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6. Re-admission of Penitents into the church

Antiquities of the Christian Church
XVII. Of the Discipline of the Ancient Church

6. Re-admission of Penitents into the church

The re-admission of penitents into the church was the subject of frequent controversy with the early fathers, and ancient religious sects. Some contended that those who had once been excluded from the church for their crimes, ought never again to be received again to her fellowship and communion. But the church generally, were disposed to exercise a more charitable and forgiving spirit.

The following general principles prevailed in the ancient church, in regard to the restoration of excommunicated members to their former standing.

  1. There was no established term of time for the continuance of penance. The several grades each extended through three, seven, and even ten years; but the whole was varied according to circumstances, or at the discretion of the bishop. The abuse and perversion of this privilege led the way to the sale of indulgences in the Roman Catholic church.
  2. Sincere and unfeigned penitence was, alone, considered legitimate and satisfactory. It was called poenitentia legitima, plena, justa, when attended, both in public and in private, with lamentations, and with tears, and every demonstration of sincere penitential sorrow for sin. This was regarded more than the amount of time spent, under the discipline of penance. 
  3. In case of extreme sickness, and in prospect of death, the excommunicated person might be forgiven and restored by the bishop, or by a presbyter or deacon, by virtue of authority delegated to him for this purpose. But in case of the recovery of the sick person, the whole prescribed course of penitence was usually required of him. 
  4. When one of the clergy fell under ecclesiastical censure he was forever, incapacitated from returning to the discharge of his official duties, even though restored to the communion of the church. A layman also, who had once been the subject of discipline in the church, was ineligible to any clerical office. 

In regard to the mode of receiving again the returning penitent, it may be remarked,

  1. That the restoration was not only a public act, but a part of public worship. For this public absolution the obvious reason was assigned, that the restitution made by the offender, was in this way made as public, as the act of excommunication; and that the salutary influence of the discipline might be felt by the whole body of the church.
  2. The same bishop, under whom the penitent had been excluded from the church, or his successor, was the only appropriate organ of restoring him to the fellowship of the church. This rule was so strictly enforced that the bishop, who should violate it, was liable to severe censure, or to be removed from office for the offence. To prevent any mistake, the names of excommunicated persons were publicly enrolled, and a list, of their names sent to the neighboring dioceses. These regulations were severally observed in order that the church, who witnessed the offence, might also receive the full influence of the discipline with which it was visited.
  3. The restoration usually took place on passion week, which was from this circumstance denominated hehdomas indulgentiae; or at some time appointed by the bishop. The transaction was performed in the churchy when the people were assembled for religious worship; and for the most part immediately before the administration of the Lord's supper. The individual, kneeling before the bishop in the attitude and garb of a penitent, and before the altar, or the reading desk, (the ambo,) was re-admitted by him with prayer and the imposition of hands. The latter rite, especially, was regarded as the significant and principal token of admission to the communion of the church. The chrism was also administered to heretics, but no other class of offenders.
  4. No established form of absolution is recorded, but from analogy it might be presumed that some such was in use. Nothing like the modern method of absolving in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, was known to the ancient church. The whole rite was frequently denominated "dare pacem," from which it is fairly presumed, that some such phraseology was included in the form of absolution.
  5. The fifty-first Psalm was usually sung on this occasion, but not as a necessary part of the service. 
  6. The sacrament was immediately administered as a token that the penitent was reinstated in all his former privileges, the disqualification for the clerical office only excepted.

Concil. Nic. c. 12: Ancyr. c. 5: Herd. c. 5: Chalced. c. 16.

Chrysost. Horn. xiv. in 2 Cor. p. 644: Coucil. llliberit. c. 3, 5, 14: Albaspinaei, Observat. lib. ii. c. 30.

Concil. Nic. c. 13: Concil. Carthag. ii. c. 3, 4: iv. c. 76–79: Pertschen's Vers, einer Kirchenhist. des iv. Jahr. Th. ii. S. 322.

Concil. Carthag. iv. c. 68: Aurelian. iii. c. 6: Agath. c. 43: Toletan. i. c. 2, etc.: Apost. Can. c. 3 seq.

Concil. llliberit. c. 53: Arelat. i. c. 16, 17: Nic. c. 5: Sardic. c. 13.

Concil. Caesaraug. c. 5: Carthag. ii. c. 7 .

Concil. Tolet. i. c. 11: Theodoret. Hist. Eccl. lib. iv. c. 9: Augustin. contr, Petil. lib. iii. c. 38.

Apost. Constit. lib. ii. c. 26: Agustin. De Bapt. iii. c. 16: De Peccator. merit, et rem. lib. ii. c. 26.

Hieron. Comment, in Matt. 16. Cyrill. Alex. Joann. 20. lib. 12.

Basil, M. Ep. 63. Opp. torn. iH. p. 96: Athanas. Ep. ad Marcell. De Interpr. Psalm, torn. i. p. 975.


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