No! No! Not penance!
"The penance which God now asks is this: the sacrifice which each person has to impose upon himself in order to lead a life of justice in the observance of his law. He wishes this way to be made known to souls with clearness, for many consider the word 'penance' to be great austerities, and not feeling the strength or generosity for such, become discouraged and remain in a life of tepidity and sin." - Sr. Lucia
I love the penitent saints, but every time I write about them people assume I'm recommending that we should be doing penance the way the saints used to. Frankly, I don't understand their confusion. Their resistance to the idea of penance makes me wonder how they feel about the martyrs who suffered so horribly in their passion and death. Should we be repelled by their example and heroic witness? Do we think we must replicate all the acts and doctrine practiced by various saints in the Church? I wonder if we are all just a little too near sighted and just want to be always happy - like a room without a roof? A life without limitations?
I often receive comments and emails asking me what penance is, or what it means to perform penance.
Quite a few people today simply do not understand what it means or entails, especially since the only penance most of us know is the occasional Hail Mary and Our Father we get in confession - if we go at all. Then there is the Lenten observance of course, giving up candy and stuff like that. With the increasing awareness of social justice issues since the 1960's the progressive notion of penance has been activist oriented, in it's simplest expression; alms-giving and or volunteerism. Such things are valid of course, but they are good works and not always a matter of self-denial - modern folks normally maintain a certain comfort level in the performance of good deeds and penance - We don't want it to cost us anything. Kind of like not eating meat on Friday yet having a sumptuous lobster dinner instead.
The avoidance of sin as penance.
I may be wrong, but it seems to me, modern people just do not know how to do penance, unless of course it is imposed upon us through the deprivation occasioned by calamity, disaster, and war. Yet voluntary penance normally doesn't occur to us, despite the fact Our Lady herself came to places like Lourdes and Fatima calling us to repentance and the amendment of our lives. In fact - the message of Fatima just may be an excellent resource for contemporary penitents to find some practical direction on the subject.
In the first apparition preparing the children for the appearances of Our Lady, the angel instructed the seers; "Pray! Pray a great deal!" And later, "Offer up prayers and sacrifices to the Most High." Explaining, "Make everything you do a sacrifice..."
What does that mean? Sr. Lucia explained it thus: "I feel it would be good to impress upon people... the need for prayer and sacrifice - especially that one needs to avoid sin..." Indeed, the avoidance of sin as a penance!
In 1943, Sr. Lucia wrote; "God wishes that it be made clear to souls that the true penance he now wants and requires consists first of all of the sacrifice each one must make to fulfill his own religious duties and daily duties."
Later, in 1946 Sr. Lucia reaffirmed; "The penance which God now asks is this: the sacrifice which each person has to impose upon himself in order to lead a life of justice in the observance of his law. He wishes this way to be made known to souls with clearness, for many consider the word 'penance' to be great austerities, and not feeling the strength or generosity for such, become discouraged and remain in a life of tepidity and sin." - Sr. Lucia of Fatima;Fatima Today - The Third Millennium, Fr. Robert J. Fox
What recent Popes have said.
St. John XXIII:
"1.Doing penance for one's sins is a first step towards obtaining forgiveness and winning eternal salvation. That is the clear and explicit teaching of Christ, and no one can fail to see how justified and how right the Catholic Church has always been in constantly insisting on this. She is the spokesman for her divine Redeemer. No individual Christian can grow in perfection, nor can Christianity gain in vigor, except it be on the basis of penance ...
5. Now we have only to open the sacred books of the Old and New Testament to be assured of one thing: it was never God's will to reveal Himself in any solemn encounter with mortal men—to speak in human terms—without first calling them to prayer and penance. Indeed, Moses refused to give the Hebrews the tables of the Law until they had expiated their crime of idolatry and ingratitude.
16. But of her children there are some who nevertheless forget the greatness of their calling and election. They mar their God-given beauty, and fail to mirror in themselves the image of Jesus Christ. We cannot find it in Us to threaten or abuse them, for the love We bear them is a father's love. Instead We appeal to them in the words of the Council of Trent—the best restorative for Catholic discipline. "When we put on Christ in baptism (Gal. 3.27), we become in Him an entirely new creature and obtain the full and complete remission of every sin. It is only with great effort and with great compunction on our part that we can obtain the same newness and sinlessness in the sacrament of penance, for such is the stipulation of divine justice. That is why the holy Fathers called penance 'a laborious kind of baptism'." -PAENITENTIAM AGERE
St. John Paul II:
"... Penance also means changing one's life in harmony with the change of heart, and in this sense doing penance is completed by bringing forth fruits worthy of penance. It is one's whole existence that becomes penitential, that is to say, directed toward a continuous striving for what is better. But doing penance is something authentic and effective only if it is translated into deeds and acts of penance..
In this sense penance means, in the Christian theological and spiritual vocabulary, asceticism, that is to say, the concrete daily effort of a person, supported by God's lose his or her own life for Christ as the only means of gaining it; an effort to put off the old man and put on the new; an effort to overcome in oneself what is of the flesh in order that what is spiritual may prevail; a continual effort to rise from the things of here below to the things of above, where Christ is." - John Paul II Reconciliation and Penance
Pope Benedict XVI:
"...Penance is a grace.
There is a tendency in exegesis that says: Jesus in Galilee had announced a grace without condition, absolutely unconditional, therefore also without penance, grace as such, without human preconditions.
But this is a false interpretation of grace.
Penance is grace; it is a grace that we recognize our sin, it is a grace that we know we need renewal, change, a transformation of our being.
Penance, being able to do penance, is the gift of grace. And I must say that we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word penance, it has seemed too harsh to us.
Now, under the attacks of the world that speak to us of our sins, we see that being able to do penance is grace. And we see that it is necessary to do penance, that is, to recognize what is wrong in our life, open ourselves to forgiveness, prepare ourselves for forgiveness, allow ourselves to be transformed.
The suffering of penance, of purification, of transformation, this suffering is grace, because it is renewal, it is the work of divine mercy". - Holy Father's Homily, Idle Speculations
Now why is that so hard to understand?
Recently Professor Robert George spoke at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast - what he said sure sounds to me like a good example modern day penance:
“The days of socially acceptable Christianity are over, the days of comfortable Catholicism are past. It is no longer easy to be a faithful Christian, a good Catholic, an authentic witness to the truths of the Gospel. A price is demanded and must be paid,” he said. - Source
So. Does anyone still need to ask what penance entails?
"If anyone wishes to come after me, get over yourself, take up the burdens of your daily duty, and come after me." - Maybe Our Lord should have said it that way, huh?
Don't be scared.