On Sept. 14, Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond, Va., celebrated a Mass of atonement in reparation for the sexual abuse and its cover-up by Catholic priests and prelates. In his homily, the bishop apologized to all those abused and their families as well as “this church of Richmond, the people of God who see the church torn apart.”
“We failed so miserably,” the bishop said, “and are shamed before the whole world because we were called to so much more, but we fell short, so far short, of what we should have done.” He promised to make public the names of members of the clergy who have been “credibly accused” of abuse and announced the creation of a fund to provide counseling to abuse survivors.
He also did something that gave eloquence to his words and underlined his promises of practical action. He laid the symbols of his office—the ring, miter, zucchetto and crosier—on the steps to the altar and prostrated himself on the floor.
Bishop Knestout is not the only U.S. prelate to have made public acts of self-abasement in penance for clerical abuse. Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Conn., and Archbishop Charles C. Thompson of Indianapolis, Ind., have also publicly prostrated themselves. Bishop Robert Reed of Boston, Mass., spent 24 hours in fasting and prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. In a column for his churches’ bulletins, he invited the faithful to join him as he did “the only things I know to do in the face of evil; prayer and penance.”
We are unused to these sights. Their power, in fact, comes from their unexpectedness. The bishops’ actions signal their sincerity precisely because this is not a gesture we have seen many times before. But the body language of humility—prostrations, fasts, the symbolic stripping of the marks of office—and the public nature of the bishops’ penance are taken from a very old practice, which once was well known in the church.
Most people today expect penance, like confession, to be private—even secret. Even in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, people generally make amends with some degree of privacy. But well into the Middle Ages across Lotharingia (modern-day Netherlands, Belgium and parts of Germany and France), public penance was a major part of Christian life, often linked to the liturgical year. The ash cross placed on the foreheads of penitents on Ash Wednesday is one of the few practices of this earlier era that Catholics see regularly today.
But from late antiquity until the 13th century in this region, public penance was performed by kings and prelates, peasants and knights, sailors and farm wives. Early Christians could do penance only once, and their penance also carried lifelong consequences, like the inability to marry or hold public or church office. Understandably, many people avoided or postponed this grueling ritual. By the sixth century, a more private or “secret” confession and penance had arisen independently both among Irish monks and on the European continent. Although reconciliation did not always take place within the rite of confession, the spread of secret confession and penance brought into the medieval world something like the ritual we are familiar with today.
But public penance took a long time to disappear. Recent studies, like Mary C. Mansfield’s Humiliation of Sinners: Public Penance in Thirteenth-Century France, found that in certain regions public penance lasted significantly longer than earlier scholarship had assumed—at least two centuries after its supposed demise around the time of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. And public penance offered medieval Christians a language for repentance, humility and reconciliation that was in many ways richer than our own. These medieval rites may offer insights for the age of mass incarceration, exposure of clerical abuse and the #MeToo movement.
A Brief History of Public Penance
Records of public penance are spotty, especially from earlier centuries. Historians have had to rely on what might be called aspirational texts—the ritual guides and confessor’s handbooks that expressed what Catholic authorities thought ought to happen, though not necessarily what did happen. Creative scholars, like Sarah Hamilton (Practice of Penance: 900–1050), Mansfield (Humiliation of Sinners) and the co-authors Peter Biller and Alastair Minnis (Handling Sin: Confession in the Middle Ages), have sought evidence of penitential practice in the details of hagiographies or have drawn conclusions from assumptions underlying official texts.
Public penance offered medieval Christians a language for repentance, humility and reconciliation.
First, we might ask what kind of penance people typically performed and why. The answers are quite varied. Public penance could be anything from whipping to reciting psalms, from pilgrimage to fasting to public humiliations, like standing outside the church doors in sackcloth and ashes.
Penances were probably performed publicly when sins were notorious. (This is an oversimplification of a complicated debate about the boundary between secret and public penance, but for the most part, the penance was public if one’s sins had been public.) The sins atoned for in this way could be anything from usury to homicide, from rioting to throwing counterfeit coins to the poor on your wedding day.
