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Penances and Indulgences


In the early Church, penances were much more severe than those ordinarily imposed today. They usually consisted of severe fasts, wearing of sackcloth and ashes, exclusion from church during the Holy Sacrifice, etc. Some penances were called public, because they were to be performed in public and others were called canonical, because they were imposed, not at the mere will of the confessor, but according to the Canons or laws of the Church. Thus, for breaking the Sabbath one had to fast on bread and water for three days; and ten days for talking in church. A rebellious child was punished with a penance of from three to ten years. Adulterers also did a ten-year penance. Murderers did penance for life. During all this time these penitents were excluded from church or made to stand at the door in penitential clothing. Sometimes, on account of their good dispositions their punishment was shortened or remitted altogether. In our time, therefore, a plenary indulgence is a full remission of these temporal punishments and a partial indulgence of, say, seven years, or a hundred days, means that as much of the temporal punishment is remitted as would have been forgiven by seven years or a hundred days of the severe canonical penances of the early ages.

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