What is Penance?
In the Roman Catholic Church, penance (poenitentia) designates (1) a virtue; (2) a sacrament of the New Law; (3) a canonical punishment inflicted according to the earlier discipline of the Church; (4) a work of satisfaction enjoined upon the recipient of the sacrament.
These have as their common centre the truth that he who sins must repent and as far as possible make reparation to Divine justice. Repentance, i.e., heartfelt sorrow with the firm purpose of sinning no more, is thus the prime condition on which depends the value of whatever the sinner may do or suffer by way of expiation.
Penance is a supernatural moral virtue whereby the sinner is disposed to hatred of his sin as an offence against God and to a firm purpose of amendment and satisfaction. The principal act in the exercise of this virtue is the detestation of sin, not of sin in general nor of that which others commit, but of one's own sin. The motive of this detestation is that sin offends God: to regret evil deeds on account of the mental or physical suffering the social loss, or the action of human justice which they entail, is natural; but such sorrow does not suffice for penance.
On the other hand, the resolve to amend, while certainly necessary, is not sufficient of itself, i.e., without hatred for sin already committed; such a resolve, in fact, would be meaningless; it would profess obedience to God's law in the future while disregarding the claims of God's justice in the matter of past transgression. "Be converted, and do penance for all your iniquities. . . . Cast away from you all your transgressions . . . and make to yourselves a new heart, and a new spirit" (Ezech., xviii, 30-31; cf. Joel, ii, 12; Jer., viii, 6).
In the same spirit St. John the Baptist exhorts his hearers: "Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of penance" (Matt., iii, 8). Such too is the teaching of Christ as expressed in the parables of the Prodigal Son and of the Publican; while the Magdalen who "washed out her sins with her tears" of sorrow, has been for all ages the type of the repentant sinner. Theologians, following the doctrine of St. Thomas (Summa, III, Q. lxxxv, a. 1), regard penance as truly a virtue, though they have disputed much regarding its place among the virtues.
Some have classed it with the virtue of charity, others with the virtue of religion, others again as a part of justice. Cajetan seems to have considered it as belonging to all three; but most theologians agree with St. Thomas (ibid., a. 2) that penance is a distinct virtue (virtus specialis). The detestation of sin is a praiseworthy act, and in penance this detestation proceeds from a special motive, i. e., because sin offends God (cf. De Lugo, "De paenitentiae virtute"; Palmieri, "De paenitentia", Rome, 1879; theses I-VII.).
The Necessity of Penance
The Council of Trent expressly declares (Sess. XIV, c.i) that penance was at all times necessary for the remission of grievous sin. Theologians have questioned whether this necessity obtains in virtue of the positive command of God or independently of such positive precept.
The weight of authority is in favour of the latter opinion; moreover, theologians state that in the present order of Divine Providence God Himself cannot forgive sins, if there be no real repentance (St. Thomas, III:86:2; Cajetan, ibid.; Palmieri, op. cit., thesis VII). In the Old Law (Ezech., xviii, 24) life is denied to the man who does iniquity; even "his justices which he has done, shall not be remembered"; and Christ restates the doctrine of the Old Testament, saying (Luke, xiii, 5): "except you do penance, you shall all likewise perish."
In the New Law, therefore, repentance is as necessary as it was in the Old, repentance that includes reformation of life, grief for sin, and willingness to perform satisfaction. In the Christian Dispensation this act of repentance has been subjected by Christ to the judgment and jurisdiction of His Church, whensoever there is question of sin committed after the reception of baptism (Council of Trent, sess. XIV, c. i), and the Church acting in the name of Christ not only declares that sins are forgiven, but actually and judicially forgives them, if the sinner already repentant subjects his sins to the "power of the keys", and is willing to make fitting satisfaction for the wrong he has done.
The Sacrament of Penance
Penance is a sacrament of the New Law instituted by Christ in which forgiveness of sins committed after baptism is granted through the priest's absolution to those who with true sorrow confess their sins and promise to satisfy for the same. It is called a "sacrament" not simply a function or ceremony, because it is an outward sign instituted by Christ to impart grace to the soul.
As an outward sign it comprises the actions of the penitent in presenting himself to the priest and accusing himself of his sins, and the actions of the priest in pronouncing absolution and imposing satisfaction. This whole procedure is usually called, from one of its parts, "confession", and it is said to take place in the "tribunal of penance", because it is a judicial process in which the penitent is at once the accuser, the person accused, and the witness, while the priest pronounces judgment and sentence.
The grace conferred is deliverance from the guilt of sin and, in the case of mortal sin, from its eternal punishment; hence also reconciliation with God, justification. Finally, the confession is made not in the secrecy of the penitent's heart nor to a layman as friend and advocate, nor to a representative of human authority, but to a duly ordained priest with requisite jurisdiction and with the "power of the keys", i.e., the power to forgive sins which Christ granted to His Church.
By way of further explanation it is needful to correct certain erroneous views regarding this sacrament which not only misrepresent the actual practice of the Church but also lead to a false interpretation of theological statement and historical evidence. From what has been said it should be clear:
(1) that penance is not a mere human invention devised by the Church to secure power over consciences or to relieve the emotional strain of troubled souls; it is the ordinary means appointed by Christ for the remission of sin. Man indeed is free to obey or disobey, but once he has sinned, he must seek pardon not on conditions of his own choosing but on those which God has determined, and these for the Christian are embodied in the Sacrament of Penance.
(2) No Catholic believes that a priest simply as an individual man, however pious or learned, has power to forgive sins. This power belongs to God alone; but He can and does exercise it through the ministration of men. Since He has seen fit to exercise it by means of this sacrament, it cannot be said that the Church or the priest interferes between the soul and God; on the contrary, penance is the removal of the one obstacle that keeps the soul away from God.
(3) It is not true that for the Catholic the mere "telling of one's sins" suffices to obtain their forgiveness. Without sincere sorrow and purpose of amendment, confession avails nothing, the pronouncement of absolution is of no effect, and the guilt of the sinner is greater than before.
(4) While this sacrament as a dispensation of Divine mercy facilitates the pardoning of sin, it by no means renders sin less hateful or its consequences less dreadful to the Christian mind; much less does it imply permission to commit sin in the future. In paying ordinary debts, as e.g., by monthly settlements, the intention of contracting new debts with the same creditor is perfectly legitimate; a similar intention on the part of him who confesses his sins would not only be wrong in itself but would nullify the sacrament and prevent the forgiveness of sins then and there confessed.
(5) Strangely enough, the opposite charge is often heard, viz., that the confession of sin is intolerable and hard and therefore alien to the spirit of Christianity and the loving kindness of its Founder. But this view, in the first place, overlooks the fact that Christ, though merciful, is also just and exacting. Furthermore, however painful or humiliating confession may be, it is but a light penalty for the violation of God's law. Finally, those who are in earnest about their salvation count no hardship too great whereby they can win back God's friendship.
Both these accusations, of too great leniency and too great severity, proceed as a rule from those who have no experience with the sacrament and only the vaguest ideas of what the Church teaches or of the power to forgive sins which the Church received from Christ.
Teaching of the Church.—The Council of Trent (1551) declares:
As a means of regaining grace and justice, penance was at all times necessary for those who had defiled their souls with any mortal sin. . . . Before the coming of Christ, penance was not a sacrament, nor is it since His coming a sacrament for those who are not baptized. But the Lord then principally instituted the Sacrament of Penance, when, being raised from the dead, he breathed upon His disciples saying: 'Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained' (John, xx, 22-23). By which action so signal and words so clear the consent of all the Fathers has ever understood that the power of forgiving and retaining sins was communicated to the Apostles and to their lawful successors, for the reconciling of the faithful who have fallen after Baptism. (Sess. XIV, c. i)
Farther on the council expressly states that Christ left priests, His own vicars, as judges (praesides et judices), unto whom all the mortal crimes into which the faithful may have fallen should be revealed in order that, in accordance with the power of the keys, they may pronounce the sentence of forgiveness or retention of sins" (Sess. XIV, c. v)
Penance and the Power to Forgive Sins
It is noteworthy that the fundamental objection so often urged against the Sacrament of Penance was first thought of by the Scribes when Christ said to the sick man of the palsy: "Thy sins are forgiven thee." "And there were some of the scribes sitting there, and thinking in their hearts: Why doth this man speak thus? he blasphemeth. Who can forgive sins but God only?" But Jesus seeing their thoughts, said to them: "Which is easier to say to the sick of the palsy: Thy sins are forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, take up thy bed and walk? But that you may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (he saith to the sick of the palsy,) I say to thee: Arise, take up thy bed, and go into thy house" (Mark, ii, 5-11; Matt., ix, 2-7).
