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For other uses, see Penance (disambiguation).
"Penitent" redirects here. For the glacial formation, see "penitentes".
La Penitente by Pietro Rotari.

Penance is repentance of sins as well as the proper name of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox Christian, and Anglican Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation/Confession. It also plays a part in non-sacramental confession among Lutherans and other Protestants. The word penance derives from Old French and Latin poenitentia, both of which derive from the same root meaning repentance, the desire to be forgiven (in English see contrition). Penance and repentance, similar in their derivation and original sense, have come to symbolize conflicting views of the essence of repentance, arising from the controversy as to the respective merits of "faith" and "good works". Word derivations occur in many languages.


Penance as a religious attitude[edit]

The Augsburg Confession divides repentance into two parts: "One is contrition, that is, terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin; the other is faith, which is born of the Gospel, or of absolution, and believes that for Christ's sake, sins are forgiven, comforts the conscience, and delivers it from terrors."[1]

The Reformers, 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 preceded true repentance and confession to God without any reparation of "works". Rather, "God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance" (Romans 2:4, ESV). In his Of Justification By Faith, Calvin says: "without forgiveness no man is pleasing to God." Nonetheless, in traditions formed by a Calvinist or Zwinglian sensibility there has traditionally been a stress on reconciliation as a precondition to fellowship.

The reproach of Nathan and the penance of King David (Paris Psalter, folio 136v, 10th century).

The attitude of penance or repentance can be externalized in acts that a believer imposes on himself or herself, acts that are themselves called penances. Penitential activity is particularly common during the season of Lent and Holy Week. In some cultural traditions, this week, which commemorates the Passion of Christ, may be marked by penances that include flagellantism or even voluntary pseudo-crucifixion. Advent is another season during which, to a lesser extent, penances are performed. Acts of self-discipline are used as tokens of repentance. Positive acts of self-discipline include devoting time to prayer or reading of the Bible or other spiritual books. Examples of negative acts of self-discipline are fasting, continence, abstaining from alcohol or tobacco, or other privations. Self-flagellation and the wearing of a cilice are more rarely used. Such acts have sometimes been called mortification of the flesh, a phrase inspired by Romans 8:13: "If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live."

Such acts are associated also with the sacrament. In early Christianity, public penance was imposed on penitents, the severity of which varied according to the seriousness of the offences forgiven. Today the act of penance or satisfaction imposed in connection with the sacrament for the same therapeutic purpose can be set prayers or a certain number of prostrations or an act or omission intended to reinforce what is positive in the penitent's behaviour or to inhibit what is negative. The act imposed is itself called a penance or epitemia.

Penance as a sacrament[edit]

Roman Catholicism[edit]

In the Catholic Church, the sacrament of penance (also called reconciliation, forgiveness, confession and conversion)[2] is one of the two sacraments of healing: Jesus Christ has willed that by this means the Church should continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit, his work of healing and salvation.[3] Through the priest who is the minister of the sacrament and who acts not in his own name but on behalf of God, confession of sins is made to God and absolution is received from God.[4]

Essential to the sacrament are acts both by the sinner (examination of conscience, contrition with a determination not to sin again, confession to a priest, and performance of some act to repair the damage caused by sin) and by the priest (determination of the act of reparation to be performed and absolution).[5] Serious sins (mortal sins) must be confessed within at most a year and always before receiving Holy Communion, while confession of venial sins also is recommended.[6]

The act of penance or satisfaction that the priest imposes helps the penitent to overcome selfishness, to desire more strongly to live a holy life, to be closer to Jesus, and to show to others the love and compassion of Jesus.[7] It is part of the healing that the sacrament brings. "Sin injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relations with God and neighbour. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must 'make satisfaction for' or 'expiate' his sins."[8] This is done by prayer, charity, or an act of Christian asceticism.[9] The rite of the sacrament requires that "the kind and extent of the satisfaction should be suited to the personal condition of each penitent so that each one may restore the order which he disturbed and through the corresponding remedy be cured of the sickness from which he suffered."[10]

The priest is bound under the severest penalties to maintain the "seal of confession", absolute secrecy about any sins revealed to him in confession.[11]

A modern confessional in a Latin Catholic Church. The penitent may kneel on the kneeler or sit in a chair (not shown), facing the priest.

Especially in the West, the penitent may choose to confess in a specially constructed confessional, with a screen separating the priest from the penitent, whose anonymity is thus preserved completely. The penitent may also choose to confess face to face, and this is the tradition in some Eastern Catholic Churches.

