Public penance: History offers examples when those in power repented

Photo: duncan1890/iStock

These days we are used to our confessions being entirely private matters between only ourselves and our priests. Any penance we perform we usually keep to ourselves. Seldom do we directly tell others about the sins we needed to have cleansed from our souls.

However, in the past it was sometimes the case that, especially when it came to transgressions from prominent individuals who had either committed great wrongs or who had rebuked the Church’s doctrine, that very public confessions and penances would be expected.

Recounted below are a few examples of times when those of great power were asked to repent for their misdeeds.

Pope Gregory VII. Photo: Public Domain

1077 — For years, Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV had been embroiled in a feud with the reformist Pope Gregory VII. The issue at hand was the matter of lay investiture, whereby secular rulers such as the Holy Roman Emperor would invest clergy with the rings and staves of office, essentially performing the work of the Church despite not being churchmen themselves.

Gregory was determined to put a stop to this practice, and had excommunicated Henry and all bishops who the emperor had assigned to offices. While staying at the castle of Canossa in northern Italy, Gregory was surprised when, having walked barefoot in the snow for several days, Henry appeared at the castle gates.

The emperor was looking for repentance for his stubbornness, which Gregory soon gave him. However, despite the suffering of his own penance, Henry apparently did not agree with the words of Christ himself to “go and sin no more,” and continued to struggle with Gregory VII for years afterward, even nominating antipopes in the hopes of gaining an upper hand in the decades-long feud over lay investiture.

St. Thomas Becket faces King Henry II in a dispute. Photo: Peter of Langtoft/Public Domain

1174 — Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury had been at loggerheads with King Henry II for years. This was mostly due to Henry’s efforts to remove benefit of clergy, which prohibited those in Holy Orders from being tried for crimes in secular courts, instead relegating their trials to those run by the Church itself.

Henry, who had pushed Becket into the clergy and who had hoped having friends in high places would pay off, was at his wits end with Becket and is recorded to have uttered the infamous phrase: “Will nobody rid me of this troublesome priest?” as he mulled what to do with his intransigent friend. Four knights of his court, however, took this angry musing to heart, and rode to Canterbury where they killed Becket in the middle of saying evening vespers on Dec. 29, 1170.

Henry was furious. Now, it seemed to the rest of Europe as though he had personally ordered the assassination of the highest churchman in his land. Shortly thereafter, Henry’s wife Elanor of Aquitaine along with his three oldest sons rose up in rebellion against him, while the Scots invaded from the north. To Henry, it must have surely seemed as though Becket was taking divinely sanctioned retribution from beyond the grave. Having exhausted all his worldly resources and in desperate shape, in 1174 Henry at last traveled to Canterbury, where he permitted the local monks (some of whom had beheld Becket’s murder themselves) to whip the king with a birchwood branch. From that point onward, Henry was able put down his wife’s rebellion, and once more bring England into order.

Portrait of Bartolomé de las Casas (circa 1484–1566). Photo: National Geographic and Álvaro Huerga/Public Domain

1552 — For more than five decades the Spanish had subjected the native peoples of the New World to atrocities and sins too numerous to recount in full. Despite the continued pleas of many Dominican and Franciscan clergy to the Spanish Crown to instill discipline in the colonial governors and to adequately protect the natives who were technically under the crown’s protection, relief and reprimand were slow coming and not always effective.

To this end, Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, the official “protector of the Indians” and the most stalwart advocate for their rights, distributed a controversial document among his fellow Dominicans, which has since been titled Confesionario. In this document, he called for any and all Spaniards living in the New World to free their slaves and to make restitution for injuries suffered by them; should the slaveholders not comply, they would be considered excommunicated.

Despite Bartolomé’s best efforts and intentions through this document to ensure justice for the natives, he was ignored by most, who were so given to their earthly greed that they were content with being excluded from the Heavenly Host.

Do we need public penance today?

The sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is first and foremost the means by which we are absolved of our sins and repair our relationship with the Lord. However, it is also a means by which we might publicly acknowledge our own sins and to become examples to others of the need to seek forgiveness.

When the penitent presents themselves before both our fellow man as well as God, their willingness to be exposed is a testament to their penance in a way that silence never could be. Public penance is a practice which should not be left in the past, but in an age of social media and interconnectivity, should be encouraged for our leaders both civic and spiritual. Should one wish to lead, they should stand in the light, and live exposed to those they are charged to shepherd and protect.

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