Penance is repentance of sins as well as the proper name of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation/Confession. The word penance derives from Old French and Latin poenitentia, both of which derive from the same root meaning repentance, the desire to be forgiven; (in English see (contrition)). Penance and repentance, similar in their derivation and original sense, have come to symbolize conflicting views of the essence of repentance, arising from the controversy as to the respective merits of "faith" and "good works." Word derivations occur in many languages.
"Penance" also refers to acts that a believer imposes on him- or herself outside of the sacramental context. Penitential activity is particularly common during the season of Lent and Holy Week (mainly the Passion week, inspired by Christ's suffering; hence in some cultural traditions still including flagellantism or even voluntary crucifixion) and, to a lesser extent, Advent, when penance is often combined with acts of self-discipline, such as fasting, voluntary celibacy, or other privations. In the Roman Catholic tradition especially, such acts of self-injury are sometimes called mortification of the flesh because of the belief that an unrestrained corporeal body endangers salvation, unless controlled by the spirit, serving to detach the penitent of his worldly passions, as to draw him into closer union with God.
Contritio is in fact repentance as Protestant theologians understand it, i.e. love of God causing sorrow for sins committed, and long before the Reformation the schoolmen debated the question whether complete "contrition" was or was not in itself sufficient to obtain the Divine pardon. The Council of Trent decided, however, that no reconciliation could follow such contrition without the other parts of the sacrament, which form part of it (sine sacramenti voto, quod in ilia indudatur). Contrition is also distinguished from "attrition" (attritio), i.e. amoral repentance due to fear of punishment. It was questioned whether a state of mind thus produced would suffice for obtaining the benefits of the sacrament; this point was also set at rest by the Council of Trent, which decided that attrition, though not in itself capable of obtaining the justification of the sinner, is also inspired by God and thus disposes the soul to benefit by the grace of the sacrament.
In this Sacrament, the penitent (repentant sinner, known as confessant) accuses himself of his sins to an ordained priest (known as confessor). The priest may then offer advice and imposes a particular penance to be performed. The penitent then prays an Act of Contrition, the priest administers absolution, thus formally forgiving the penitent of his sins, and finally sends him out with words of dismissal. Often, penitential acts consist simply of prayers, fasting, charitable work or giving, or a combination thereof. Such penance is frequently accompanied by a requirement for the penitent to be reconciled with anyone against whom he or she has sinned. The most common penances involve the recitation of standard prayers, such as the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary, meditation on particular scriptural passages, or praying the rosary with special penitential intentions. The priest is bound by the seal of confession not to reveal or discuss a penitents sins with others. Violation of the seal of confession incurs the most severe ecclesiastical penalty of excommunication for the violating priest.
Similar to the Eastern Catholic Churches, in the Eastern Orthodox Church there are no confessionals. Traditionally the penitent stands or kneels before either the Icon of Christ the Teacher (to the viewers' right of the Royal Door) or in front of an Icon of Christ, "Not Made by Hands". This is because in Orthodox sacramental theology, confession is not made to the priest, but to Christ; the priest being there as a witness, friend and advisor. On an analogion in front of the penitent has been placed a Gospel Book and a Crucifix. The penitent venerates the Gospel Book and the cross and kneels. This is to show humility before the whole church and before Christ. Once they are ready to start, the priest says, “Blessed is our God, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages,” reads the Trisagion Prayers and the Psalm 50 (in the Septuagint; in the KJV this is Psalm 51).
The priest then advises the penitent that Christ is invisibly present and that the penitent should not be embarrassed or be afraid, but should open up their heart and reveal their sins so that Christ may forgive them. The penitent then accuses himself of sins. The priest quietly and patiently listens, gently asking questions to encourage the penitent not to withhold any sins out fear or shame. After the confessant reveals all their sins, the priest offers advice and counsel. The priest may modify the prayer rule of the penitent, or even prescribe another rule, if needed to combat the sins the penitent struggles most with. Penances, known as epitemia, are given with a therapeutic intent, so they are opposite to the sin committed.
Epitemia are neither a punishment nor merely a pious action, but are specifically aimed at healing the spiritual ailment that has been confessed. For example, if the penitent broke the Eighth Commandment by stealing something, the priest could prescribe they return what they stole (if possible) and give alms to the poor on a more regular basis. Opposites are treated with opposites. If the penitent suffers from gluttony, the confessant’s fasting rule is reviewed and perhaps increased. The intention of Confession is never to punish, but to heal and purify. Confession is also seen as a “second baptism”, and is sometimes referred to as the "baptism of tears".
In Orthodoxy, Confession is seen as a means to procure better spiritual health and purity. Confession does not involve merely stating the sinful things the person does; the good things a person does or is considering doing are also discussed. The approach is holistic, examining the full life of the confessant. The good works do not earn salvation, but are part of a psychotherapeutic treatment to preserve salvation and purity. Sin is treated as a spiritual illness, or wound, only cured through Jesus Christ. The Orthodox belief is that in Confession, the sinful wounds of the soul are to be exposed and treated in the "open air" (in this case, the Spirit of God. Note the fact that the Greek word for Spirit (πνευμα), can be translated as "air in motion" or wind).
Once the penitent has accepted the therapeutic advice and counsel freely given to him or her, by the priest then, placing his epitrachelion over the head of the confessant. The priest says the prayer of forgiveness over the penitent. In the prayer of forgiveness, the priests asks of God to forgive the sins committed. He then concludes by placing his hand on the head of the penitent and says, “The Grace of the All-Holy Spirit, through my insignificance, has loosened and granted to you forgiveness.”
In summary, the Priest reminds the penitent what he or she has received is a second baptism, through the Mystery of Confession, and that they should be careful not to defile this restored purity but to do good and to hear the voice of the psalmist: “Turn from evil and do good” (). But most of all, the priest urges the penitent to guard him- or herself from sin and to commune as often as permitted. The priest dismisses the repentant one in peace.
Penance in movies: