The libelli were certificates issued to Christians of the third century. They were of two kinds:
The opprobrious term libellatici is applied only to holders of the former kind. The edict of Decius (Dec., 249, or Jan., 250), coming as it did after a comparatively long period of peace, frightened many Christians into submission. But the methods and extent of submission were of several kinds: the lapsi might be:
- apostates , who had entirely abandoned their religion, or
- sacrificati , thurificati , who had taken part in the pagan rites, or
- libellatici , who had secured certificates ( libelli ) of conformity from the proper civil authorities.
Three such libelli are extant, all of them of Egyptian origin ("Oxyrhynchus Papyri", IV, 658; Gebhardt, "Acta Martyrum Selecta"). Therein the petitioner declares that he was ever constant in sacrificing to the gods, and has actually performed the test of conformity, in attestation of which he begs the pagan commissioners to sign this certificate. However, it seems that the declaration was sometimes accepted for the deed, or the deed itself performed by proxy; and no doubt the document might be bought from amenable commissioners without any declaration of paganism.
It was in connexion with the reconciliation of these libellatici as well as other lapsi that the libelli pacis , or letters of indulgence, were introduced. The lapsi were in the habit of seeking the intercession of the confessors, who were suffering for the Faith ; and the latter would address to the bishop libelli pacis petitioning for the reconciliation of the apostates. The libelli were, however, more than mere recommendations to mercy; the confessors were understood to be petitioning that their own merits should be applied to the excommunicated, and procure them a remission of the temporal punishment due to their defection. And this indulgence was not simply a remission of the canonical penance; it was believed that it availed before God and remitted the temporal punishment that would otherwise be required after death ( Cyprian, "De Lapsis", ad fin.). This custom does not seem to have been established in Rome, but it was particularly prevalent in Carthage, and was not unknown in Egypt and Asia Minor . Even in the time of Tertullian, the lapsi of Carthage were in the habit of thus appealing to the intercession of the confessors ("Ad Mart.", i; "De Pudicitia", xxii). In the letters that Saint Cyprian wrote from his place of exile he has frequent occasion to complain of the abuse of the libelli . There was a party of laxists who ignored the necessity of the bishop's sanction, and their leader actually promulgated a general indulgence to all the lapsi ( Cyprian, "Epp.", xxxiv, 23). The confessors themselves seem to have lacked discretion in the petitions they presented. Cyprian's letter to them (ep. xv), couched though it is in the tenderest of terms, begs them to be more judicious, to avoid vague petitions, such as "Let him and his people be received into communion", and not to lend their services to the schemes of the seditious or the avarice of traffickers. The bishop's own method of treating the petitions for indulgence varied according to circumstances. Ep. xviii contains instructions that the lapsi who held such letters should be reconciled in case of sickness. Subsequently, however, owing no doubt to the above-mentioned abuses and the need for wider methods, the libelli were not given any special mention in the general conditions of reconciliation (African Councils, I, 38).
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