Page images

Church. This, St Cyprian informs us, in the following words, was the practice of the Church. “ He that


the law, has promised, that what we bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven, and what we loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaver. But now, not to those that are infirm, but to the healthy the peace of reconciliation is necessary; not to the dying, but to the living it must be extended; in order that those whom we incite to battle, be not left without arms, but be fortified by the body and blood of Christ. For since the design of the holy Eucharist is, to give strength to those that receive it, they must not be deprived of its support, whom we would guard against the enemy."*

3. A similar indulgence was granted to penitents in danger of death, as was decreed by the Council of Carthage. * When a sinner implores to be admitted to penance, let the priest, without any distinction of persons, enjoin what the canons euact. They who show negligence, must be less readily admitted. If any one, after having, by the testimony of others, implored forgiveness, be in imminent danger of death, let him be reconciled by the imposition of hands, and receive the Eucharist. If he survive, let him be informed that his petition has been complied with, and then be subject to the appointed rules of penance, so long as it shall seem good to the priest who prescribed the penance.”+ Whence it appears that the canonical penance was to be continued after absolution and admission to the Eucharist, consequently that it was meant for satisfaction after sin remitted; and likewise that the Church held itself competent to give a mitigation or indulgence in it. For the penance after recovery was not to be the full term, but such a modification as the priest should think proper. And Pope Innocent I., in the epistle to which I have before referred, confirms this discipline. Thus he writes: “In estimating the grievousness of sins, it is the duty of the priest to judge; attending to the confession of the penitent, and the signs of his repentance; and then to order him to be loosed, when he Ep. lvii.

p. 116, 117. f Conc. Gen. T. ii. can. Ixxiv. lxxv. Ixxvi. p. 1205,

shall see due satisfaction made. But if there be danger of death, he must be absolved before Easter, lest he die without communion.”*

4. St. Augustine gives us another ground whereon mitigation of penance was sometimes granted; that is, when intercession was made in favour of the repenting sinner by persons justly possessing influence with the pastors of the Church. In the same manner, ne teiis us, as the ciergy sometimes interceded for mercy with the civil magistrate in favour of a condemned criminal, and were successful, so did they, in their turn, admit the interposition of good offices from the magistrates in favour of sinners undergoing penance.f

5. But the chief ground of indulgence or mitigation, and the one which most exactly includes all the principles of a modern indulgence, was the earliest, perhaps, admitted in the Church. When the martyrs, or those who were on the point of receiving the crown, and who had already attested their love of Christ by suffering, were confined in prison, those unfortunate Christians who had fallen, and were condemned to penance, had recourse to their mediation; and, upon returning to the pastors of the Church, with a written recommen: dation to mercy from one of those chosen servants of God and witnesses of Christ, were received at once to reconciliation, and absolved from the remainder of their

penance. Tertullian, the oldest Latin Father, is the first to mention this practice, and that, under such different circumstances as render his testimony painfully interesting. First, when in communion with the Church, he approves of the practice. For, after exhorting the confessors of Christ to preserve themselves in a state of peace and communion with His Church, he thus continues. “Which peace some not having in the Church, are accustomed to beg from the martyrs in prison; and therefore

possess and cherish, and


that 80 ye may, perhaps, be able to grant it to others."1 Here,

Ep. ad Decent. Conc. Gen. T. ii. p. 1247. “ Epist. ad Maced.” 54.

I“ Ad, Martyr.” cap. i.

preserve it in

then, Tertullian speaks of the custom without reprehending it; and, indeed, even builds his exhortation to the martyrs upon its propriety. But after he had, unfortunately, abandoned the faith, and professed the fanatical austerity of the Mortanists, he rudely reproaches the Church with this as an abuse; at the same time that he more clearly reveals the principle whereon it was founded. For thus he now speaks: “Let it suffice for a Martyr to have purged his own sin, it is the part of a proud, ungrateful man, to lavish upon others, that which he hath himself obtained at a great price.” He then addresses the martyr himself in these words: “If thou art thyself a sinner, how can the oil of thy lamp suffice for thee and me?"* From these expressions it is clear, that according to the belief of the Church, which he blamed, the martyrs were held to communicate some efficacy of their sufferings in place of the penance to be discharged, and some communion in their good deserts was admitted to be made.

