top of page

Historical Background


Penance has a bad connotation in today's society. People tend to think that penance means self imposed punishment and gloom. How wrong they are!

Penance means conversion, change for the better. Change from doing things my way to doing them God's way.  That means that penance is a joyful obligation!  To do things the way Someone far wiser than us wants them done can only bring tremendous peace and joy.

The mortifications one employs to help bring about conversion can involve prayer, fasting and abstinence, works of mercy, and simplicity of life, as they do in the Rule for the Confraternity of Penitents. Those things are only means to an end. The end is penance, conversion to God.  Conversion isn't something that happens once and you've arrived! Conversion, penance, is ongoing. Every moment of every day, God calls each of us to a greater surrender to Him, to a deeper "yes."

What is God calling you to, today?

Back in the 1100's and early 1200's, folks began to look at themselves a bit more deeply. They began to be upset that their world was so materialistic, that injustice and war prevailed, and that the poor were ignored. Heresy was rampant, and it bothered these medieval Catholics. What must be their response?

Their response was dictated by the Holy Spirit Who called these people to deeper prayer and sacrifice for the sake of their own souls and those of others. A great penitential movement spontaneously sprang up in Europe. No one person began it. It simply happened all over, by the prompting of the Holy Spirit, much as the charismatic movement swept across the world in the 1970's

The people who embraced this life of conversion were called "conversi" (converted ones) or penitents. In contrast to the world around them, the penitents greatly simplified and disciplined their lives in the areas of prayer, fasting and abstinence, and simplicity of life. They embraced works of mercy and came together in local gatherings to support each other in their lives of conversion. They wore a distinctive but simple garb to set themselves apart from their more ostentatious neighbors.

Saint Francis and Saint Clare

Around July, 1206, a merchant in Assisi, Italy, began to experience the first movements of personal conversion. Francis Bernardone did not struggle against the inner call that was beckoning him into a deeper union with God, into a new way of living. His response was, "Lord, Who are You? And who am I?" and "What would You have me do?"

Francis adopted the garb and life of a penitent and, in time, as other converted men gathered around him, he and his followers would tell those who asked, "We are penitents from Assisi." In time, Francis would write a Rule for his little band; they would become known as the Friars Minor and live at the Porziuncola, the "Little Portion," a church on the plains of Assisi, known formally as "Our Lady of the Angels."

In 1212, a teenaged noble woman from Assisi, Clare Offreduccio, sneaked out of her family's palatial home and, with a servant, met Francis and his friars who clothed her in penitential garb and brought her to a convent to live as a servant. Within a fairly short time, other women had gathered about Clare, and the Order of Poor Ladies had begun at the convent of San Damiano, outside of Assisi.

Lay Followers

Francis and his begging friars and Dominic Guzman and his preaching friars were sparking massive conversions in southern Europe. People also came to the Poor Ladies, who opened one convent after another, for prayer. Seeing the example of these holy religious, lay people wanted to join them and many did. But many could not enter religious life, as they had family obligations which they could not dismiss.

So that these people could live lives of conversion within their own homes, Francis appealed to the protector of his friars, Cardinal Hugolino di Conti di Segni, for a Rule of Life. Cardinal Hugolino studied how the "conversi," the penitents, were living in southern Europe and recorded their life style in a formal document that became the Rule of 1221. Francis gave this document to the laity. They embraced it as brothers and sisters of penance.

The core of this Rule can easily be lost on modern day penitents.  Today's casual reader can tend to focus on the fasting, abstinence, prayer, apostolate, and simplicity of life provisions of the Rule, because they may seem "extreme" to modern minds.  However, those provisions were very commonly followed by penitents all over Europe at the time the Rule was written.  The guidelines for fasting and abstinence were followed during penitential seasons by all Christians.  These mortifications in the Rule were far from "extreme" in the 1200's. 

What was "extreme" and what made the Rule unique was its insistence on peace and fellowship. Penitents who followed this Rule were not to take up arms or swear allegiance to anyone. They were to make peace with all and meet together in supportive family-like gatherings to learn of the things of God and to commit themselves to charitable works. Because so many medieval Catholics embraced the Rule of 1221, the feudal system in Europe began to crumble. There were simply not enough men to take up arms and fight for their medieval lords. The lords had to devise peaceful means to settle their disputes.

