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Monsignor Krzysztof Nykiel, Regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary Monsignor Krzysztof Nykiel, Regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary 

Symposium explores sacramental penance in 19th century

Ahead of a Symposium organized by the Apostolic Penitentiary on the theme “Penance and Penitentiary between revolutions and restorations (1789 – 1903),” Father Krzysztof Józef Nykiel, Regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, reflects on the sacrament of Confession and the role of the Penitentiary in the 19th Century.

By Vatican News staff reporter

The Apostolic Penitentiary is organizing its 7th Symposium themed “Penance and Penitentiary between revolutions and restorations (1789 – 1903)” which will be held in Rome on 21 – 22 October.

Divided into three sessions, the symposium aims to explore the evolution of the forms of Penance and penitential spirituality during the 19th Century (from the outbreak of the French Revolution to the death of Pope Leo XIII). It seeks to shed new light on institutional history and the role of the Penitentiary within the Roman Curia and the Church of the time, in a period marked by confrontation with the demands of the modern world and the loss of the temporal power of the Popes.

In an interview, Father Krzysztof Józef Nykiel, Regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, spoke to Vatican News’ Gabriella Ceraso about the symposium and its objectives.

Q: Father Nykiel, what are the objectives of the Symposium organized by the Apostolic Penitentiary?

The Symposium which will take place aims to explore the two themes of Sacramental Penance and the Apostolic Penitentiary in the period between the French Revolution (1789) and the death of Leo XIII (1903), an era marked - as we have chosen to include in the title of the event - by revolutions and restorations, continuous changes, returns to the past and innovations, at the political, social and the ecclesial levels.

The invited speakers will discuss these themes with a transdisciplinary approach, according to the perspectives of the history of theology and sacramental praxis, religiosity, law, etc. Among other things, at the end of the first day there will be a two-part talk by Monsignor Frisina, whom we all know, and Dr. Breda, an official of the Vatican Museums, who will guide the participants in an unprecedented journey on sin, mercy and reconciliation through 19th century art.

I would like to emphasize that in promoting initiatives for the historical study of the sacrament of Penance and of the Penitentiary itself, our Dicastery, described by the Holy Father as the Court of Mercy, wishes to focus on the sacrament of Confession, through which the channel of God's mercy flows for all of us wounded by sin. It is not just a matter of remembering a past that no longer exists but, through reflections on the past, taking the opportunity to once again revive the beauty and importance of this sacrament in the lives of the faithful. Pope Francis often reminds us that even in the midst of imperfections and inevitable falls, we should continue to move forward on the path that leads to salvation (cfr. GE 3). The role and beauty of the sacrament of mercy, in this dynamic of falling and reconciliation, are more than evident.

Q: What were the most important transformations of the forms of Penance in the 19th century?

The nineteenth century was marked by the overcoming of Jansenist rigorism, which was widespread in the eighteenth century, and by the triumph of the moral theology of St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, which was more balanced and attentive to the concrete needs of penitents. The great Neapolitan saint, canonized in the course of the century and later proclaimed by Pope Pius XII as the patron saint of all confessors, is the undisputed reference point for all priests who exercise their ministry in the confessional.

However, the nineteenth century was also the century in which new problems emerged, and confessors were faced with a decline in the practice of the principles of the norms. One thinks of the issues related to matrimonial morality, but also of all the questions that today we would call questions of social doctrine related to the relationship of Catholics with modern societies, often marked by a liberal and anticlerical spirit.

Q: A session of the Symposium will be dedicated to the opening of the "Archive of the Theologian." what is the important thing to note from these documents?

The "Archive of the Theologian" preserves the vows, that is, the opinions drafted by the consulting Theologians of the Penitentiary over the centuries. In fact, the Theologian was entrusted with the study and resolution of all those cases that reached the Penitentiary and that presented particular difficulties or otherwise required a more in-depth examination.

Pope Francis, in 2019, authorized the opening to consultation of that portion of this important document complex, until now entirely precluded from scientific research, which pertains to theological and juridical issues addressed on a merely general level, and not the specific cases of conscience, always protected by the sacramental seal.

The study of these papers makes it possible to grasp, from time to time, not only the orientations of individual theologians or of the Penitentiary itself, but also the cultural climate and the network of relationships within the Curia from a hitherto unseen perspective.

Q: Over the centuries, what have been the most important institutional changes in the Apostolic Penitentiary?

I would like to briefly recall that the Apostolic Penitentiary was founded as a curial office during the thirteenth century to assist the work of the Cardinal Major Penitentiary, to whom the Pope had delegated the task of granting absolutions and dispensations both in the internal and external forums since the twelfth century.

After a steady increase in jurisdiction in the late medieval centuries, in 1569, Pope Pius V decreed a drastic reform of the personnel and attributions of the Penitentiary, reducing its jurisdiction almost exclusively to the internal forum.

The institutional structure conferred by Pius V in the sixteenth century and subsequently confirmed, with some updates, by Benedict XIV in the eighteenth century was more or less the same as that still in force in the nineteenth century.

However, in times of emergency, such as during the years of the Napoleonic occupation of Rome (1809-1814) or during the most dramatic phases of the conflict between Pope Pius IX and Victor Emmanuel II, which resulted in the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy and the end of the temporal power of the Popes, the Penitentiary played a leading role within the curial structure, almost surpassing, in a certain way, its institutional role as the Court of the Internal Forum.

Some of the presentations over the next few days will highlight the weight of the Penitentiary in the resolution of these questions, taking up what is already known from previous historiography but at the same time proposing new elements for reflection and new considerations.

20 October 2021, 14:05