Confraternity of penitents
Confraternities of Penitents are Roman Catholic religious congregations, with statutes prescribing various penitential works. These may include fasting, the use of the discipline, the wearing of a hair shirt, etc.
Historically, the number of these confraternities increased to such a degree, Rome alone counting over a hundred, that the way of classifying them was according to the colour of the garb worn for processions and devotional exercises. This consisted of a heavy robe confined with a girdle, with a pointed hood concealing the face, the openings for the eyes permitting the wearer to see without being recognized.
Confraternities may have their own statues, their own churches, and often their own cemeteries. Aspirants must serve a certain time of probation before being admitted.
The most important group of white penitents (who wear a white habit) is the Archconfraternity of the Gonfalone, established in 1264 at Rome with the help of St. Bonaventure. It subsumed four other groups and was erected in the Church of St. Mary Major, although there has been a long association with Santa Lucia del Gonfalone. The title of gonfalone, or standard-bearer, was acquired when the members elected a governor of Rome to represent the Avignon based Pope despite the violent opposition of aristocratic Roman families.
Other confraternities of white Penitents have included, the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament of St. John Lateran, the Blessed Sacrament and the Confraternity of the Five Wounds at San Lorenzo in Damaso.
The chief confraternity in this group is the Archconfraternity of the Misericordia, or of the Beheading of St. John, founded in 1488 to assist and console criminals condemned to death, accompany them to the gallows, and provide for them religious services and Christian burial. The Archconfraternity of Death provides burial and religious services for the poor and those found dead within the limits of the Roman Campagna.
Among the confraternities of this group are those of St. Joseph, St. Julian in Monte Giordano, Madonna del Giardino, Santa Maria in Caccaberi, etc. A number of these confraternities were established in France under the patronage of Saint Jerome.
This includes, besides the Stigmati of St. Francis, the confraternities of St. Rose of Viterbo, The Holy Cross of Lucca, St. Rosalia of Palermo, St. Bartholomew, St. Alexander, etc.
Embracing the confraternities of Sts. Ursula and Catherine, the red robe being confined with a green cincture; St. Sebastian and St. Valentine, with a blue cincture; and the Quattro Coronati, with a white cincture, etc.
The confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament at the Church of St. Andrea della Fratte, under the patronage of St. Francis of Paula.
Including the confraternities of St. Rocco and St. Martin at Ripetto, the care of the sick.
There are many other confraternities which cannot be comprised within any of these groups, because of the combination of colours in their habits. The various confraternities were well represented in France from the thirteenth century on, reaching, perhaps, their most flourishing condition in the sixteenth century.