Give Penance a Chance
Think back to the last time you did something that hurt someone, even if it wasn’t intentional. How did you make amends? Did you apologize? Did you offer to make it up to them in some way? If so, then you performed a type of penance for your actions.
In our society today, people often fail to take responsibility for their actions. Penance is about taking responsibility for a wrong that we have done, attempting to learn from it and hopefully grow from it so that we don’t repeat the same action at some time in the future.
As Catholics, the concept of penance is a key element of our faith. Each time we attend Mass, we hear the words of the penitential rite. When we recite the Our Father, we recite the words, "...forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." The concept of penance surrounds us as we celebrate our faith.
More Than a Sacrament
Webster’s dictionary defines penance as "an act of self-abasement, mortification or devotion performed to show sorrow or repentance for sin."
Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine points out, though, that penance for Catholics can actually have four different meanings. "First, it refers to a virtue, a habit by which the Christian modifies his life, directing it toward perfection by practicing certain works. Second, it refers to public acts of punishment imposed by the Church or works of personal sacrifice done in atonement for sins or for the sake of personal spirituality. Third, it refers to a work of satisfaction imposed on the penitent within the context of the Sacrament of Penance. Fourth, it refers to the Sacrament of Penance itself."
Many of us associate penance with only the fourth meaning. Our introduction to the concept probably came when we went to Confession for the first time. But perhaps we have too closely linked the concept of penance in general to the sacrament and, therefore, have lost the broader meaning of the term.
Penance is not just some action to be done immediately after leaving the confessional. The spirit of penance should continue to influence everything we do in a positive way.
In his 1984 post-synodal apostolic exhortation, On Reconciliation and Penance in the Mission of the Church Today, Pope John Paul II spoke of the need for penance. "To do penance," he wrote, "means, above all, to reestablish the balance and harmony broken by sin, to change direction even at the cost of sacrifice."
The general law of the Catholic Church states that Catholics who have reached their 14th birthday should observe Ash Wednesday and all Fridays as days of abstinence. In 1966, as permitted then, the U.S. bishops decided to modify the general legislation. Instead of requiring abstinence on every Friday, Catholics 14 and older must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and the Fridays of Lent. Those between 18 and 59 must also fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
When this change occurred, Pope Paul VI urged Catholics who might not observe every Friday as a day of abstinence not to lose the spirit of penance in their lives. And the U.S. bishops continued to recommend abstinence on all Fridays and fasting on the weekdays of Lent. They further recommended all Fridays as days of prayer, penance and almsgiving.
Last November, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Pro-life proposed legislating again the practice of abstinence on all Fridays in an effort to promote what they call a culture of life.
This raises the broader question, though, of how to instill the spirit of penance in general. The issue is much bigger than just abstaining from meat on Friday. The real issue is how we may engage in meaningful penance. That broader question should be the focus of the bishops’ study.
For example, during the season of Lent, we can focus our penitential acts on something important to us. Perhaps it’s taking time out of our busy day to say the rosary or some other prayers, donating blood, spending some time with someone who is homebound, tutoring slow learners, teaching reading in a literacy program or babysitting for hard-pressed parents. A penitential act may be participating in a postcard campaign for a particular social issue, such as land or wildlife preservation, or the ban on land mines.
Too often we think of penitential acts as something we must give up or deny ourselves. But perhaps a more appropriate penance is to do something—prayer, works of charity, random acts of kindness. Just as sin has a social dimension, so too must penance. The whole intent of penitential acts is to make us become better people who have a positive effect on others.
It’s time we quit looking at penance as punishment for things we have done wrong, and started looking at it for what it is—a means of helping us undergo a change of heart and become better, more caring and faithful individuals. As Pope Paul VI urged, no matter what the means of penance are, let us not lose the spirit of penance.
During this Lenten season, as we choose our penitential works, let us consider the ways in which we can carry that spirit of penance past the 40 days of Lent into our everyday lives. It’s time we all really gave penance a chance. —S.H.B.