“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’.”(Matt. 16:24)
“Taking up one’s cross each day and following Jesus is the surest way of penance” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1435)
A great spiritual writer once said that “we should never forget the sufferings of the Lord.” Penitential acts of self-sacrifice done for the love of God, that is, acts of penance, keep us very close to the Man of Sorrows whose sacrifice on the cross has been so advantageous to our eternal well-being. In view of the tremendous graces we have received through the merits of Jesus Crucified, we are called to live penitential lives in a love for God which has its foundation in forgiveness.
How do we lead this penitential life? – primarily through acts of the virtue of penance nourished by our contact with Jesus, our mediator, in the Eucharist. “Daily conversion and penance find their source and nourishment in the Eucharist, for in it is made present the sacrifice of Christ which has reconciled us with God. Through the Eucharist those who live from the life of Christ are fed and strengthened. ‘It is a remedy to free us from our daily faults and to preserve us from mortal sins’ (CCC 1436).”
Frankly, I believe that one of the primary purposes of penance is to remind us that we owe everything to God – our ongoing acts of penance showing how grateful we are for His merciful love, and how much we wish to avoid offending God in the future. And this penitential mindset helps to keep us in the presence of God as we meet head on the challenges and difficulties of the day.
In a wonderful and helpful book that explains the powerful part penance plays in a well-grounded spiritual life, Dom Hubert Van Zeller states:
“People are discouraged from approaching penance because they see it from the wrong angle. They think at once of what they will have to do in the way of disagreeable hardship. If they thought of it as turning wholly to God, which is to see it from the right angle, they would be more ready to pursue its implications. They would in fact be spurred on to gather their whole selves together from the four corners of their particular earth and face about – away from self and towards God” (Spirit of Penance: Path to God).
Penance is a manifestation of our attitude towards sin and God’s mercy. Penance means we dislike sin. Penance means we are grateful to God for His forgiveness. Penance means we don’t want to loose our distaste for sin. Penance serves as an antidote to worldliness. Penance keeps a check on avarice. Penance means we want to make reparation for the injustice of sin. Penance means our love for God is manifested by an abiding sorrow for sin.
I think of penance as being similar to football practice. If you don’t practice and work hard in preparation for the game you’re most likely going to perform poorly on game day. Saint John Paul II says, “To do penance means, above all, to re-establish the balance and harmony broken by sin, to change directions at the cost of sacrifice” (Reconciliation and Penance, 26). Developing a spirit of penance, a spirit of sacrifice, a spirit of ongoing sorrow for our sins, therefore has a very important role to play in the Christian life. As Saint Paul says, “I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).
But what is penance? Does penance mean that I eat spinach instead of carrots, that I sleep on the floor rather than my bed, that I wear a heavy chain around my waist? “Jesus’ call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, ‘sackcloth and ashes,’ fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance” (CCC 1430).
In trying to understand what penance is, let me make three important distinctions which should prove to be helpful. Let us distinguish between repentance, penance and The Sacrament of Penance.
Repentance, in the Biblical sense, involves a “conversion of heart,” a turning away from sin and towards God. “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). Repentance involves a profound sorrow for our personal sins and incorporation into the life of Christ which begins with baptism (where all our sins are forgiven and the life of grace is poured into our souls).
But how are we to maintain this conversion since the strong residual effects of sin still remain in us even after baptism? It is here that acts of penance have a helpful role to play. Penitential actions play an important role in maintaining our conversion, and in protecting us from falling back into sin. In Luke’s Gospel we read, “Bear fruits that befit repentance” (Luke 3:8). Exterior actions of self-discipline help us to achieve this goal. Indeed, acts of penance can be a profound sign of a deep, inward conversion (they certainly were in the lives of the saints).
But what is penance? According to Catholic theology, penance is a virtue. “St. Thomas Aquinas… says that penance is a special virtue which labors to efface sin and its consequences, inasmuch as sin is an offense against God. Wherefore penance is a part of justice, and, inspired by charity, it commands other subordinate virtues, in particular temperance, as exemplified in fasting, abstinence, [and] vigils…. Mortification, properly so called… depends on the virtue of penance, and mortification in the broad sense… depends on each virtue, inasmuch as each one rejects the vices that are contrary to it” (Father Garrigou-Lagrange). Repentance, then, is an act of conversion, whereas penance is a virtue (closely associated with justice, temperance and mortification) that helps – among other things – to maintain our conversion and sorrow for sin lest we be tempted back into a life of sin.
“There exists…an efficacious means of removing those scars of sin, scars which do not permit God to communicate His life to us in abundance. This means is the virtue of penance. What is that virtue? A habit which, when it is well-rooted and a lively one, disposes us continually towards expiation for sin, and towards destruction of the results of sin….[I]t is above all an habitual attitude of the soul that keeps alive in us a regret at having offended God and a desire to make amends for our sins. It is this, as an habitual feeling, that ought to prompt our acts of penance” (Blessed Columba Marmion).
