Public Penance for Wayward Clerics?


October 4, 2018

My first visit to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres was in 1968. I was 15-years-old and knew little about what I was looking at—though in truth, I could hardly see anything. The magnificent stained glass windows were visible, but at that time were still wearing centuries of grime. Looking up at them was like standing inside a luminaria, seeing only perforations in a dark enclosure. I used a small flash camera to record some of the sculptures closer to the ground, but only discovered what they really looked like after I got home and had the slides developed—it was that dark.

May of 2017 saw my first return to Chartres—and how the Great Lady had changed! She was nearing the end of a controversial restoration, where careful study of trace-paint had guided the cleaning and re-painting of the interior to its purported original appearance. Combine this with the thorough cleaning of the stained glass (begun in the 1990s), and Chartres Cathedral is now a radiant feast for the eyes. The restoration has its critics. Many who have known the building all their lives are not happy with the radical transformation that has robbed it of the patina of its venerable centuries. I can sympathize with them, but there is also something healthy about letting the church show to visitors the same dazzling face seen by its builders and first pilgrims.

Our family foursome had arranged for a private tour led by a man who has probably dedicated more of his life to the cathedral than any other person now living. British-born Malcolm Miller had taught in France and written his thesis on Chartres in the 1950s when, in 1958, he was hired as a full-time cathedral guide, and this has been his life ever since. Now in his 80s, he is a world-renowned expert, whose knowledge of Chartres enables him to stand with his back to the windows and explain from memory everything there is to see.

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Miller begins with a general introduction, and follows it with whatever else he feels like talking about that day. After our tour of many important windows, he decided to lead us out the North Portal to talk about sculpture. On our way to the door, he stopped and said he wanted to share something he had seen for the very first time just a few days before. He could hardly believe that in his sixty years of study there was something he had never noticed.

Each of the cathedral’s three façades (west, south and north) has a complex porch with three pairs of large doors, or “portals.” The center set is only opened on ceremonial occasions. But each of the left and right pairs of doors encompasses a smaller “door-within-a-door” for everyday use. In previous weeks, the North Portal doors had been enclosed in scaffolding that had obstructed the view of this mini-door, which is normally propped open.

Chartres north portal door.

As luck would have it, the scaffolding had come down just days before our arrival, and it was at that time that Malcolm Miller had cast his eye down at the two keyholes in the open door. Surrounding the larger of the two he saw a tarnished brass plate, one which some long-ago craftsman had turned into a profoundly symbolic ornament. Unlike any other keyhole in the cathedral (as far as Miller knew) this one is surrounded by the unmistakable shape of the Sancta Camisiathe Tunic of the Virgin Mary, Chartres’ most sacred relic. It was brought from the Holy Land by Charles the Bald, grandson of Charlemagne, and presented to the cathedral in the year 876. (The present cathedral, built between 1135 and 1220, is at least the fifth on this site.)

For the man who has been gazing, writing, and guiding all around Chartres for sixty years, such a discovery must be delightful—Mr. Miller seemed thoroughly “tickled” by one more little marvel added to the great treasury of marvels around us. We didn’t linger there too long, but I confess that I was fascinated with the keyhole, especially as it might relate to the ritual use of northern and southern church doors in medieval Lenten penance liturgies. As we proceeded outside to the North Porch, I began to develop a theory.

I had read that as part of the public penance ritual, penitents clothed in sackcloth and ashes knelt before the bishop (who had heard their confessions privately) and the assembled congregation. Prayers were said over them, and then they were expelled from the cathedral via the south doors. They would be barred from the sacraments until they had completed their assigned penance, after which they could be re-admitted through the north doors on Holy Thursday. (Should the penance have been something as arduous as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, it could be several years’ worth of Thursdays before the penitent would be re-admitted.) Participants in this ceremony would be those whose sins were notorious before the whole community—which might involve acts of sacrilege such as violence within a church or against the clergy, or scandalous acts of adultery, incest, heresy, parricide, fraud, and other mortal sins.

My theory was that perhaps the door with the Sancta Camisia keyhole had played a part in the re-admission of penitents on Holy Thursday, such that an attending priest might be the one to open the locked door and invite the penitents to return to the sacraments, through the graces of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I thought it was brilliant! At the close of our tour there was time for questions, and I decided to put my theory to our guide. He appeared a bit flummoxed at the question, and I concluded that Malcolm Miller’s true passion is iconography, not liturgy. More homework for me.

Historical Record on Medieval Penance
The literature on medieval penance is considerable and yields no tidy generalizations, especially to those of us who have just scratched the surface. Ritual customs varied over time, from country to country, and diocese to diocese. Public confession was known in the Early Church, but did not disappear with the rise of private confession, persisting into the fourteenth century. By the Middle Ages there was a concept of “tripartite penance”: private, solemn public, and non-solemn public. Interpretations differed as to whether each of these was actually sacramental. Some forms of public penance (likely non-solemn) were used to bring justice within a small community, settling conflicts before they got out of hand. Solemn penance was always for infamous mortal sins; it could be undertaken only once, and was only for the laity. It was also proposed that absolution for venial sins might be obtained through a variety of private devotional acts. (In my view, the words of the pre-Conciliar Confiteor reflect this idea: we once confessed “to Almighty God, and to you, Father…” Any sacramental efficacy of this declaration seems compromised when we confess “to you, my brothers and sisters.”)

