PENITENTIARY (med. Lat. poenitenliarius, from poenitentia, penance, poena, punishment, a term used both as adjective and substantive, referring either to the means of repentance or that of punishment. In its ecclesiastical use the word is used as the equivalent both of the Latin poenitentiarius, " penitentiary priest," and poenitentiaria, the dignity or office of a poenitentiarius. By an extension of the latter sense the name is applied to the department of the Roman Curia known as the apostolic penitentiary (sacra poenitentiaria aposlolica), presided over by the cardinal grand penitentiary (major poenitentiarius, Ital. penitenziere maggiore) and having jurisdiction more particularly in all questions in foro interno reserved for the Holy See (see CURIA ROMANA). In general, the poenilentiarius, or penitentiary priest, is in each diocese what the grand penitentiary is at Rome, i.e. he is appointed to deal with all cases of conscience reserved for the bishop. In the Eastern Church there are very early notices of such appointments; so far as the West is concerned, Hinschius (Kirchenrecht, i. 428, note 2) quotes from the chronicle of Bernold, the monk of St Blase (c. 1054-1100), ' as the earliest record of such "appointment, that made by the papal legate Odo of Ostia in 1054. In 1215 the fourth Lateran Council, by its loth canon, ordered suitable men to be ordained in all cathedral and conventual churches, to act as coadjutors and assistants to the bishops in hearing confessions and imposing penances. The rule was not immediately nor universally obeyed, the bishops being slow to delegate their special powers. Finally, however, the council of Trent (Sess. xxiv. cap. viii. de reform.) ordered that, " wherever it could conveniently be done," the bishop should appoint in his cathedral a poenilentiarius, who should be a doctor or licentiate in theology or canon law and at least forty years of age.
See P. Hinschius, Kirchenrecht, \. 427, etc. (Berlin, 1869); Du Cange, Glossarium s.v. " Poenitentiarius " ; Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopadie (ed. 1904), s.v. " Ponitentiarius."
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)