Page images
PDF
EPUB

upon the one, or of condemnation upon the other? Does not this twofold authority imply the necessity of knowing the grounds of each individual case?

Does it not suppose that the entire cause must be laid before the judge, and that he must examine into it, and pronounce sentence consistently with the evidence before him? And can we then be. lieve, that our Saviour gave this twofold office as the only means of obtaining pardon, to the priests of His church, and does not hold them bound to decide according to the respective merit of each case? Does He not necessarily mean, that, if the Church retain or forgive, it must have motives for so doing? And how can we suppose these to be obtained, but by the case being laid before the judge? and who is able to do that but the offender alone? Therefore does the commission itself imply, that whoever seeks, through this only channel, forgiveness, must manifest the guilt which he has committed. He must bring the whole cause under the notice of his judge, and only upon its complete hearing can the proper sentence be pronounced.

This is the ground-work, in Scripture, of the Catholic doctrine, that sin is to be forgiven by the pastors of the Church, in consequence

of the institution of Christ, who has herein pointed them as His judges, vicegerents, and ministers; and that, to obtain this forgiveness, it is necessary to lay the case, -in other words, all our transgressions — before him who is intrusted with the responsibility of the sentence pronouncede

But, my brethren, clear and simple as this reasoning may be, we perhaps might feel ourselves less secure in sanctioning it, were we not so completely supported by the conduct and authority of all antiquity. Many of you may, perhaps, have heard it repeatedly said, that auricular confession, as it is called, was not heard of in the first or second century of the Church. Let it be so; let us suppose it, or rather allow it for a moment. But do those who tell you so, (for the assertion is incorrect,) tell you also the reason why it is not so much mentioned? The reason is, that instead of auricular con

ap

fession, we read a great deal more of public confession; for, the sinner was obliged to manifest his crimes in the presence of the whole Church, and undergo a severe penance in consequence of them. And those who are such sticklers for antiquity on this head, and dislike auricular confession, should surely take antiquity to its extent; and if they reject ours, why not adopt the other practice, as consistent with the usages of the ancient Church? This is the fact; that the extent of manifestation of sins may be a matter of secondary consideration; whether the Church may direct private or public confession, is altogether matter of discipline. It is sufficient to establish that there is no forgiveness except by the manifestation of crime: that they who alone were empowered to grant forgiveness, are the priests of the Church; and that the practice of confession is exactly the same, with this exception, that in times of fervour, when crime was more rare, the Church deemed it fit that offenders should not only declare their sins in secret, but stand before the entire congregation, and manifest them publicly. Thus, instead of any argument arising against this institution, from the supposed silence of the ancient fathers, the only conclusion, to which we must come, is, that there has been a mitigation, or reduction of its rigour, but no change in its essence.

I now proceed to read you passages from these fathers, and I will not come later than 400 years after Christ; because, after that time, the texts increase immensely. I will divide them into two classes, I will first give you one or two where confession in general, that is, public confession, is alluded to; for they will show the feeling of the Church, as to its being the only means of obtaining forgiveness

St Irenæus, who flourished 100 years after Christ, mentions that some women came to the Church, and accused themselves of secret crimes unknown to others. Again, of others he thus writes; “Some, touched in conscience, publicly confessed their sins; while others, in despair, renounced their faith.”* Look

* Adv. Hær. c xiii. p. 63, 65.

This act,

at this alternative; some confessed, and others renounced the faith. If there had been any other means of forgiveness, why should they have abandoned their faith? Tertullian, who is more generally known, as being the oldest Latin writer, says: “Of this penitential disposition the proof is more laborious, as the business is more pressing, in order that some public act, not the voice of conscience alone, may show it. which the Greeks express by the word exomologesis, consists in the confession of our sin to the Lord; not as if He knew it not; but in as much as confession leads to satisfaction: whence also penitence flows, and by penitence God is mollified.” * This is said with reference, more or less, to the public practice. However, still more clearly as to its necessity. “If still you draw back, let your mind turn to that eternal fire, which confession will extinguish: and that you may not hesitate to adopt the remedy, weigh the greatness of future punishment. And as you are not ignorant, that, against that fire, after the baptismal institution, the aid of confession has been appointed, why are you an enemy to your own salvation?” ť

