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Penance in a time of emergency


El Greco | Public Domain

Aleteia - published on 03/03/21

A reflection from the Major Penitentiary on the Church's long tradition and pandemic restrictions.

In an reflection on the web page of the Apostolic Penitentiary and published in Italian in L’Osservatore Romano, Carinal Mauro Piacenza, the Major Penitentiary, considers how the pandemic has brought the idea of sacrifice back to the lexicon of the West.

He observes the striking similarity in the way that many have lived the pandemic restrictions to the long tradition of the Church’s time of penance in Lent.

Here is an Aleteia translation of the text:


Just when renunciation, sacrifice, and penance seemed to have been banished from the lexicon of a West that had become deaf to all forms of mortification, because it was drunk on opulence and comfort, these same words came back powerfully from the start of the current pandemic emergency: Citizens all over the world are asked to renounce, at least in part, the exercise of personal freedoms, to sacrifice their “lifestyle” by adopting the necessary hygienic and sanitary precautions, to obey the indications of the constituted authority, even when they prevent assisting—if not also bidding a last goodbye to—a hospitalized family member.

Humanity in the 21st century is thus overwhelmed by fears, capable of trusting—sometimes disproportionately—authority and prepared to adopt forms of deprivation, until yesterday unthinkable, in order to safeguard the good of personal and collective physical health. In order to stimulate this willingness in everyone, mass media communications seem to move, relentlessly, in a threefold direction: to denounce an imminent danger, in the face of which everyone is responsible for themselves and for others; to reveal a future horizon, substantially positive, within which everything can be resolved for the better; and to assure that there will be a fixed end to the wait and the sacrifice required.

In part, these have always been the coordinates also of Christian penance, still so present in the cultural background of the West, which, during Holy Lent, is proposed and offered to all. In fact, we pray in the Collect of Ash Wednesday: “Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.”

Evil, victory, and time

An imminent danger is indicated, a lurking enemy—the spirit of evil—in the face of which all Christian people are called to “be armed with the weapons” of penance. A positive horizon is revealed, which is the victory conquered by the Cross of Christ and shared by those who welcome Him into their lives; an end to this battle is assured, represented by the “sacred number” of forty days, a time of true conversion and salvation.

This evil, this victory and this time have, however, incomparable importance for the life of man, because they concern not only the temporal good of bodily health, but the much more radical one of eternal salvation, and of soul and body; not only healing or immunity from contagion, but victory over sin, which enslaves humankind, and over death, which puts an end to every aspiration which is human, too human; not only the time of lockdown and extraordinary measures to counteract the pandemic, but time in its totality, made concrete by the perspective of the end and illuminated by the light of the resurrection.

For this reason, the Lenten season begins with the gesture of the imposition of ashes, accompanied by the penitential formula: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” In this way, the faithful are awakened to a feeling and awareness of their own creatureliness, of the dependence of their whole being on God, Creator and Savior, and of the finiteness of their lives, which have their full meaning and ultimate purpose in God’s great Heaven and not in the things of earth.

Moreover, Christian penance contains within itself a profound joy and a sense of irreducible justice, which must be rediscovered, announced and lived with renewed enthusiasm throughout the entire ecclesial structure and at every level. Christian penance, in fact, is not an arduous and uncertain attempt to obtain, through one’s own efforts, some divine favor where human attempts have shown all their insufficiency. On the contrary, it consists in the irrepressible need, arising in every authentically Christian heart, to respond with one’s whole self to that Love, all divine and all human, which in Christ took upon itself the evil of the world and, by his Cross and Resurrection, renewed the universe shattered by sin.

A gift of the Holy Spirit

Thus penance has become and has always been conceived by the Church as a true and proper virtue, given and animated by the Holy Spirit, who is always the Spirit of Christ the Redeemer. By means of it, man opens himself to the great victory of Christ, allows his whole life, from now on, to belong radically to Him and accepts to learn to suffer with his Lord, in order to assume responsibly the consequences of his own sin, offering a just reparation, but above all, in order to know the mysteries of the Heart of Christ and to share, from now on and evermore, in the new life of Him who, “for the sake of the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).

From the great and living presence of the Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, the center of the cosmos and of history (cf. John Paul II, Redemptor hominis, n. 1), Christian “thought” is born and takes shape, capable of judging everything in the splendor of this light and of living everything in a living and life-giving relationship with the Mystery that makes and renews all things. From this great and living Presence, all those actions that the liturgical and spiritual tradition of the Church has matured over the centuries and which see in the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist their most concrete and fullest realization, are also born and take shape: a right consideration of self in the examination of conscience; the conversion of one’s relationship with God, with oneself and with one’s brothers and sisters through the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving; the daily remembrance of Christ Present through the offering of Lenten sacrifices; the memory of His redemptive Passion in the pious practice of the Stations of the Cross; the recitation of the penitential psalms; the litanies of the saints, who are the true great “majority” in God’s world; the rogation days, never abolished and so urgent today; the loving contemplation of Christ, Crucified and Risen, in the celebration and adoration of the Eucharist; confident and heartfelt prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary of Sorrows, who gave birth to and continually gives birth to all, united as she is to the Cross of her Son and, therefore, already fully participating in the glory of the Resurrection.

Read more:
Do Catholics still celebrate Ember Days? And what ARE Ember Days?

May she, Mother of God made man and Mother of all the living, obtain for us the grace of opening our minds and hearts to the victorious Love of Christ and of growing in true Christian penance, which alone is capable of embracing the present pandemic emergency and transfiguring it into an occasion of salvation, making come to fruition in the human heart the joy and the freedom of those who know that they do not belong to any power of this world, but only to Christ and to His saving power.

Read more:
This is the pope’s recommended Lenten fast

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