What Happened to the Rule of 1221

Penitents who wished to be closely connected with the friars who followed St. Francis and his successors adopted the Rule of 1221 as the Rule for a lay Franciscan Order (Third Order as it was third in order of founding). In 1289, Pope Nicholas IV removed from the 1221 Rule many local statutes that had been appended and placed the penitents directly under the Friars Minor who would serve as their Visitors. Other than this change, the 1289 Rule was essentially the same as the 1221 Rule.

In 1883, Pope Leo XIII radically modified and relaxed the Rule of 1289 in the belief that every Catholic would do well to become a Franciscan. His making the Rule "easier" to live did bring many laity into the Third Order of Saint Francis. The Leonine Rule, as it was called, was in effect for almost 100 years.

Vatican II, in the 1970's, asked each Order to reexamine their Rules and return to the original intent. Using the 1883 Rule as a base, the Third Order of St. Francis rewrote the Rule as what is now the current Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order, also called the Pauline Rule of 1978 because it was accepted by Pope Paul VI.

Return to the Rule of 1221

The Confraternity of Penitents began in 1994 when one individual began, through an interior call from the Holy Spirit and with the permission of a spiritual director, to live privately the Rule of 1221.  Eventually the idea of living the Rule of 1221 was shared with others who, in 1995, founded  The Brothers and Sisters of Penance to assist them in living the Rule together. On the Queenship of Mary, August 22, 2003, the Brothers and Sisters of Penance was refounded as the Confraternity of Penitents with a Mass of Thanksgiving held on the Eve of the Solemnity of Christ the King.

The Confraternity of Penitents is a return to the Rule of 1221 which has been updated, by its Constitutions, for lay people to live in modern society.  Penitents may be members of Third Orders or other Associations within the Catholic Church, provided those approve of their living this Rule. They are to reconcile with all others to the full extent that the others will allow. They are to advance God's kingdom by forgiveness, service, self-surrender, and love, thus becoming images of Christ to a hurting world. Many saints have come from the living of this Rule of Life. May God make saints of those who live it today!

What is a Confraternity?

In canon law, a confraternity is a voluntary association, usually of laity, which is established under Church authority for the promotion of some work of devotion, charity, or instruction undertaken for the love of God. Confraternities are subject to the assent of the bishop and their Constitutions subject to his approval.

Confraternities of Penitents were common during the Middle Ages with over a hundred such confraternities existing in Rome alone. Members met together, often in their own churches, for support and prayer. The confraternities were distinguished from each other by a specific garb, which concealed the identity of the wearer, by their spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and by different penitential and prayer practices. Each confraternity took a name for itself, often selecting the name of a saint, a title of Our Lady or of Christ, or a specific devotion of the Church. Many confraternities were under the specific patronage of individuals who later were recognized by the Church as saints.

The modern Confraternity of Penitents is in a direct line with those of the Middle Ages. Its Rule is to be lived privately and quietly in one's own home. The clothing colors and styles are modern yet without being flashy or colorful so that the general public is unable to identify who is a member of the Confraternity. The Rule has specific penitential and prayer practices. Penitents participate in spiritual and corporal works of mercy of their own choosing. The Rule is intended to be lived in a supportive community environment, whether in a local gathering or through email or postal mail and telephone support. The local groups take names for themselves, selecting either the name of a saint, a title of Our Lady or of Christ, or a specific devotion of the Church.


A brief history of the Confraternity of Penitents is part of our Constitutions.  Please view the Rule and Constitutions on this link. A more detailed recent history is on this link.

The Confraternity of Penitents has members in various parts of the world.  With the ongoing guidance of our Visitor and Diocese, our members embrace the life of conversion with joy, trusting in God's guidance and desirous to live in peace and love with all while gently witnessing to the call to repentance preached by Our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Any Catholic who embraces all the teachings of the Catholic Church as taught by the Pope and the bishops in communion with Him is invited to become a penitent and to live our holy way of life in peace and joy.  Please contact us for more information.

May God bless all penitents everywhere! Please pray for us.

bottom of page