Christ wrought a miracle to show that He had power to forgive sins and that this power could be exerted not only in heaven but also on earth. This power, moreover, He transmitted to Peter and the other Apostles. To Peter He says: "And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven" (Matt., xvi, 19). Later He says to all the Apostles: "Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven" (Matt., xviii, 18). As to the meaning of these texts, it should be noted:
- that the "binding" and "loosing" refers not to physical but to spiritual or moral bonds among which sin is certainly included; the more so because
- the power here granted is unlimited — "whatsoever you shall bind, . . . whatsoever you shall loose";
- the power is judicial, i.e., the Apostles are authorized to bind and to loose;
- whether they bind or loose, their action is ratified in heaven. In healing the palsied man Christ declared that "the Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins"; here He promises that what these men, the Apostles, bind or loose on earth, God in heaven will likewise bind or loose. (Cf. also POWER OF THE KEYS.)
But as the Council of Trent declares, Christ principally instituted the Sacrament of Penance after His Resurrection, a miracle greater than that of healing the sick. "As the Father hath sent me, I also send you. When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained' (John, xx, 21-23). While the sense of these words is quite obvious, the following points are to be considered:
- Christ here reiterates in the plainest terms — "sins", "forgive", "retain" — what He had previously stated in figurative language, "bind" and "loose", so that this text specifies and distinctly applies to sin the power of loosing and binding.
- He prefaces this grant of power by declaring that the mission of the Apostles is similar to that which He had received from the Father and which He had fulfilled: "As the Father hath sent me". Now it is beyond doubt that He came into the world to destroy sin and that on various occasions He explicitly forgave sin (Matt., ix, 2-8; Luke, v, 20; vii, 47; Apoc., i, 5), hence the forgiving of sin is to be included in the mission of the Apostles.
- Christ not only declared that sins were forgiven, but really and actually forgave them; hence, the Apostles are empowered not merely to announce to the sinner that his sins are forgiven but to grant him forgiveness-"whose sins you shall forgive". If their power were limited to the declaration "God pardons you", they would need a special revelation in each case to make the declaration valid.
- The power is twofold — to forgive or to retain, i.e., the Apostles are not told to grant or withhold forgiveness nondiscriminately; they must act judicially, forgiving or retaining according as the sinner deserves.
- The exercise of this power in either form (forgiving or retaining) is not restricted: no distinction is made or even suggested between one kind of sin and another, or between one class of sinners and all the rest: Christ simply says "whose sins".
- The sentence pronounced by the Apostles (remission or retention) is also God's sentence — "they are forgiven . . . they are retained".
It is therefore clear from the words of Christ that the Apostles had power to forgive sins. But this was not a personal prerogative that was to erase at their death; it was granted to them in their official capacity and hence as a permanent institution in the Church — no less permanent than the mission to teach and baptize all nations.
Christ foresaw that even those who received faith and baptism, whether during the lifetime of the Apostles or later, would fall into sin and therefore would need forgiveness in order to be saved. He must, then, have intended that the power to forgive should be transmitted from the Apostles to their successors and be used as long as there would be sinners in the Church, and that means to the end of time.