Scholars disagree on how voluntary or semi-voluntary penance was. Often those who refused to do public penance risked excommunication from the church, which could have severe civil consequences. For this reason, it is fair to draw modern parallels not only with purely religious acts, like the bishops’ prostrations in reparation for abuse, but also with secular forms of public disgrace and even with the criminal justice system itself. And when we look at medieval practices with our own time in mind, we notice several points of divergence.
Medieval Penance Compared With Todays’ Rituals
Although in the Middle Ages penance (whether secret or public) could be performed at any time and could even be linked to celebrations like victory parades, Lent was a common period for public penance. As the scholar Sarah Hamilton finds, many rubrics for the beginning of Lent walked a difficult line, singling out for public penance some whose sins had become notorious while emphasizing that all—even the priest and bishop—face God from the position of a penitent.
A 10th-century ceremony for Ash Wednesday, for example, begins with a call to all Christians to confess and receive penance. Everyone then confessed individually outside the church. The priest’s prayers during this rite move from asking God’s mercy on the penitent to asking for God’s mercy on all the people.
The next steps might sound familiar to us—an Act of Contrition and the assigning of a penance. But a 10th-century penitent was expected to kneel, to cry, to “prostrate himself full-length on the ground weeping and groaning with all his heart,” according to Hamilton in Practice of Penance.
Then the priest prostrated himself beside the penitent. In this act, Hamilton says, “both are human, and as such must acknowledge their humility before God.” Both the priest and the penitent rise, and the priest announces what the penance will be. Then the penitent prostrates himself or herself again, asking for the priest’s prayers, which the priest offers by reciting psalms and set prayers. The priest and penitent pray together as they enter the church—both of them crawling or on their knees.
There is one ordeal left for the penitents. During Mass, they receive ashes on their heads and put on sackcloth. The priest says, “Change your heart and humiliate your soul in ashes and a hairshirt. For God does not despise a contrite and humble heart.” The priest prays (using the first-person plural, we) for God’s mercy and salvation, and, with readings from Genesis on the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, the public penitents are ejected from the church. Then the ashes are blessed and, with further prayers for mercy on sinners and for God’s help in their Lenten fasting, placed on the heads of the rest of the congregation. (Liturgical practice varied widely. In many areas only penitents, clergy and monastics would receive ashes. The universal distribution of ashes came to these areas later but, as we know, proved extraordinarily popular.) The Gospel reading for this Mass is the parable of the publican and the Pharisee, ending with, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Although there was a real and painful separation between those performing public penance—whose rituals enabled them to be received back into the church and, for some, welcomed to the Eucharistic table on Holy Thursday—everyone did penance. Everyone fasted, everyone humbled themselves in ashes, and everyone confessed their sins.
In the age of public penance, Ash Wednesday offered ritual acknowledgment that sin is universal. But it was also a recognition that certain acts have harmed the community in a public way.
Sara Perla, a Catholic in Maryland who has participated in several forms of public prayer in reparation for clergy abuse, says she fasts and prays in penance for others’ sins. She says she does this because “if we’re called to follow Christ, that means choosing to bear the sins of others for them.... We participate in that as members of his body.” But, she quickly adds, “that is a different thing from saying, in response to the crisis, ‘Well, we’re all sinners and we all need to repent,’ which is frightfully inadequate.” Such a response, Ms. Perla believes, implies that responsibility for the abuse crisis is equally shared by all church members—which is untrue.
As Dawn Eden Goldstein, a writer who has called for more bishops to perform public penance for abuse, told America: “St. Maria Goretti on her deathbed forgave her attacker—but she also described him to the cops! Just as mercy doesn’t exclude justice, likewise penance doesn’t exclude justice; rather, it is part of justice.”
The Need for Reconciliation
Unlike 21st-century rituals of disgrace and punishment, public penance ended in reconciliation. We might even say that unlike our own practices, public penance had an end point.
