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The Missing Element In My Lenten Penance

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Feb 24, 2015

On Ash Wednesday my youngest son asked if the next two days were Holy Thursday and Good Friday. His question reflects my initial feelings of Lent: "We have to do this for 40 days?" I start looking for any kind of respite because I give into "Brother Ass" (as St. Francis referred to the body) so easily.

I start asking myself how necessary are these penances anyway? Are we obligated as Catholics to do this "Lenten thing" called penance?

After these first few days of Lent, I feel the need to reexamine my penances. Do I understand what is penance? Am I taking up appropriate penances? Is there an element missing from my Lenten journey?

Legal Obligations

The 1983 Code of Canon Law puts in black and white the simple obligations for penance as a Catholic.

Can.  1249 The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons.

And when do Catholics have to do this penance?

Can.  1250 The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.

Catholics are called to do penance as individuals throughout their lives, but on Fridays and the whole season of Lent the faithful are united in a common observance of penance. Lenten penance is not just for the pious, but required of all Catholics.

Community of Faith

Although the Gospel of Ash Wednesday provides a type of Lenten program and exhorts to pray in private and not let others know what we do, Lent unites the faithful during this penitential season. The Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) describes the season of Lent, but also elaborates on penance as "internal and individual, but also external and social." The section is so beautiful that I quote it in full:

109. The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery. This twofold character is to be brought into greater prominence both in the liturgy and by liturgical catechesis. Hence:

a) More use is to be made of the baptismal features proper to the Lenten liturgy; some of them, which used to flourish in bygone days, are to be restored as may seem good.

b) The same is to apply to the penitential elements. As regards instruction it is important to impress on the minds of the faithful not only a social consequences of sin but also that essence of the virtue of penance which leads to the detestation of sin as an offense against God; the role of the Church in penitential practices is not to be passed over, and the people must be exhorted to pray for sinners.

110. During Lent penance should not be only internal and individual, but also external and social. The practice of penance should be fostered in ways that are possible in our own times and in different regions, and according to the circumstances of the faithful; it should be encouraged by the authorities mentioned in Art. 22.

But the paschal fast must be kept sacred. It should be celebrated everywhere on Good Friday, and where possible should be prolonged throughout Holy Saturday so that the faithful may attain the joys of the Sunday of the resurrection with uplifted and responsive minds.

So that #ashtag is in a way fulfilling that "external and social" part of penance. The rest of Lent can be a tricky balance to not be like the pharisees and blow trumpets, but find external forms of penance. Examples would be attending extra Masses during Lent or going to Stations of the Cross on Fridays at my parish. 

What Is Penance?

I keep tossing around the word penance, but do I really know how the Church means when She calls us to penance?

As defined by Father Hardon, penance is "The virtue or disposition of heart by which one repents of one's own sins and is converted to God."

That definition is very open-ended in describing what penance looks like in daily life. For that description, I turned to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Article 4 particularly Section V, #1434-1439 describes the types of penance in Christian Life. There is a focus on interior conversion and how it can be expressed. I have to admit I didn't realize that all these fit under the definition of penance. (It reminds me of the line in the 1987 movie The Princess Bride, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.")

The section is rather lengthy, so I won't quote it in entirety. It begins stressing that interior penance that expresses conversion is best expressed in the traditional three-pronged approach: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. It can look like everyday living:

1435 Conversion is accomplished in daily life by gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right, by the admission of faults to one's brethren, fraternal correction, revision of life, examination of conscience, spiritual direction, acceptance of suffering, endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness....

I never realized spiritual direction would be considered a form of penance.

The Catechism continues with the simple Gospel quote and yet it can be so difficult to live:

Taking up one's cross each day and following Jesus is the surest way of penance. 

The sacrament of the Eucharist nourishes us in our conversion. In addition, reading Holy Scripture, praying the Liturgy of the Hours and the Our Father and other acts of devotion are ways to continually "convert our hearts to God." And during Lent in particular there are other possible acts of penitence:

1438 The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church's penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).

The Interior Conversion and Repentance = Joy

Understanding that penance is conversion of heart, I realize I'm getting bogged down by some external aspects of penance and missing an important element. I'm not lacking in ways to practice penance. I can see that my opportunities are even broader than I originally realized. Penance is more than an external act; it reflects interior conversion of the heart. All the actions of penance need the focus on the interior; it is the soul returning to Christ, seeking forgiveness.

In turning my heart in repentance, I realize the missing element of my conversion is embracing joy. I need to embrace and revel in that joy and comfort that I will always be welcomed with open arms by the Loving Father:

CCC 1439 The process of conversion and repentance was described by Jesus in the parable of the prodigal son, the center of which is the merciful father: the fascination of illusory freedom, the abandonment of the father's house; the extreme misery in which the son finds himself after squandering his fortune; his deep humiliation at finding himself obliged to feed swine, and still worse, at wanting to feed on the husks the pigs ate; his reflection on all he has lost; his repentance and decision to declare himself guilty before his father; the journey back; the father's generous welcome; the father's joy - all these are characteristic of the process of conversion. The beautiful robe, the ring, and the festive banquet are symbols of that new life - pure worthy, and joyful - of anyone who returns to God and to the bosom of his family, which is the Church. Only the heart Of Christ Who knows the depths of his Father's love could reveal to us the abyss of his mercy in so simple and beautiful a way.

I am also called to be the Prodigal Son, to turn to the Father for love and forgiveness. As St. Josemaría Escrivá says, I am "to play the role of the prodigal son every day, and even repeatedly during the twenty-four hours of the same day" (Friends of God, 214). I am to be discouraged by nothing, and always run back as the Prodigal Son to the Father for His merciful love.

While I can refine some of the external choices of my Lenten penance, I have found that missing element. Lenten penance means interior conversion married with joy. I will embrace that joy, and even dance, as Father Jean du Coeur de Jesus D'Elbee encouraged:

Remember that each time you pick yourself up after a fall, the feast of the prodigal son is renewed....After the absolution, you should dance like the prodigal son did at the request and for the joy of his father. We do not dance enough in the spiritual life (D'Elbee, I Believe in Love, pp. 20-21).

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: stephanie.linden2136 - Feb. 24, 2015 3:58 AM ET USA

    Thank you! This article is like having a little hour of spiritual direction.