Although spiritual direction is not necessarily connected with the sacrament, the sacrament of penance has throughout the centuries been one of its main settings, enabling the Christian to become sensitive to God's presence, deepen the personal relationship with Christ and attend to the action of the Spirit in one's life.[12]

In the Roman Rite, celebration of the sacrament begins with a greeting and blessing by the priest, who invites the penitent to have trust in God.[13] The priest may read a short passage from the Bible that proclaims God's mercy and calls man to conversion,[14] and then the penitent confesses his sins, helped if necessary by the priest, after which the priest gives him counsel for his life and proposes an act of penance, which the penitent accepts to make satisfaction for sin and to amend his life.[15] The penitent declares sorrow for sin and the priest imparts absolution, saying:

God the Father of mercies,
through the death and resurrection of his Son
has reconciled the world to himself
and sent the Holy Spirit among us
for the forgiveness of sins;
through the ministry of the Church
may God give you pardon and peace,
and I absolve you from your sins
in the name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit.[16]

Finally, the priest invites the penitent to "give thanks to the Lord, for he is good" and dismisses him with some words, the longest formula of which is:

May the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of all the saints,
whatever good you do and suffering you endure,
heal your sins,
help you to grow in holiness,
and reward you with eternal life.[17]

Eastern Orthodox Church[edit]

Russian Orthodox priest hearing confessions before Divine Liturgy

In the Eastern Orthodox Church penance it is usually called Sacred Mystery of Confession. In Orthodoxy the intention of the sacramental mystery of Holy Confession is to provide reconciliation with God through means of healing.

Similar to the Eastern Catholic Churches, in the Eastern Orthodox Church there are no confessionals. Traditionally the penitent stands or kneels before either the Icon of Christ the Teacher (to the viewers' right of the Royal Door) or in front of an Icon of Christ, "Not Made by Hands". This is because in Orthodox sacramental theology, confession is not made to the priest, but to Christ; the priest being there as a witness, friend and advisor. On an analogion in front of the penitent has been placed a Gospel Book and a Crucifix. The penitent venerates the Gospel Book and the cross and kneels. This is to show humility before the whole church and before Christ. Once they are ready to start, the priest says, “Blessed is our God, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages,” reads the Trisagion Prayers and the Psalm 50 (in the Septuagint; in the KJV this is Psalm 51).

The priest then advises the penitent that Christ is invisibly present and that the penitent should not be embarrassed or be afraid, but should open up their heart and reveal their sins so that Christ may forgive them. The penitent then accuses himself of sins. The priest quietly and patiently listens, gently asking questions to encourage the penitent not to withhold any sins out of fear or shame. After the confessant reveals all their sins, the priest offers advice and counsel. The priest may modify the prayer rule of the penitent, or even prescribe another rule, if needed to combat the sins the penitent struggles most with. Penances, known as epitemia, are given with a therapeutic intent, so they are opposite to the sin committed.

Epitemia are neither a punishment nor merely a pious action, but are specifically aimed at healing the spiritual ailment that has been confessed. For example, if the penitent broke the Eighth Commandment by stealing something, the priest could prescribe they return what they stole (if possible) and give alms to the poor on a more regular basis. Opposites are treated with opposites. If the penitent suffers from gluttony, the confessant’s fasting rule is reviewed and perhaps increased. The intention of Confession is never to punish, but to heal and purify. Confession is also seen as a “second baptism”, and is sometimes referred to as the "baptism of tears".

In Orthodoxy, Confession is seen as a means to procure better spiritual health and purity. Confession does not involve merely stating the sinful things the person does; the good things a person does or is considering doing are also discussed. The approach is holistic, examining the full life of the confessant. The good works do not earn salvation, but are part of a psychotherapeutic treatment to preserve salvation and purity. Sin is treated as a spiritual illness, or wound, only cured through Jesus Christ. The Orthodox belief is that in Confession, the sinful wounds of the soul are to be exposed and treated in the "open air" (in this case, the Spirit of God. Note the fact that the Greek word for Spirit (πνευμα), can be translated as "air in motion" or wind).

Once the penitent has accepted the therapeutic advice and counsel freely given to him or her, by the priest then, placing his epitrachelion over the head of the confessant. The priest says the prayer of forgiveness over the penitent. In the prayer of forgiveness, the priests asks of God to forgive the sins committed. He then concludes by placing his hand on the head of the penitent and says, “The Grace of the All-Holy Spirit, through my insignificance, has loosened and granted to you forgiveness.”