St. Cyprian in the following century, confirms the same practice and its groundsFor he expressely says, speaking of it; “ We believe that the merits of the martyrs, and the works of the just, can do much with the just Judge.”+ In an epistle to the martyrs, he writes to them as follows: “ But to this you should diligently attend, that you designate by name those to whom you wish peace to be given.”! And writing to his clergy, he thus prescribes the use to be made of such recommendations: “As I have it not yet in my power to return, aid, I think, should not be withheld from our brethren; so that they who have received letters of recommendation from the martyrs, and can thereby be benefited before God, should any danger from sickness threaten, may, in our absence, having confessed their crime before the minister of the Church, receive absolution, and appear in the presence of God in that peace, which the martyrs in their letters requested should be imparted to them." De Pudicit.” c. xxii.

7“ De lapsis." | Epist. xv.

Ep. xviii. p. 40.


Hence, therefore, it appears, that in the ancient Church, relaxation from the rigour of the penitential institutions was granted in consideration of the interposition of the martyrs of Christ, who seemed to take on themselves the punishment due to the penitents according to the canonical institutions, The practice, doubtless, led to abuses; St Cyprian complains of them repeatedly; the works from which I have quoted, are expressly directed to correct its evils, and check its exercise, but the principle he never for a moment calls in question; he admits, on the contrary, that it should be acted on, apparently in every

instance. There appears but one only point further, requisite to complete the resemblance between the ancient and modern indulgences. The instances hitherto given, apply chiefly to a diminution of punishment, not to a commutation, which seems the specific characteristic of indulgences at the present day. But although, the abridgment of a punishment and the substitution of a lighter one, are in substance the same thing, being only different forms of mitigation; yet, even in this respect, we can illustrate our practice from antiquity. For the Council of Ancyra already referred to, expressly sanctions the commutation of public penance in the case of deacons who have once fallen, and afterwards stood firm. Later, another allows some other good work to be substituted for fasting, one of the essential parts of the old penance, in the case of persons with whose health it is incompatible; and Ven. Bede mentions the same form of indulgence, by commutation.

Coming then to the indulgences of modern times, they are nothing more than what we have seen were granted in the first ages,

with one difference. The public penance has disappeared from the Church, not in consequence

of abolition, but from the relaxation of discipline, and from the change of habits, particularly in the west, caused by the invasion of the northern tribes. Theodore of Canterbury was the first who introduced the practice of secret penance, and in the eighth century, the custom became general, of substituting

any formal

prayer, alms, or other works of charity, for the rigorous course of expiation prescribed in the ancient Church. It was not till the thirteenth, that the practice of public penance completely ceased. Now, the Church has never formally given up the wish, however hopeless it may appear that the fervour and discipline of primitive times could be restored; and consequently, instead of abolishing their injunctions, and specifically substituting other practices in their place, she has

preferred ever considering these as mitigations of what she still holds herself entitled to enforce. The only difference, therefore, between her former and her present practice is, that the mitigation or commutation has become the ordinary form of satisfaction, which, however unwilling, she deems it prudent to exact. Indeed, so completely is this the spirit and meaning of the Church, that, as we learn from Pope Alexander III., writing to the Archbishop of Canterbury, it was the custom of the Church, in granting indulgences, to add to the word, the phrase “ from the penance enjoined;" to intimate that primarily the indulgence regarded the canonical penance. Several general councils and Popes, down to Leo X., confirm this formula.

From all that I have said, you will easily conclude, that our indulgence, and that of the ancient Church, rest upon the following common grounds. First, that satisfaction has to be made to God for sin remitted, under the authority and regulation of the Church. 2dly. That the Church has always considered herself possessed of the authority to mitigate, by diminution or commutation, the penance which she enjoins; and that she has always reckoned such a mitigation valid before God, who sanctions and accepts it. 3dly. That the sufferings of the saints, in union with, and by virtue of Christ's merits, are considered available towards the granting this mitigation. 4thly. That such mitigations, when prudently and justly granted, are conducive towards the spiritual weal and profit of Christians.

These considerations at once give us a key to the right

« PreviousContinue »