Penitence: Following the call of old-fashioned word during Lent

March 28, 2017

We have just recently passed the midpoint of the season of Lent — a season that the Church notes repeatedly as having a particularly “penitential” character. We can profit from an exploration of the meaning of what might seem to be a fairly old-fashioned and out-of-style word, and attempt to determine what place it has in our spiritual lives not only this season of Lent but throughout the year.

Blessed Pope Paul VI issued an Apostolic Constitution on Fast and Abstinence in 1966 entitled Paenitemini. The document is not long and the full text can be found by searching “Paetnitemini” on a search engine. The first two chapters of this Apostolic Constitution are devoted to an exposition of the meaning and nature of penitence in both the Old Testament and in the Christian dispensation.

The Pope makes it clear that an attention to penance and penitential practices is not antithetical to an appreciation of the mercy of God, but rather is a natural outgrowth of a person who has been converted by an experience of the merciful love of God. Undertaking penance is a proclamation of God’s mercy inasmuch as mercy is meaningless without recognition of the need for mercy.

In reading this 50 year-old document one remembers the first public interview of Pope Francis following his election in which he famously, in answer to the question “Who is Jorge Bergolio?” answered simply “a sinner.” Penance is a reflection of the inner turning and conversion of heart that the New Testament names as metanoia.

Precisely because as human beings we are a unity of both body and spirit, the spiritual reality of our conversion must manifest itself physically in our bodies. Blessed Pope Paul VI seeks to navigate between the error on the one hand of completely spiritualizing penitence so that it has no connection whatsoever to our bodily existence and the error on the other hand of disconnecting corporal penitential practices from a spiritual conversion of heart.

Another error against which he cautions is taking ascetical practices and, instead of seeing them as medicinal activities intended to restore integrity of body and spirit, seeing them as repudiations of our bodily existence in which one seeks to overcome and transcend our corporal reality completely. He writes, “The intimate relationship which exists in penitence between the external act, inner conversion, prayer and works of charity is affirmed and widely developed in the liturgical texts and authors of every era.”

Blessed Pope Paul VI also notes the importance of corporate witnesses to penitence in addition to individual penitential activity. Indeed, as members of the Body of Christ, the penitence of each member affects the whole and the work of Christ through the Church is a source of grace for each.

In this season of Lent, therefore, let us take up these penitential practices with renewed intentionality. The fasting of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the abstinence from meat each Friday, if undertaken in a true spirit of metanoia, are clear and corporate witnesses to our recognition of the mercy of a God who loves us despite our sins.

The additional prayer, fasting and almsgiving that each Christian undertakes on his or her own throughout this season likewise is an essential aspect of how we observe this season’s penitential character.

It is important to note, however, that penitential activity is not limited solely to the season of Lent. In the Apostolic Constitution the Pope explicitly concedes to episcopal conferences the faculty to determine what forms of corporate penitence will be decreed as law in their territories.

In response to this, the United States’ bishops also issued in 1966 a pastoral statement in which they stated, “we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday.” While this decision was motivated by “changing circumstances, including economic, dietary and social elements,” it seems that, in the half century since, many Catholics have become ignorant of the fact that this decision was not intended to diminish the penitential character of every Friday of the year.

The bishops also wrote:
21. For these and related reasons, the Catholic bishops of the United States, far from downgrading the traditional penitential observance of Friday, and motivated precisely by the desire to give the spirit of penance greater vitality, especially on Fridays, the day that Jesus died, urge our Catholic people henceforth to be guided by the following norms.

22. Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified.

23. Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.

27. It would bring great glory to God and good to souls if Fridays found our people doing volunteer work in hospitals, visiting the sick, serving the needs of the aged and the lonely, instructing the young in the Faith, participating as Christians in community affairs, and meeting our obligations to our families, our friends, our neighbors, and our community, including our parishes, with a special zeal born of the desire to add the merit of penance to the other virtues exercised in good works born of living faith.

Thus, as Catholics we are still called to observe every Friday of the year as having a special penitential character. Abstaining from meat is no longer the sole means of doing so, but it certainly remains the serious obligation of every adult Catholic to engage in penitential practices in a deliberate and intentional way every Friday, so that just as every Sunday is a “little Easter” so we prepare for it by marking every Friday as a “little Good Friday.”

One challenge then, we face, is to ensure that the penitential practices we undertake this Lent serve as authentic expressions of our conversion of heart and aid in that process of conversion. The other challenge is to find ways in which to bring the heightened awareness and practice of penitence that marks our Lent into the whole of our year.

Brian Luense is an associate director with the Archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.