In summary, the Priest reminds the penitent what he or she has received is a second baptism, through the Mystery of Confession, and that they should be careful not to defile this restored purity but to do good and to hear the voice of the psalmist: “Turn from evil and do good” (Psalm 34:14). But most of all, the priest urges the penitent to guard him- or herself from sin and to commune as often as permitted. The priest dismisses the repentant one in peace.


Private confession of sins to a priest, followed by absolution, has always been provided for in the Book of Common Prayer. In the Communion Service of the 1662 English Prayer Book, for example, we read:

And because it is requisite, that no man should come to the holy Communion, but with a full trust in God’s mercy, and with a quiet conscience; therefore, if there be any of you,who by this means [that is, by personal confession of sins] cannot quiet his own conscience herein, but requireth further comfort or counsel; let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned Minister of God’s Word, and open his grief; that by the ministry of God’s holy Word he may receive the benefit of absolution, together with ghostly counsel and advice, to the quieting of his conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness.[18]

The status of confession as a sacrament is stated in Anglican formularies, such as the Thirty-Nine Articles. Article XXV includes it among "Those five commonly called Sacraments" which "are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel . . . for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God."[19] It is important to note, however, that "commonly called Sacraments" does not mean "wrongly called Sacraments;" and that the Article merely distinguishes confession and the other rites from the two great Sacraments of the Gospel.[20]

Until the Prayer Book revisions of the 1970s and the creation of Alternative Service Books in various Anglican provinces, the penitential rite was always part of larger services. Prior to the revision, private confessions would be according to the form of Ministry to the Sick. The form of absolution provided in the order for the Visitation of the Sick reads, "Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences: And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."[21]

Despite the provision for private confession in every edition of the Book of Common Prayer, the practice was frequently contested during the Ritualist controversies of the later nineteenth century.[22]


The Lutheran Church teaches two key parts in repentance(contrition and faith).[1] Lutherans reject the teaching that forgiveness is obtained through penance.[23]

Penance in Indian beliefs[edit]

Main article: Prāyaścitta
Hatsuhana doing penance under the Tonosawa waterfall (woodblock print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1798–1861).

In some religions of Indian origin, 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 god(s) are considered penance. In Hinduism penance is widely discussed in Dharmasastra literature.

Penance in art and fiction[edit]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Augsburg Confession, Article XII: Of Repentance". Bookofconcord.org. Retrieved 2012-09-20. 
  2. ^ "Celebration of the Christian Mystery Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 296". Vatican.va. Retrieved 2012-09-20. 
  3. ^ "Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1421". Vatican.va. Retrieved 2012-09-20. 
  4. ^ "Catholic Apologetics on Catholic Truth – Penance". Catholic-truth.info. Retrieved 2012-09-20. 
  5. ^ "Celebration of the Christian Mystery Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 302-303". Vatican.va. Retrieved 2012-09-20. 
  6. ^ "Celebration of the Christian Mystery Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 304-306". Vatican.va. Retrieved 2012-09-20. 
  7. ^ [Rinaldo Ronzani, Conversion and Reconciliation (St Paul Communications 2007 ISBN 9966-08-234-4), p. 89
  8. ^ "Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1459". Vatican.va. Retrieved 2012-09-20. 
  9. ^ J.A. DiNoia et al., ''The Love That Never Ends'' (Our Sunday Visitor Publishing 1996 ISBN 978-0-87973-852-5), p. 69. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2012-09-20. 
  10. ^ Rite of Penance, 6 c
  11. ^ "Celebration of the Christian Mystery Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 309". Vatican.va. Retrieved 2012-09-20. 
  12. ^ Gary W. Moon, ''Spiritual Direction and the Care of Souls'' (InterVarsity Press 2004 ISBN 978-0-8308-2777-0), p. 64. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2012-09-20. 
  13. ^ Rite of Penance, 42
  14. ^ Rite of Penance, 43
  15. ^ Rite of Penance, 44
  16. ^ Rite of Penance, 46
  17. ^ Rite of Penance, 47
  18. ^ 1662 BCP: The Order for the Administration of the Lord's Supper, or Holy Communion, p. 8 of 17.
  19. ^ The Thirty-Nine Articles, Article XXV: Of it giving thanks and praise.
  20. ^ W.G. Wilson, Anglican Teaching: An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, p. 133
  21. ^ 1662 BCP: The Order for the Visitation of the Sick, p. 4 of 7.
  22. ^ See, for example, J.C. Ryle, "The Teaching of the Ritualists Not the Teaching of the Church of England, n.d.
  23. ^ "Christian Cyclopedia". "Rejected ... are those who teach that forgiveness of sin is not obtained through faith but through the satisfactions made by man." 



External links[edit]

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