Consider two recent stories that suggest public penance is neverending for people who have been convicted of crimes today, no matter what they do. Vladimir Matyssik, a 65-year-old of Los Gatos, Calif., was charged and jailed for trespassing, but the case was dismissed after a judge determined he had Alzheimer’s disease. He was released one morning in 2015 and walked for eight miles before he was hit and killed while walking on the highway. Releases in isolated areas are not uncommon for people coming out of jail or prison. As a New York Times Magazine profile in 2015 put it: “An inmate might be released from a prison outside Sacramento and expected to find his way to a parole officer in San Diego, 500 miles away, within 48 hours.”
Last summer a man named Geoffrey Corbis was found dead behind the wheel of his car, parked on a New York City street, a week after he killed himself there. I hesitate to speculate about the reasons for anyone’s suicide. But Corbis had changed his name after finding it impossible to get a job under his birth name, Geoffrey Weglarz. In 2013, Mr. Weglarz threw his sandwich at a pregnant McDonald’s drive-through worker and was arrested for disorderly conduct. The story “went viral,” with his name attached, and Mr. Weglarz became an avatar of entitled rage. He never found a path back from disgrace. On learning Mr. Weglarz’s story, the writer Seth A. Mandel noted, “Everything is pointless if there’s no way back.”
Many of the famous men recently accused of sexual harassment (or worse) have attempted to make public apologies. Some of these seemed heartfelt. Some of them sounded more like P.R. ploys, vetted by lawyers who know humility can be a liability risk. Some were flailing attempts by men whose desperation practically oozed from the page. One celebrity chef sexual harassment apology earned contempt for concluding with a recipe for pizza dough cinnamon rolls (really). The poet Isobel O’Hare redacts abuse apologies by celebrities, blacking out the self-exculpatory words until all that’s left is a caustic confession:
is a question
I was never
Perhaps these men’s apologies are easy to reject because they have not suffered enough. And O’Hare draws attention to this lack of suffering, in a way that almost can’t help being prideful, even if it is also insightful.
But where can someone who sincerely wants to repent and atone find guidance or models for apologizing well?
Even when people have paid harsh prices for misdeeds, we have little concern for the human need for restoration. Everyone who works in criminal justice reform, prison abolition or “re-entry” services can report that even a short prison sentence carries lifelong consequences. Depending on where a person lives and the nature of the conviction, a criminal record can make it impossible for a former prisoner to vote; it can present barriers to earning a professional license or lead to exclusion from public (and, obviously, private) housing. A felony drug conviction can make a person ineligible for SNAP benefits (food stamps) and Temporary Aid to Needy Families. Although some cities have started holding “re-entry fairs” to address the practical needs of people coming out of prison, the need for social restoration is even more broadly overlooked.
Where can someone who sincerely wants to repent and atone find guidance or models for apologizing well?
In certain regions in medieval times, when public penitents were expelled from the church on Ash Wednesday they were typically allowed back in when Lent was over (even if they still had years of penance to serve). These poignant ceremonies of reconciliation took place on Holy Thursday. They varied widely in how elaborate they were.
In the same 10th-century rubric described above, the reconciliation of public penitents on Holy Thursday begins when the penitents are brought from outside the church building to inside (uniting church and world in a highly public spectacle). The archdeacon pleads for them, and the bishop prostrates himself, confesses his sinfulness and begs the Lord for strength and salvation. The penitents approach the bishop, genuflecting, as he calls them three times: “Venite! Venite! Venite!” (Come in!) After the third exhortation, they prostrate themselves at his feet and, amid the singing of Psalm 33, they are raised up and led by the hand to the bishop, who touches them with his hand in a sign of restoration. They lie prostrate and the bishop joins them in this posture; then he rises to offer intercessory prayer, absolution, sprinkling with holy water and censing and commands, “Rise up, you who are asleep, rise from the dead and Christ will give you light.” At this, the penitents stand up, their place in the community having been restored.
In a given year, not all the penitents present would have completed their penance by this point. Those with unfinished years of penance might continue to suffer exclusion from Communion; nonetheless, every year their welcome would be renewed at Holy Thursday.
