In the year 452, Pope St. Leo the Great (400-461) wrote a response letter to a certain Theodore, Bishop of Forum Julii (from what I can tell, a city in modern day France, Fréjus, but founded as “market of Julius” by Julius Caesar), on the subject of penance.
While there are so many statements that can be adduced to prove that the early Church understood that Christians can destroy their baptismal innocence before God and (ordinarily) only be restored through the ministry of the ordained priesthood going all the way back to the writings and corpus of St. Cyprian (and associated Carthaginian texts), Pope St. Leo the Great here once again nicely states what was known universally by everyone. He writes:
“The manifold mercy of God so assists men when they fall, that not only by the grace of baptism but also by the remedy of penitence is the hope of eternal life revived, in order that they who have violated the gifts of the second birth, condemning themselves by their own judgment, may attain to remission of their crimes, the provisions of the Divine Goodness having so ordained that God’s indulgence cannot be obtained without the supplications of priests. For the Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, has transmitted this power to those that are set over the Church that they should both grant a course of penitence to those who confess, and, when they are cleansed by wholesome correction admit them through the door of reconciliation to communion in the sacraments. In which work assuredly the Saviour Himself unceasingly takes part and is never absent from those things, the carrying out of which He has committed to His ministers, saying: ‘Lo, I am with you all the days even to the completion of the age’: so that whatever is accomplished through our service in due order and with satisfactory results we doubt not to have been vouchsafed through the Holy Spirit.” (Epistle 108)
This should be a source of consolation for everyone who repents. For just as there is something physical and objective like the sacrament of Baptism to procure the cleansing of the soul before God (and a pure conscience), so also as Christ ordained something physical and objective in the sacrament of Penance to procure the re-cleansing of the same soul made dirty from post-baptismal mortal sin. Notice the confidence with which St. Leo speaks about the power and work of Jesus Christ through the ministry of Priests. He would agree that no man forgives sin, but he would resound thereafter with the firm conviction that God through man can forgive sins.
That being said, St. Leo goes on to answer the question of what happens to those who, after destroying their baptismal innocence, fail to make it to a Priest for confession. He goes on:
“But if any one of those for whom we entreat God be hindered by some obstacle and lose the benefit of immediate absolution, and before he attain to the remedies appointed, end his days in the course of nature, he will not be able when stripped of the flesh to gain that which when yet in the body he did not receive. And there will be no need for us to weigh the merits and acts of those who have thus died, seeing that the Lord our God, whose judgments cannot be found out, has reserved for His own decision that which our priestly ministry could not complete: for He wishes His power to be so feared that this fear may benefit all, and every one may dread that which happens to the lukewarm or careless. For it is most expedient and essential that the guilt of sins should be loosed by priestly supplication before the last day of life.”
St. Leo here puts a great emphasis on the necessity of the sacrament of confession before falling into death, but then limits Himself to the unsearchable judgment of God on every soul, for it is God alone who is the final judge. Of course, the Church has discerned the possibility of “desire” for penance (c.f. Trent) as sufficient for salvation if coupled with sufficient repentance of heart. Interestingly enough, this letter by St. Leo was cited by Pope Vigilius in his defense against anathematizing the dead. Readers will recall the Three Chapters controversy where the Emperor wished to place an ecclesiastically binding anathema on Theodore of Mopsuestia (and Origen), and yet Rome (aside from Western arguments that could be found already in St. Augustine) was against the idea of condemning the dead, precisely for the reason given here by St. Leo, namely, that those who die perhaps outside of the sacraments are left to be judged by God. In any case, that is a side note. But what St. Leo says after this is quite powerful, and it speaks to the incorrectness of universalism (which is gaining traction in Catholicism and Orthodoxy these days), and even to those who espouse the “reasonable hope” theory:
“Hence it behooves each individual Christian to listen to the judgment of his own conscience, lest he put off the turning to God from day to day and fix the time of his amendment at the end of his life; for it is most perilous for human frailty and ignorance to confine itself to such conditions as to be reduced to the uncertainty of a few hours, and instead of winning indulgence by fuller amendment, to choose the narrow limits of that time when space is scarcely found even for the penitent’s confession or the priest’s absolution.”
There can be only one reason why St. Leo would say it is “perilous” to wait and postpone repentance until death is imminent, and that is because the state of sin is geared towards death and it requires the conscious effort of the person to amend himself through the sacraments in order to procure the state of innocence and justification before God. Had St. Leo been of the mindset that all would be saved, or that there is a reasonable hope that all men (Christian or not) who die will be saved, such a sober warning would not have left his pen. It is only because of the more likeliness of the judgment of God that such a sober fear is instilled into the reader of St. Leo’s words. [And yes, I’m aware semi-Balthasarians get around this by saying “hoping” doesn’t in anyway speak to the probabilities of universalism].