It is true that in baptism also sins are forgiven, but this does not warrant the view that the power to forgive is simply the power to baptize. In the first place, as appears from the texts cited above, the power to forgive is also the power to retain; its exercise involves a judicial action. But no such action is implied in the commission to baptize (Matt., xxviii, 18-20); in fact, as the Council of Trent affirms, the Church does not pass judgment on those who are not yet members of the Church, and membership is obtained through baptism.
Furthermore, baptism, because it is a new birth, cannot be repeated, whereas the power to forgive sins (penance) is to be used as often as the sinner may need it. Hence the condemnation, by the same Council, of any one "who, confounding the sacraments, should say that baptism itself is the Sacrament of Penance, as though these two sacraments were not distinct and as though penance were not rightly called the second plank after shipwreck" (Sess. XIV, can. 2 de sac. poen.).
These pronouncements were directed against the Protestant teaching which held that penance was merely a sort of repeated baptism; and as baptism effected no real forgiveness of sin but only an external covering over of sin through faith alone, the same, it was alleged, must be the case with penance. This, then, as a sacrament is superfluous; absolution is only a declaration that sin is forgiven through faith, and satisfaction is needless because Christ has satisfied once for all men.
This was the first sweeping and radical denial of the Sacrament of Penance. Some of the earlier sects had claimed that only priests in the state of grace could validly absolve, but they had not denied the existence of the power to forgive. During all the preceding centuries, Catholic belief in this power had been so clear and strong that in order to set it aside Protestantism was obliged to strike at the very constitution of the Church and reject the whole content of Tradition.
The History of Penance
Belief and Practice of the Early Church
Among the modernistic propositions condemned by Pius X in the Decree "Lamentabili sane" (3 July, 1907) are the following:
- "In the primitive Church there was no concept of the reconciliation of the Christian sinner by the authority of the Church, but the Church by very slow degrees only grew accustomed to this concept. Moreover, even after penance came to be recognized as an institution of the Church, it was not called by the name of sacrament, because it was regarded as an odious sacrament." (46)
- "The Lord's words: 'Receive ye the Holy Ghost, whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain they are retained' (John xx, 22-23), in no way refer to the Sacrament of Penance, whatever the Fathers of Trent may have been pleased to assert." (47)
According to the Council of Trent, the consensus of all the Fathers always understood that by the words of Christ just cited, the power of forgiving and retaining sins was communicated to the Apostles and their lawful successors (Sess. XIV, c. i). It is therefore Catholic doctrine that the Church from the earliest times believed in the power to forgive sins as granted by Christ to the Apostles. Such a belief in fact was clearly inculcated by the words with which Christ granted the power, and it would have been inexplicable to the early Christians if any one who professed faith in Christ had questioned the existence of that power in the Church.
But if, contrariwise, we suppose that no such belief existed from the beginning, we encounter a still greater difficulty: the first mention of that power would have been regarded as an innovation both needless and intolerable; it would have shown little practical wisdom on the part of those who were endeavouring to draw men to Christ; and it would have raised a protest or led to a schism which would certainly have gone on record as plainly at least as did early divisions on matters of less importance.
But no such record is found; even those who sought to limit the power itself presupposed its existence, and their very attempt at limitation put them in opposition to the prevalent Catholic belief. Turning now to evidence of a positive sort, we have to note that the statements of any Father or orthodox ecclesiastical writer regarding penance present not merely his own personal view, but the commonly accepted belief; and furthermore that the belief which they record was no novelty at the time, but was the traditional doctrine handed down by the regular teaching of the Church and embodied in her practice. In other words, each witness speaks for a past that reaches back to the beginning, even when he does not expressly appeal to tradition.
- St. Augustine (d. 430) warns the faithful: "Let us not listen to those who deny that the Church of God has power to forgive all sins" (De agon. Christ., iii).
- St. Ambrose (d. 397) rebukes the Novatianists who "professed to show reverence for the Lord by reserving to Him alone the power of forgiving sins. Greater wrong could not be done than what they do in seeking to rescind His commands and fling back the office He bestowed. . . . The Church obeys Him in both respects, by binding sin and by loosing it; for the Lord willed that for both the power should be equal" (De poenit., I, ii,6).
