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The Practice of Penance and Reparation

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But repentance isn't principally a bodily act either. It's ultimately a thing of the heart that overflows into deeds.

Father Roger J.

On Good Friday, we ponder the enormity of Jesus' sufferings in expiation for your sins, mine, and those of the whole world. It's perhaps the most fitting day of the year to consider what for most Catholics would be among the least appealing practices in a Plan of Life: acts of penance and reparation.

At the beginning of Lent, Jesus called us to repent and believe in the Gospel. This word "repent" doesn't mean just an intellectual act of recognizing we've sinned and resolving to live by faith according to Christ's indications. It also indicates acts of penance.

The Ninevites repented in sackcloth and ashes at Jonah's preaching. The whole people of Israel -- husbands, wives, children, resident aliens, hired laborers, slaves and pets -- repented in sackcloth, ashes and fervent prayers when Holofernes and the Assyrians were attacking. The Jewish people did multiple corporeal penances in Babylon for the sins that led to the exile. There's a litany of other examples.

But repentance isn't principally a bodily act either. It's ultimately a thing of the heart that overflows into deeds.

"Jesus' call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, 'sackcloth and ashes,' fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion," the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us. It aims, rather, at "a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed."

Without this interior change of heart, all penances would be "sterile and false," the Catechism says. Whenever this interior change is real, however, it expresses itself "in visible signs, gestures and works of penance."

Among the most common ones insisted upon by Scripture and Tradition are "above all three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others" (CCC 1430-4)

That's precisely what Jesus calls us to do on Ash Wednesday. But those three practices are not meant to expire when Lent ends but to continue in some form throughout the year. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are, moreover, just a beginning of the type of life and penance and reparation we're called to live, not just to perfect our own conversion and expiation, but to beg for God's mercy and make amends for the sins of others as well.

The traditional word for acts of penance and reparation is "mortification." In this Age of Affirmation and the consumerist, quasi-religious pursuit of the maximization of pleasure, mortification is almost regarded as a dirty word. "Putting to death" -- which is what mortification literally means -- seems diametrically opposed to the "life" we're seeking. To mention mortification is seemingly to conjure images of the Pharisees, Montanists, Flagellants, Jansenists, and Dan Brown's albino monk. The only thing that would come from the subjugation of any natural impulses, we're tempted to believe, would be noxious psychological repression.

And yet Jesus is pretty clear about our need for it. He stresses that unless we deny ourselves, pick up our Cross -- one of the strongest symbols of death in the ancient world -- each day and follow him, we cannot be his disciple (Mk 8:34). St. Paul said that unless we mortify the life of the flesh we cannot live according to the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:13). Self-denial and mortification are essential aspects, therefore, of the Christian life. To reject them, like St. Peter tried to repudiate Christ's own sufferings, is to play the part of Satan and to think not as God does but as human beings do (Mt 16:23).

So the question for a Catholic seeking holiness through the spiritual regimen of a Plan of Life is not whether but how to live the penance and reparation to which our faith calls us.

In the past there were lots of voluntary mortifications designed to help us unite with Christ's own prayer of penance and reparation. People wore hairshirts or used the cilice to offer up hidden physical discomforts. They took the discipline to bind themselves to Christ's scourging. They fasted severely, or slept on the floor, or took ice cold showers to crucify the insatiable human desire for comfort. There's nothing wrong with these traditional practices for those who are stable.

But I think there are more fruitful forms of voluntary mortification that both discipline our appetites and align our heart to Christ's virtue.

Examples are to live the heroic moment and get up punctually and promptly; to show up early for appointments; to persevere in prayer or in a good work when we when want to quit; to share our time, knowledge, money, skills and faith with others, especially with those who annoy us; to do what we don't want to do first and as well as we can; to deprive ourselves of something pleasant to which we have a right, since in sin we chose something to which we had no right; to do more than we would do, especially if it's difficult, or give up more than we would forsake.

I've always believed, however, that the most effective mortifications of all are not the ones we choose but the involuntary ones God sends us that we accept and welcome with faith.

Examples of these are being patient with people who interrupt, importune or bore us; forgiving readily those who misunderstand, misjudge, malign, persecute, neglect or otherwise wound us; suffering the Crosses we're asked to bear without complaint, bitterness, or self-pity; and eating gladly whatever food is served.

There are so many opportunities each day for mortifications of this type that we would never be wanting. And these conform us most to him who was silent when he led like a Lamb to the slaughter (Is 53:7), who returned no insult (1 Pet 2:23), and who prayed for his persecutors, did good to those who hated him, and loved his enemies (Lk 6:27,35) until the end.

From his prayerful penance and reparation on Golgotha that we devoutly ponder today, Jesus calls us to follow him -- and in so doing, indicates to us the path to holiness, to sharing more fully in his victory over sin and death and to helping him repair and co-redeem the world.

Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.

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