“To resist the enemy’s temptation, which leads first of all to light faults and then to graver ones, Christ Himself told us that we must have recourse to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. And then the temptation will become the occasion of meritorious acts of faith, confidence in God, and love of God” (Father Garrigou-Lagrange).
But what if we do fall back into serious sin? It was for this possibility that Jesus established the Sacrament of Penance so that mortal sins committed after baptism could be forgiven through the ministry of the priest, following a profession of our contrition for such sins and a firm purpose of amendment. At such time the priest normally prescribes a specific penance (often in the form of certain prayers) for the penitent. Obviously, the Sacrament of Penance is a huge ally in our fight against sin. Even vexing venial sins can be placed under the powerful light of purification this sacrament provides.
Besides protecting us from sin, the virtue of penance can also be exercised as an act of charity towards our neighbor. “In virtue of our incorporation into Christ…we are all members of the same body of Christ. Since our works of satisfaction can contribute to the welfare of others, will not our charity help us to do penance, not only for ourselves but likewise on behalf of our brethren? Is not this the best means of obtaining their conversion or, if they have turned to God, their perseverance? Is not this the best service we could possibly render them, a benefit worth infinitely more than all the temporal goods we could confer upon them? Thus, to atone for our neighbor’s faults is but to carry out the will of God who having adopted us as His children commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves” (Father Adolphe Tanquerey).
Finally, acts of penance can reduce or even eliminate our period of purification in Purgatory. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains” (CCC 1473). “[E]very sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin” (CCC 1472). “A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain” (CCC 1472). As Father Tanquerey explains, a “prompt and wholehearted penance” assists us in this life to make satisfaction for the “temporal punishment” that remains after sin is forgiven. He adds that “expiation on earth is easier since this is the acceptable time for mercy” and it is “more fruitful” since our acts of satisfaction are also “meritorious,” and therefore “a source of grace and greater glory.”
It seems to me a distinction can also be made between involuntary and voluntary penances. All the suffering and hardships, all the trials and tribulations, that come our way each day, if accepted with patience and resignation, out of love for God, out of sorrow for our past sins, can be considered involuntary – but nevertheless very meritorious – penances. The Catechism states: “Taking up one’s cross each day and following Jesus is the surest way of penance” (CCC 1435). But to those involuntary penances, we can add our own planned penances, such as kneeling for thirty minutes before the Blessed Sacrament, fasting, a work of mercy, or some other sacrificial act of penitential value (see the partial list at CCC 1437). Every sacrificial act done for the love of God, attesting to the good fruit of a repentant heart, is a meritorious act of penance, supernatural in value, advancing us on the path to the Eternal Life merited by Jesus Christ for us.
A spirit of penance can therefore lead to great holiness. “It is the denying of self,” says Dom Hubert Van Zeller, that is the substance of penance.” He adds that “true penance is the surrender of the whole self to God.” Van Zeller points to some of the great effects produced by authentic Christian penance:
“When the activity of penance is properly launched in grace, the soul will begin to show signs of greater detachment, greater understanding of Christ’s Passion, greater resignation to the difficulties of life, and greater insights into the ways of the spirit and the problems of other people. The human nature of the soul, freed by penance from so much that is material, and directed towards purposes that are spiritual, comes increasingly to live at its highest level…the soul’s real life is detached from this earth, and finds its true element in God” (Spirit of Penance: Path to God, p. 101).
Beautiful penance, says Father Faber, planet earth is the place for beautiful penance. Everything we do can be offered up to God as an act of loving penance, as reparation and atonement for our sins, as a manifestation of our sorrow for sin, and as a means to root out the disorders in our soul. “Penance is,” says Father Adolphe Tanquerey in his monumental work The Spiritual Life, “the most effective means for cleansing the soul of past faults and even for guarding it against future ones.” Penance can also greatly assist our neighbor! As the angel at Fatima proclaimed, “PENANCE, PENANCE, PENANCE.”
In summary, we are called to lead penitential lives in order to break any attachment to sin. According to the great Father Olier we should pray to the Holy Spirit for the spirit of penance. In union with “the atoning Christ within us,” says Father Olier, we can become quite proficient in making meritorious acts of penance of great value for ourselves and our neighbors.
May you be blessed with the peace that comes from practicing the virtue of humble penance.
Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.
- Catholic Bible Dictionary (Doubleday). See entry on Repentance.
- Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine.
- Theological Dictionary (Herder and Herder). See entry on Penance and the attitude proper to penance.
- The Three Ages of the Spiritual Life by Father Garrigou Lagrangr, Vol. I. See Chapter 20.
- Christ, The Life of the Soul by Blessed Columba Marmion, Chapter 4.
- The Spiritual Life by Adolphe Tanquerey (TAN). A comprehensive discussion on penance, pages 340 -361. The quotes from Father Olier contained herein.
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