Penance (Lat. pcenitentia, penitence), a penalty accepted or self-imposed by way of satisfaction and token of sorrow for sin. Ecclesiastical penances were inflicted under the Jewish dispensation, and we read in the Old Testament of individuals and whole cities or peoples fasting and performing other acts of humiliation. The idea of penance seems to have been familiar even to heathen nations. The revolting austerities practised by the Hindoo devotees, if they can properly be called penances, are among the most striking examples of this class. In the early Christian church penances were of three sorts, secret, public, and solemn. The first consisted of such actions as are commonly imposed by confessors at the present day, as for instance the recitation of certain prayers. Public penance was in use from the earliest davs of the church, and accompanied the readmission to communion of persons who had been excluded from it for grievous offences. It was frequently very severe, and the penitents, besides being required to kneel in worship while the rest of the faithful were permitted to stand, had to make a public confession of their sins in the church.
Of solemn penance, which seems to have originated about the middle of the 3d century, or soon after the rise of the Novatian heresy, there were four degrees. The first was that of the weepers, who remained at the door of the church clad in sackcloth and ashes, and begged the prayers of the faithful as they passed in. The second was that of the listeners, who were permitted to enter the vestibule to hear the reading of the Scriptures and the sermon, but went away before the mass of the catechumens commenced. The prostrate, who "belonged to the third class, knelt in the space between the doors of the church and the am ho, or desk where the epistle and gospel were read; they were dismissed at the same time with the catechumens. The fourth degree of penitents were the consistentes (literally, co-standers), who stood with the faithful before the altar and remained throughout the service, but might neither make oblations with them nor receive the eucharist. During the term of penance expressions of joy were to be laid aside, gay dresses put off, and marriage, feasting, bathing, and various bodily gratifications abstained from. The men were to cut their hair and beards, and the women to appear with dishevelled locks.
The penitents were also expected to abound in good works, and be present, as far as it was permitted them, at every religious assembly. The collection of canons which appointed the time and manner of penances for different sins was called the Penitential. The final readmission of penitents to communion was attended with certain forms, and in ordinary cases the officiating minister was a bishop, though the inferior clergy could admit a penitent from a low degree into a higher one. In the eastern church, the ceremonies of solemn penance were retained until about the close of the 4th century, and in the western church until near the end of the 7th. It gradually became customary for the bishops to commute the canonical penances for pious works more agreeable to the spirit of the age, such as pilgrimages, works of charity, and alms deeds, and these in turn were exchanged for indulgences. (See Indulgence.) - In the Roman Catholic and eastern churches penance is one of the seven sacraments instituted for the remission of post-baptismal sins. It consists of three essential parts, contrition, confession to an authorized priest, and absolution, to which may be added a disposition on the part of the penitent to make satisfaction to God and man for his offences.
A slight penance by way of satisfaction is always enjoined upon the penitent by the confessor; and though a willingness to receive it is a requisite disposition on the part of the former, the neglect to fulfil it does not invalidate the sacrament. (See Confession, Atteicular).