- Again he teaches that this power was to be a function of the priesthood. "It seemed impossible that sins should be forgiven through penance; Christ granted this (power) to the Apostles and from the Apostles it has been transmitted to the office of priests" (op. cit., II, ii, 12).
- The power to forgive extends to all sins: "God makes no distinction; He promised mercy to all and to His priests He granted the authority to pardon without any exception" (op. cit., I, iii, 10).
- Against the same heretics St. Pacian, Bishop of Barcelona (d. 390), wrote to Sympronianus, one of their leaders: "This (forgiving sins), you say, only God can do. Quite true: but what He does through His priests is the doing of His own power" (Ep. I ad Sympron, 6 in P.L., XIII, 1057).
- In the East during the same period we have the testimony of St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 447): "Men filled with the spirit of God (i.e. priests) forgive sins in two ways, either by admitting to baptism those who are worthy or by pardoning the penitent children of the Church" (In Joan., 1, 12 in P.G., LXXIV, 722).
- St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) after declaring that neither angels nor archangels have received such power, and after showing that earthly rulers can bind only the bodies of men, declares that the priest's power of forgiving sins "penetrates to the soul and reaches up to heaven". Wherefore, he concludes, "it were manifest folly to condemn so great a power without which we can neither obtain heaven nor come to the fulfillment of the promises. . . . Not only when they (the priests) regenerate us (baptism), but also after our new birth, they can forgive us our sins" (De sacred., III, 5 sq.).
- St. Athanasius (d. 373): "As the man whom the priest baptizes is enlightened by the grace of the Holy Ghost, so does he who in penance confesses his sins, receive through the priest forgiveness in virtue of the grace of Christ" (Frag. contra Novat. in P. G., XXVI, 1315).
These extracts show that the Fathers recognized in penance a power and a utility quite distinct from that of baptism. Repeatedly they compare in figurative language the two means of obtaining pardon; or regarding baptism as spiritual birth, they describe penance as the remedy for the ills of the soul contracted after that birth. But a more important fact is that both in the West and in the East, the Fathers constantly appeal to the words of Christ and given them the same interpretation that was given eleven centuries later by the Council of Trent.
In this respect they simply echoed the teachings of the earlier Fathers who had defended Catholic doctrine against the heretics of the third and second centuries. Thus St. Cyprian in his "De lapsis" (A.D. 251) rebukes those who had fallen away in time of persecution, but he also exhorts them to penance: "Let each confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession can be received, while satisfaction and the forgiveness granted by the priests is acceptable to God" (c. xxix).
The heretic Novatian, on the contrary, asserted that "it is unlawful to admit apostates to the communion of the Church; their forgiveness must be left with God who alone can grant it" (Socrates, "Hist. eccl.", V, xxviii). Novatian and his party did not at first deny the power of the Church to absolve from sin; they affirmed that apostasy placed the sinner beyond the reach of that power — an error which was condemned by a synod at Rome in 251.
The distinction between sins that could be forgiven and others that could not, originated in the latter half of the second century as the doctrine of the Montanists (q.v.), and especially of Tertullian. While still a Catholic, Tertullian wrote (A.D. 200-6) his "De poenitentia" in which he distinguishes two kinds of penance, one as a preparation for baptism, the other to obtain forgiveness of certain grievous sins committed after baptism, i.e., apostasy, murder, and adultery.
For these, however, he allows only one forgiveness: "Foreseeing these poisons of the Evil One, God, although the gate of forgiveness has been shut and fastened up with the bar of baptism, has permitted it still to stand somewhat open. In the vestibule He has stationed a second repentance for opening to such as knock; but now once for all, because now for the second time; but never more, because the last time it had been in vain. . . . However, if any do incur the debt of a second repentance, his spirit is not to be forthwith cut down and undermined by despair. Let it be irksome to sin again, but let it not be irksome to repent again; let it be irksome to imperil oneself again, but let no one be ashamed to be set free again. Repeated sickness must have repeated medicine" (De poen., VII).
