Thursday, April 06, 2023

The Reconciliation of the Public Penitents on Holy Thursday at Sarum

Just over a month ago, I published an article about the use of the Penitential Psalms in Lent, in which I mentioned that they were generally said at the beginning of the season, at the ceremony by which the public penitents were symbolically expelled from the church, and again on Holy Thursday, when they were brought back in. These ceremonies were particularly elaborate in the Use of Sarum, but similar rites were observed in a great many other places. Here then is the promised description of the rite of the reconciliation of the public penitents, taken from WG Henderson’s 1882 edition of the Sarum Processional.

An illustration from a Sarum Processional of the Ash Wednesday procession; the captions reads “The station on the day of ashes, when the bishop expels the penitents.” The ash-colored banner is seen up top. Reproduced from Henderson’s edition.
After None of Holy Thursday, the bishop or his substitute goes to the west door of the church, wearing a red silk cope, and accompanied by two deacons, led by the same “ash-colored” banner used in the procession of Ash Wednesday. The penitents await them in the narthex. If the bishop himself performs the ritual, the archdeacon, also in silk cope, stands near the penitents and delivers a rather lengthy address to the bishop, of which I give here only the beginning.

“The time is present, venerable bishop, prayed for by the afflicted, meet for the penitent, desired by those in tribulation. Your sons are present, father, whom their true Mother the Church bore unto God with joy; but again, She mourns with new grief every day that at the devil’s suasion, they became corrupt, and wretched, and exiled. For these, all who have happily remained in Her bosom do humbly pray, and who have remained strong in their faith under the protection of divine clemency. Spare them today, father, and with all the force of thy goodness, let that fountain of David be open to us (Zach. 13, 1), and flow forth unto the cleansing of the woman with the issue of blood, reproving none, rejecting none, excluding none. For although no season lacketh the riches of divine mercy, still, now is the forgiveness of sins more abundant through indulgence, and more copious the acceptance of those reborn through grace. …”

The bishop then intones three times the first word of an antiphon, “Venite, Venite, Venite! – Come! Come! Come!”, beckoning to the penitents with his hand as he does, as if to invite them into the church. One of the two deacons, standing near the penitents, says “Let us kneel”; the other, standing near the bishop, says “Rise.” This is all done a second time, then the bishop repeats “Venite” a third time, at which the choir finishes the antiphon “(Come) ye sons, hear ye me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” The whole of Psalm 33 from which it is taken is sung, with the antiphon repeated after each verse. In the meanwhile, priests conduct the penitents by hand to the archdeacon, who brings them to the bishop, who then brings them into the church.

An illustration from a 1595 edition of the Roman Pontifical, showing the reception of the public penitents on Holy Thursday. (Courtesy of the Pitts Theological Library, Candler School of Theology at Emory University.)
When all have entered the church, and the clergy have processed into the choir, they kneel, and say the seven Penitential Psalms; these are accompanied as usual by the antiphon Ne reminiscaris, Kyrie eleison, the Lord’s prayer, and a series of versicles, followed by three prayers. Here is the third one.

“O Lord, Holy Father, almighty and eternal God, who deigned to heal our wounds, we Thy lowly servants and priests humbly beseech and ask of Thee, that Thou may deign to incline the ears of Thy compassion to our prayers, and be moved by confession at (this) penance; and forgive all crimes, and remit every sin; and grant these Thy servants, o Lord, forgiveness in accord with their humble prayers, rejoicing in place of grief, life in place of death; so that those who have come to so great a hope of the height of heaven, trusting in Thy mercy, may merit to come to the goods of Thy peaceable promise and the gifts of heaven.”

He then turns to the penitents, and makes the sign of the Cross over them, saying: “We absolve you by the authority of the blessed Peter, prince of the Apostles, to whom was given by the Lord power to bind and loose; and in so far as any accusation falleth to you, and forgiveness thereof to us, may God almighty be unto you life and salvation, and the merciful forgiver of all your sins.” He gives the usual blessing “May almighty God bless you…”, and the Mass of the Lord’s Supper begins.

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