John Braithwaite, one of the leading theorists of the “restorative justice” movement, distinguishes between “disintegrative (or stigmatizing) shaming” and “reintegrative shaming.” In the first kind, which contemporary American society practices often and harshly, “much effort is directed at labeling deviance, while little attention is paid to de-labeling, to signifying forgiveness and reintegration, to ensuring that the deviance label is applied to the behavior rather than the person, and that this is done under the assumption that the disapproved behavior is transient, performed by an essentially good person.” The welcoming of penitents on Holy Thursday offers a striking image of reintegrative shaming. Their penance is painful enough to satisfy justice, unchosen enough to avoid self-absorption—and it ends in a restoration of community.
A medieval Maundy Thursday offered striking visual imagery of hope and healing, which reminded everyone that public penitents remained a part of the body of Christ.
Humiliation as Mercy
As the Holy Thursday rite demonstrates, medieval public penance often included the humiliation of members of the clergy. In many Ash Wednesday rituals, the priest or bishop would switch back and forth, from the role of shepherd imposing penance to that of a wayward sheep huddling humbly with the others.
Some church hierarchs tried to manage the consequences of the penitential humiliation of the mighty. In parts of Lotharingia, powerful bishops were continually embroiled in violent conflicts with secular rulers. In this area, the Holy Thursday ritual began with the bishop calling penitents to come and hear him, and he did not prostrate himself even once. The Holy Thursday rite became not a dramatic display of humility before God but an assertion of the bishop’s power and authority. Moreover, no matter where the rite was performed, the priest determined the penance. He retained a high degree of control over the process, subject to various efforts to standardize penances.
Our current judicial system resembles this anxious style of power-preservation. Even the physical structure of the courtroom reinforces a hierarchy in which the judge looms above the defendant (and the victim). Here and there, a judge will choose to acknowledge his or her commonality with the defendant. One judge in North Carolina, a veteran who serves in a special Veterans Treatment Court, sentenced a man to a night in jail for a probation violation—but then spent the night alongside him, “in the foxhole” with his fellow veteran.
When monks and saints are presented as criminals and sinners—and vice versa—how does this shape our understanding of criminality and reconciliation?
But many people have experienced contemptuous or condescending lectures from the bench. Leslie Jamison, observing a drug court for her book The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, quotes a judge asking if the defendant is “Humble? Willing to listen now?” However well-meaning this intervention, it assumes the judge’s superiority to the offender. Even when judges choose to display humility from the bench, the fact that this is their choice means it will always draw some attention (however unwanted) to their personality, their virtue. Chosen humility may also be more colored by racial stereotypes and other unacknowledged assumptions about whose crimes are most like our own.
By contrast, self-abasement by members of the clergy on Ash Wednesday, alongside the public penitents, called attention to the humility they had to display because of their role, not their personalities. It reminded them that the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.
Historically, public penance characterized the lives of some of the most honored people in a society, who were monks and nuns. Fasting, corporal punishment, coarse clothing and other marks of public penance were open reminders of these esteemed people’s sinfulness. Mary Mansfield writes, “Solemn penitents were criminals, but they acted the part of saints.”
When monks and saints are presented as criminals and sinners—and vice versa—how does this shape our understanding of criminality and reconciliation? Consider a wild hypothetical. If Mr. Rogers had worn an orange prison jumpsuit instead of a cozy sweater, would generations of American children have learned that even their idols are capable of wrongdoing? Would viewers have realized that Mr. Rogers’s acceptance extended to all the people “in their neighborhood”—even the ones serving time far from home? The sharing of public penance calls our attention to a shared humanity found precisely in our failures.
Public penance by bishops is only one part of a Catholic and clerical self-emptying that must also include humble and complete cooperation with secular justice; support for survivors; and “opening the files” on past abuse. Without these practical steps, prayer and penance will start to look like nothing but public relations.
But the bishops who performed public penance must have sensed that something was lacking in a strictly worldly approach to horrific betrayal by clergy and hierarchy. In doing public penance, the bishops reached for a very old language, which expressed better than our modern tongues the ideas that clergy are here to serve and not to be served, that sin is both the common burden of Christians and an attack on the body of Christ, that humiliation can be received as mercy and that a public reckoning with sin is part of what is owed to victims of abuse.