All major churches compiled records of the liturgies they had developed within their own precincts. One might expect these sources to reveal whether penitents did indeed submit to public penance entering through the west door, humbling themselves at the altar, and exiting sorrowfully to the south, to be subsequently restored to sacramental communion through the north. However, although public penance did take place regularly, in abbeys and parish churches as well as cathedrals, there is no evidence that any specific form of penitential ritual was universal.  Claims that public penance at Chartres did, in fact, involve the use of the three sets of doors as I have described, date from the sixteenth century and after, when the ritual had fallen into disuse. Some form of medieval public penance certainly took place at Chartres, but it is impossible to know precisely how it was carried out, and whether the Sancta Camisia key-hole played any part.

But if we allow ourselves to imagine a roadmap of public penance using the three doors, what would be the penitent’s experience at Chartres?  The principal theme of the sculptural program on the south porch is the Last Judgment, with the customary images of the saved and the damned, flanked by a host of martyrs and confessors.  “Accompaniment” has become a buzzword in the modern Christian lexicon:  the penitent who looked about on his (or her) way out the south doors of Chartres would have been “accompanied” by the final titanic struggle between salvation and damnation, plus the sober gazes of the great saints.

Those entering by the north portals for reconciliation would pass beneath the testament of charity, expressed in the life and death of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Arching over the porches are rows of symbolic vignettes of a sanctified world:  an imaginative and moving sequence of Creation; the zodiac in the Heavens, and homely Labors of the Months on earth; and a rare artistic treatment of the active and contemplative life, with all female exemplars—a consummate representation of balance restored.

The history of Chartres as a diocesan citadel is not one of unalloyed virtue and tranquility. There was wheeling and dealing for income and power; fierce rivalry between mitre and crown, cloister and town; riots, plots, murders, and too many devastating fires—in other words, enough sin and strife to populate centuries of public penitential services. And now we ask ourselves:  how much has changed?

Resurrecting Public Penance
While investigating the literal ins-and-outs of public penance, it was never my plan to arrive at a meditation on the public scandals of private clerical sin which occupy our thoughts these days. One notable development is that the faithful are in no mood to cede the necessary disciplinary measures to any curial body which can retreat inside a private enclosure, promising to take care of business. Chartres, in its medieval hey-day, was a walled fortress, with its own soldiers, guarded gates, and numerous secret passages for getting out of harm’s way. It was a different time, of course, and we hesitate to judge too harshly. But it wasn’t pretty. Similar defensive arrangements, real or virtual, do not suit the times in which we live.

We’ve all heard the legal principle that it is not enough merely for justice to be done, but justice “must be seen to be done”—a piece of practical wisdom which explains everything we need to know about why a public penance ritual ever existed in the past. We could be on the verge of needing to resort to such ceremonies again. There is a real prospect of bishops being removed from their posts and stripped of their offices. The faithful, who have been wounded and shamed by the misdeeds of those they knew as shepherds, deserve to see the gravity of these offenses played out in authentic traditions that so perfectly suit them. The specifics of Confession would naturally remain private, but we are a Church founded in acts where the invisible is made visible, and it is time to see those who have betrayed our trust perform acts of penitence in the presence of witnesses.

For those whose sins reside in their silence and cowardice, the entrance procession with downcast eyes, the humbling posture before the altar, and the slouching retreat out the side doors would be meek and just. But for those who have exploited, corrupted, and defiled others for their depraved satisfaction, the Church might properly utilize a traditional penitential rite called “Degradation.” It involves the offending cleric arriving in the full regalia of his office, and surrendering those trappings one by one. For a bishop:  mitre, crozier, ring, stole, pectoral cross, and all the rest, methodically taken away, reducing him to the humblest clerical state. It’s brutal. And appropriate. History tells us that this ceremony was done only in the presence of the offender’s fellow clergy, and was considered a lesser penalty than “Deposition” (the permanent removal of priestly faculties). Obviously, that sort of cloistered courtroom is not adequate to the work of justice required today. We must fling wide the gates, and show a radiant face like the restored interior of Chartres.

It has become commonplace for people to see the Middle Ages as a time of harsh, even extremist, piety, of which the ordeal of public penance is a prime example. But for all their excesses, our medieval forefathers got this part right.  It is ripe for revival.


  • Claudia Sommers Brown

    Claudia Sommers Brown holds a B.F.A. in Theatre and an M.A. in Drama and a Bachelor’s degree in education. Her writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail (Canada), Catholic Register (Toronto), and Catholic Insight (Toronto).

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