Tertullian does not deny that the Church can forgive sins; he warns sinners against relapse, yet exhorts them to repent in case they should fall. His attitude at the time was not surprising, since in the early days the sins above mentioned were severely dealt with; this was done for disciplinary reasons, not because the Church lacked power to forgive.
In the minds, however, of some people the idea was developing that not only the exercise of the power but the power itself was limited. Against this false notion Pope Callistus (218-22) published his "peremptory edict" in which he declares: "I forgive the sins both of adultery and of fornication to those who have done penance." Thereupon Tertullian, now become a Montanist, wrote his "De pudicitia" (A. D. 217-22).
In this work he rejects without scruple what he had taught as a Catholic: "I blush not at an error which I have cast off because I am delighted at being rid of it . . . one is not ashamed of his own improvement." The "error" which he imputes to Callistus and the Catholics was that the Church could forgive all sins: this, therefore, was the orthodox doctrine which Tertullian the heretic denied. In place of it he sets up the distinction between lighter sins which the bishop could forgive and more grievous sins which God alone could forgive.
Though in an earlier treatise, "Scorpiace", he had said (c. x) that "the Lord left here to Peter and through him to the Church the keys of heaven" he now denies that the power granted to Peter had been transmitted to the Church, i.e., to the numerus episcoporum or body of bishops. Yet he claims this power for the "spirituals" (pneumatici), although these, for prudential reasons, do not make use of it.
To the arguments of the "Psychici", as he termed the Catholics, he replies: "But the Church, you say, has the power to forgive sin. This I, even more than you, acknowledge and adjudge. I who in the new prophets have the Paraclete saying: 'The Church can forgive sin, but I will not do that (forgive) lest they (who are forgiven) fall into other sins" (De pud., XXI, vii). Thus Tertullian, by the accusation which he makes against the pope and by the restriction which he places upon the exercise of the power of forgiving sin, bears witness to the existence of that power in the Church which he had abandoned.
Not content with assailing Callistus and his doctrine, Tertullian refers to the "Shepherd" (Pastor), a work written A.D. 140-54, and takes its author Hermas (q.v.) to task for favouring the pardon of adulterers. In the days of Hermas there was evidently a school of rigorists who insisted that there was no pardon for sin committed after baptism (Simil. VIII, vi). Against this school the author of the "Pastor" takes a resolute stand. He teaches that by penance the sinner may hope for reconciliation with God and with the Church. "Go and tell all to repent and they shall live unto God. Because the Lord having had compassion, has sent me to give repentance to all men, although some are not worthy of it on account of their works" (Simil. VIII, ii).
Hermas, however, seems to give but one opportunity for such reconciliation, for in Mandate IV, i, he seems to state categorically that "there is but one repentance for the servants of God", and further on in c. iii he says theLord has had mercy on the work of his hands and hath set repentance for them; "and he has entrusted to me the power of this repentance. And therefore I say to you, if any one has sinned . . he has opportunity to repent once". Repentance is therefore possible at least once in virtue of a power vested in the priest of God.
That Hermas here intends to say that the sinner could be absolved only once in his whole life is by no means a necessary conclusion. His words may well be understood as referring to public penance (see below) and as thus understood they imply no limitation on the sacramental power itself. The same interpretation applies to the statement of Clement of Alexandria (d. circa A.D. 215): "For God being very merciful has vouchsafed in the case of those who, though in faith, have fallen into transgression, a second repentance, so that should anyone be tempted after his calling, he may still receive a penance not to be repented of" (Stromata, II, xiii).
The existence of a regular system of penance is also hinted at in the work of Clement, "Who is the rich man that shall be saved?", where he tells the story of the Apostle John and his journey after the young bandit. John pledged his word that the youthful robber would find forgiveness from the Saviour; but even then a long serious penance was necessary before he could be restored to the Church. And when Clement concludes that "he who welcomes the angel of penance . . . will not be ashamed when he sees the Saviour", most commentators think he alludes to the bishop or priest who presided over the ceremony of public penance.