Proceeding to the other class of passages,—for, as I have been led to speak at greater length than I intended, I must pass over several, much to the same purpose, and still speaking of the necessity of confession—they treat of the manifestation of secret or hidden sins in confession to the clergy, as the means of obtaining forgiveness. St Cyprian thus writes; “God sees into the hearts and breasts of all men, and He will judge not their actions only, but their words and thoughts, viewing the most hidden conceptions of the mind. Hence, though some of these persons be remarked for their faith and the fear of God, and have not been guilty of the crime of sacrificing (to idols) nor of surrendering the holy Scriptures; yet, if the thought of doing it have ever entered their mind, this they confess, with grief and without disguise, before the priests of God, unburdening the conscience, and seeking a salutary remedy, however small and pardonable their failing

* De Pænit. c. ix. p. 169. † Ibid. c. xii. p. 170.

may have been. God, they know, will not be mocked.”
Again, speaking of smaller faults, he thus expresses himself;
“ The fault is less, but the conscience is not clear. Pardon
may more easily be obtained; still there is guilt: and let not
the sinner cease from doing penance, lest, what before was
small, be aggravated by neglect. I entreat you, my brethren,
let all confess their faults, while he that has offended enjoys
life; while his confession can be received, and while the satis-
faction and pardon imparted by the priests, are acceptable
before God.”+ Here we have two important points resolved;
-first, that those who were guilty of only petty or smaller
offences, not of great or deadly sins, went to the priest, and
confessed their sins:—and in the second place, that the pardon
which these penitents received from the hards of the priest,
was considered valid before God.
There are a great many

other
passages

to the same effect in this father which I must pass over; and I will take the next from the Greek Church. Origen, after having spoken of baptism, observes; “ There is yet a more severe and arduous pardon of sins by penance, when the sinner washes his couch with tears, and when he blushes not to disclose his sin to the priest of the Lord, and seek the remedy. Thus is fulfilled what the Apostle says; Is any man sick among you, let him bring in the priests of the Church, (James v. 14.)" Again; “ We have all power to pardon the faults committed against ourselves; but he, on whom Jesus breathed, as He did on the Apostles - He forgives, provided God forgive; and retains those (sins), of which the sinner repents not, being His minister, who alone possesses the power of remitting. So the prophets uttered things not their own; but what it pleased God to communicate." Once more; “ They who have sinned, if they hide and retain their sin within their breast, are grievously tormented; but if the sinner becomes his own accuser, while he does this, he discharges the cause of all his malady. Only * De Lapsis, p. 190.

7 Ibid. 190. Homil. ii. in Levit. T. ii. p. 191. $ L. de Orat. T. i. p. 255.

[ocr errors]

let him carefully consider, to whom he should confess his sin; what is the character of the physician; if he be one who will be weak with the weak, who will weep with the sorrowful, and who understands the discipline of condolence and fellowfeeling. So that, when his skill shall be known and his pity felt, you may follow what he shall advise. Should he think your disease to be such, that it should be declared in the assembly of the faithful, whereby others may be edified, and yourself easily reformed—this must be done with much deliberation and the skilful advice of the physician.

This is an interesting passage; we see an ornament of the early Church inculcating the necessity of manifesting our sins, and speaking just as we do now; exhorting the faithful to be careful to seek out and select a prudent and charitable director, and lay before him their hidden sins, and be guided by his counsel as to the propriety of making or withholding a public confession. You see, then, that the practice of public confession in the Church, so far from excluding private confession, supposes it; and that it was only to be made through the advice of a spiritual director, consulted for that purpose. And Origen expressly says, too, that only the priests have power to forgive, and that to them must our sins be manifested. Once more; “They who are not holy, die in their sins; the holy do penance; they feel their wounds; are sensible of their failings; look for the priest; implore health; and through him seek to be purified.”+ “If we discover our sins, not only to God, but to those, who may apply a remedy to our wounds and iniquities, our sins will be effaced by him who said; I have blotted out thy iniquities, as a cloud, and thy sins, as a mist.” Isa. xliv. 22. $

A little later we have some very strong passages,-several in the writings of St Basil, who was exceedingly zealous in keeping up the penitential canons, and whose system of public penance prevailed through a great part of the east:—" In the confession of sins," he writes, “the same method must be observed, as in laying open the infirmities of the body. For

* Homil. ii. in Psal. xxxvii. T. ii. p. 688. + Homil. s. in Numb. T. ii. p. 302.

* Hom. xvii. in Lucan.

« PreviousContinue »