The Church invites us to do penance during Lent, but what really is it, and what does it entail?
The word “penance” comes from the Latin poena, which means “punishment,” understood in the double sense of both judgment and sadness. Penance is punishment we take on in reparation for offenses, but above all, it’s an active way to express what we feel for offending God through our sins.
Even after being baptized, the Christian is not rid of human weaknesses: we are not always faithful to the promises of our baptism and the inclination to sin remains in us. Therefore, Jesus calls us to conversion. This effort of conversion, which is up to us to practice, “is not just a human work,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us (no. 1428). “It is the movement of a ‘contrite heart,’ drawn and moved by grace to respond to the merciful love of God who loved us first.”
Father Matthieu Rouillé d’Orfeuil, director of studies at the French seminary in Rome explains, “It would be better to insist on the second meaning of the word poena. Penance expresses the sadness of having sinned, which we need in order to rediscover the joy of salvation.” Penance is not very popular nowadays. Yet it is a key notion in Christian life and Lent offers us an opportunity to bring it to the fore.
An essential, invisible, but tangible effort
“Jesus’ call to conversion and penance … does not aim first at outward works, ‘sackcloth and ashes,’ fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion,” states the Catechism (no. 1430). “It is not visible penances that are the most important, but penances that come from the depths of the heart,” stresses Sister Philippine, a religious sister of the Missionary Family of Our Lady and director of the home in Grand-Fougeray (near Rennes). Moreover, she insists, “penance, for a Christian, is normally nothing extraordinary or extravagant. Nor is it insurmountable. It consists in humbly living the ups and downs of our life, accepting what it entails with sorrow, great or small.”
Very often, penance appears without us having to look for it: “A spouse who irritates us, children who wear us down, an overcooked dish, an appliance that breaks down, a migraine, a traffic jam, are all occasions for conversion,” says Fr. Marc Vaillot, author of Aimer, c’est … Petit livre de l’amour véritable (To love means … a little book on true love). He specifies: “Classical theology teaches that the main, most difficult act of the virtue of fortitude is to resist what falls upon us, rather than to undertake arduous efforts.” Patience is thus an essential, invisible, but real effort.
The three types of penance
If Scripture and the Fathers of the Church insist above all on the three types of penance — fasting, prayer, and almsgiving—it is to “express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others” recalls the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1434). And this can be translated into efforts that we would not have thought of spontaneously. For Fr. Marc Vaillot, “Fasting also involves intelligence and the will, not only the stomach: of course, one can take one packet of sugar instead of two, one or two chocolates instead of four; but fasting can also be about refraining from being insolent with one’s parents, not getting angry for no reason, etc.”
The same goes for prayer: “In Lent, one can say three more Hail Marys than usual, but one can go further and live this penance by meditating better at Mass, by sending messages of love to God when walking down the street (aspiration prayer), by not forgetting to say a prayer before going to bed.” Prayer is not limited to a few exclusive moments, but to every moment of the day.
What about almsgiving? Isn’t it immediate and real? “Giving alms can also be giving a smile to a person who is not necessarily your best friend, chatting for two minutes with a homeless person when you don’t have any change on you, wishing your mother-in-law a happy birthday … Because almsgiving is the continual gift of yourself, not just giving someone a few coins.”
Penance, an act of love—not a chore
In spite of the maternal gentleness of the Church and the wisdom of her pastors, penance is often used as a scarecrow. In any case, it gets bad press. “It is an act of love, not a horror film!” protests Fr. Armel d’Harcourt. “It should not be seen as a chore, but as a free response to the love of Jesus who offered himself for us on the cross,” he says, adding: “Penance is not a punishment from God: there is a joyful side to it, of brotherly love through which we know that, in spite of his omnipotence, God allows us to participate in salvation.”
Penance thus originates from an effort to love and invites us to return to the Father with all our heart. “The goal is charity: to love God and our neighbors better,” explains Fr. Matthieu Rouillé d’Orfeuil. It is therefore in function of this goal alone, more than through individualistic asceticism, that we must choose the penances to be implemented. “The more love you have for God, the more you put your heart into conversion and works of penance,” says Sister Philippine.
“The effort of penance must first be prepared and carried out in prayer,” advises Fr. d’Orfeuil. “In this way, I will accept, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the spiritual progress that I need and ask for. With a little good will, I will let myself be transformed by Christ, in the way that He will want to answer the prayer that He inspires in me.” A little good will? That says it all.