of catechumens, and were known by the same name. They were distinguished however from the catechumens, by not being permitted to receive the imposition of hands.
- *, substrati or gemi/lecientes, prostrators, kneelers. These were much the same as the third class of catechumens, who also bore the same name. They were permitted to remain at public prayer, but only in a kneeling posture. The catechumens took precedence of them in attendance upon prayers, and sooner passed into a higher grade. In this class of penitents they continued three, and sometimes even seven years.
- *, consisientes, by-standers. This class take their name from their being permitted to stand with believers, and to join with them in prayer, but not to partake of the communion with them. Whether they were permitted to remain as spectators of the sacramental service is uncertain. They continued in this class for the space of two years.
Some have supposed, but without sufficient reason, that there was a fifth class of penitents. The truth rather is that the distinction between these classes was not uniformly observed. In the time of Cyprian, the bishop had not, indeed, authority officially to regulate the rules of penance; still he exercised a controlling influence in these matters. But by later ecclesiastical rules, the bishop was authorized to abridge or extend the time allotted for penance. The council of Ancyra especially accorded to the bishop a discretionary power in this respect, and particularly directs him charitably to consider the deportment of the offender, both before and after entering upon a course of penance, and grant him a dispensation accordingly. This is the true origin of that practice which subsequently led to such enormous abuses – the granting indulgences.
The Indulgentia paschalis, so called, has a special reference to the penitents, and to their stations in the early church.
Concil. Ancyran. c. 4–6, 9: Coucil. Nicaen. c. 11–14: Concil. Laodic. c. 2, 19.
De Poenit. c. 9: De Pud. c. 13: Basil, can. 22: Ambros. ad Virg. Laps. c. 8: Euseb. h. e. lib. v. c. 28: Socrat. h. e. lib.i ii. c. 13.
Can. 75: Concil. Nic. c. 11, 12.
Concil. Laodio. c. 19: Concil. Nice. 11.
Concil. Nic. c. 11: Concil. Ancyr. c. 4.
*. Cone. Ancyr. c. 5. This rule was established also by Constitut. Carolin. 1. vii. c. 294.
(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)