Even earlier, Dionysius of Corinth (d. circa A.D. 17O), setting himself against certain growing Marcionistic traditions, taught not only that Christ has left to His Church the power of pardon, but that no sin is so great as to be excluded from the exercise of that power. For this we have the authority of Eusebius, who says (Hist. eccl., IV, xxiii): "And writing to the Church which is in Amastris, together with those in Pontus, he commands them to receive those who come back after any fall, whether it be delinquency or heresy".
The "Didache" (q.v.) written at the close of the first century or early in the second, in IV, xiv, and again in XIV, i, commands an individual confession in the congregation: "In the congregation thou shalt confess thy transgressions"; or again: "On the Lord's Day come together and break bread . . . having confessed your transgressions that your sacrifice may be pure."
Clement I (d. 99) in his epistle to the Corinthians not only exhorts to repentance, but begs the seditious to "submit themselves to the presbyters and receive correction so as to repent" (c. lvii), and Ignatius of Antioch at the close of the first century speaks of the mercy of God to sinners, provided they return" with one consent to the unity of Christ and the communion of the bishop". The clause "communion of the bishop" evidently means the bishop with his council of presbyters as assessors. He also says (Ad Philadel,) "that the bishop presides over penance".
The transmission of this power is plainly expressed in the prayer used at the consecration of a bishop as recorded in the Canons of Hippolytus (q.v.): "Grant him, 0 Lord, the episcopate and the spirit of clemency and the power to forgive sins" (c. xvii). Still more explicit is the formula cited in the "Apostolic Constitutions" (q.v.): "Grant him, 0 Lord almighty, through Thy Christ, the participation of Thy Holy Spirit, in order that he may have the power to remit sins according to Thy precept and Thy command, and to loosen every bond, whatsoever it be, according to the power which Thou hast granted to the Apostles." (Const. Apost., VIII, 5 in P. (i., 1. 1073).
The Exercise of the Power of Penance
The granting by Christ of the power to forgive sins is the first essential of the Sacrament of Penance; in the actual exercise of this power are included the other essentials. The sacrament as such and on its own account has a matter and a form and it produces certain effects; the power of the keys is exercised by a minister (confessor) who must possess the proper qualifications, and the effects are wrought in the soul of the recipient, i.e., the penitent who with the necessary dispositions must perform certain actions (confession, satisfaction).
The Matter and Form of Penance
According to St. Thomas (Summa, III, lxxiv, a. 2) "the acts of the penitent are the proximate matter of this sacrament". This is also the teaching of Eugenius IV in the "Decretum pro Armenis" (Council of Florence, 1439) which calls the act's "quasi materia" of penance and enumerates them as contrition, confession, and satisfaction (Denzinger-Bannwart, "Enchir.", 699). The Thomists in general and other eminent theologians, e.g., Bellarmine, Toletus, Suarez, and De Lugo, hold the same opinion. According to Scotus (In IV Sent., d. 16, q. 1, n. 7) "the Sacrament of Penance is the absolution imparted with certain words" while the acts of the penitent are required for the worthy reception of the sacrament.
The absolution as an external ceremony is the matter, and, as possessing significant force, the form. Among the advocates of this theory are St. Bonaventure, Capreolus, Andreas Vega, and Maldonatus. The Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, c. 3) declares: "the acts of the penitent, namely contrition, confession, and satisfaction, are the quasi materia of this sacrament". The Roman Catechism used in 1913 (II, v, 13) says: "These actions are called by the Council quasi materia not because they have not the nature of true matter, but because they are not the sort of matter which is employed externally as water in baptism and chrism in confirmation".
Regarding the form of the sacrament, both the Council of Florence and the Council of Trent teach that it consists in the words of absolution. "The form of the Sacrament of penance, wherein its force principally consists, is placed in those words of the minister: "I absolve thee, etc."; to these words indeed, in accordance with the usage of Holy Church, certain prayers are laudably added, but they do not pertain to the essence of the form nor are they necessary for the administration of the sacrament" (Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, c. 3).Source
The Catholic Encyclopedia (1914 ed. in the public domain), "Penance" with minor edits.