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Chapter XVI.—In What Manner, and from What Cause, the Functions of the Presbyter, Appointed to Preside over the Imposition of Penance, were abolished. Dissertation on the Mode of Imposing Penance.

Nectarius, about this period, abolished the office of the presbyter whose duty it was to preside over the imposition of penance; and this is the first instance of the suppression of this office in the Church.15471547    Soc. v. 19; yet Soz.’s account and setting is different. This example was followed by the bishops of every region. Various accounts have been given of the nature, the origin, and the cause of the abolition of this office. I shall state my own views on the subject. Impeccability is a Divine attribute, and belongs not to human nature; therefore God has decreed that pardon should be extended to the penitent, even after many transgressions. As in supplicating for pardon, it is requisite to confess the sin, it seems probable that the priests, from the beginning, considered it irksome to make this confession in public, before the whole assembly of the people. They therefore appointed a presbyter, of the utmost sanctity, and the most undoubted prudence, to act on these occasions; the penitents went to him, and confessed their transgressions; and it was his office to indicate the kind of penance adapted to each sin, and then when satisfaction had been made, to pronounce absolution. As the custom of doing penance never gained ground among the Novatians, regulations of this nature were of course unnecessary among them; but the custom prevailed among all other heretics, and prevails even to the present day. It is observed with great rigor by the Western churches,15481548    The Western Church preserved the earlier discipline. particularly at Rome, where there is a place appropriated to the reception of penitents, in which spot they stand and mourn until the completion of the services, for it is not lawful for them to take part in the mysteries; then they cast themselves, with groans and lamentations, prostrate on the ground. The bishop conducts the ceremony, sheds tears, and prostrates himself in like manner; and all the people burst into tears, and groan aloud. Afterwards, the bishop rises first from the ground, and raises up the others; he offers up prayer on be387half of the penitents, and then dismisses them. Each of the penitents subjects himself in private to voluntary suffering, either by fastings, by abstaining from the bath or from divers kinds of meats, or by other prescribed means, until a certain period appointed by the bishop. When the time arrives, he is made free from the consequences of his sin, and assembles at the church with the people. The Roman priests have carefully observed this custom from the beginning to the present time. In the church at Constantinople, a presbyter was always appointed to preside over the penitents, until a lady of the nobility made a deposition to the effect, that when she resorted as a penitent to the presbyter, to fast and offer supplications to God, and tarried for that purpose, in the church, a rape had been committed on her person by the deacon. Great displeasure was manifested by the people when this occurrence was made known to them, on account of the discredit that would result to the church; and the priests, in particular, were thereby greatly scandalized. Nectarius, after much hesitation as to what means ought to be adopted, deposed the deacon; and, at the advice of certain persons, who urged the necessity of leaving each individual to examine himself before participating in the sacred mysteries, he abolished the office of the presbyter presiding over penance. From that period, therefore, the performance of penance fell into disuse; and it seems to me, that extreme laxity of principle was thus substituted for the severity and rigor of antiquity. Under the ancient system, I think, offences were of rarer occurrence; for people were deterred from their commission, by the dread of confessing them, and of exposing them to the scrutiny of a severe judge. I believe it was from similar considerations, that the Emperor Theodosius, who was always zealous in promoting the glory of the Church, issued a law,15491549    Cod. Theod. xvi. 2. 27. enacting that women should not be admitted into the ministry, unless they had had children, and were upwards of sixty years of age, according to the precept of the Apostle Paul.15501550    1 Tim. v. 9. Cf. change in Justinian, Novell. 123. 13. By this law it was also decreed, that women who had shaved their heads should be ejected from the churches; and that the bishop by whom such women were admitted should be deposed from the bishopric.


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