What the Church says:
Every Christian is required to do penance each in his own way. There are some common penances, however, for the whole Universal Church.
Penitential days and times: every Friday of the whole year and the seasons of Lent and Advent.
Abstinence from meat: All Fridays* except for Solemnities (like Christmas or the Assumption etc.). For those 14 and above.
Abstinence and Fasting: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. For those between 18 and 60. Fasting is normally understood as one full meal and two smaller meals which do not equal a whole meal.
*Exceptions and Variations: each conference of Bishops can decide more details about these days of penance; even substituting other forms of penance (many have allowed forms of penance other than abstinence from meat for Fridays during the year). Check your Conference of Bishops for more info.
Ok. So now we know what the Universal Church expects of all Christians as penance…but what about the part where it said “every Christian is expected to do penance in his own way”? What else do I have to do? What is penance? Why is it good? Is there more to it than ‘giving up’ chocolate?
Click on the topics below to find out more.
Penance, after prayer, is the most effective means of cleansing the soul of past faults and even for protecting it against future ones.
Penance is what we call an act of justice, we have offended God and violated God’s rights with our sin and so we must make reparation! You break a window…well you don’t just say you’re sorry—you fix it. Sin is an offense against an infinite God (therefore an infinite offense) and so we have to fix it in as much as we can. This is obviously a life long deal, not just a beginning-of-the-conversion thing. We are always messing up and our sins have infinite repercussions.
Penance includes four main things:
- With our intelligence and our faith we see that sin is an evil, the greatest evil, and since it offends God and deprives us of the greatest goods (grace, happiness, Heaven…) we HATE SIN with all our soul.
- Knowing that this sin is ours and that its traces remain on our soul even after being forgiven, we are sincerely contrite and our soul is weighed down by a deep sorrow.
- We firmly resolve to avoid sin in the future: by avoiding dangerous (for our soul) occasions and strengthening our will against the attraction of sin.
- We atone for our sin with our disposition and works of penance.
Disposition: We are sinners and fear sin because it separates us from God…Basically, remember that you’ve fallen hard or that, if you haven’t, it’s not because you’re strong, it’s because of God’s mercy. Example: Mary Magdalene and St. Therese of Lisieux.
Works of penance:
- Patience in trials and a joyful acceptance of the things God allows in my life, the things He permits to happen to me or around me.
- Faithfully doing our duties with a spirit of reparation.
- Fasting, as man has done for thousands of years for a very good reason…. Many sins come from our desires for pleasure (like eating and drinking) so what better way to counteract it than by denying ourselves a little.
- Almsgiving, denying ourselves by giving to others. Either physically, with things and money, or with things like spending time with the lonely.
As a little side note: If you've understood what has been said about penance and feel like you’re still missing something…it’s because there is even more! YAY! There are even more ways to help us get to Heaven!
Its called: mortification. It means “causing death” in Latin. Before you get scared and say this is “too intense, I’m outta here.” Remember what St. Paul said: “Those who belong to Christ have crucified their flesh, with the vices and concupiscences…”
Mortification is like the proactive fight against sin. Penance makes up for our sin and mortification is a battle against that which causes us to sin: our love of pleasure. We have to learn how to control ourselves and not let pleasures control us. When you wanna win the big game, or smoke ‘em all in the race…you work very hard for hours every day to do so. You sweat, you ache, you eat only that which will help your body perform well, you don’t spend much time with family, friends or in recreational things…All for THE GAME.
And what are you doing to get to heaven?
• Foregoing evil pleasures
• Renouncing dangerous pleasures
• Abstaining from certain licit pleasures, to ensure the dominion of our will over our desire for pleasure
Below are ideas for abstaining from certain licit pleasures, to ensure the dominion of our will over our desire for pleasure.
Of the eyes:
This is where we have to remember that what we see is engraven upon our memory…and frequently pops back up during temptations. So first, you shouldn’t watch bad movies or look at bad pictures…but then you should also abstain from those things that are dangerous (not outright bad but can lead to temptation). Examples: When I am driving down the highway I can avoid looking at the trashy billboards, not looking at the magazines in the checkout aisles or the clothes in the store windows, not watching movies that I wouldn’t watch with my mom or better yet, with the Blessed Mother.
Of the ears, tongue:
What I say and what I hear also are of vital importance. Examples: mortifying curiosity and not asking unnecessary questions, not gossiping. Having good conversations which make a person better even though they don’t have to be directly about God.
Of taste, touch, smell:
These senses too have to be watched. Not overdoing cologne, perfume or nice smelling lotions because we enjoy the smell, eating what is necessary and when (not being a glutton), eating more of what we don’t like and less of what we do, not indulging the sense of touch with super soft things, etc...
Of the imagination and memory:
These guys can go wild on us. They are great faculties, but ever since the fall of man they have given us problems. If it is not something outright sinful, well then they help us waste an enormous amount of time at work, school and in prayer. When I catch my mind wandering, I cut it off. I keep myself busy doing my duties wholeheartedly. And I use the imagination and memory to help pray and imagine the Gospels scenes and the mysteries of Jesus’ life.
Then other ways to mortify:
There are many types of mortifications of the body. Think what gives your body the most "comfort" and then speak to your spiriual director/confessor and see what you can do.
What the Church says: Full text.
Why Penance: Cf. The Spiritual Life by Rev. Adolphe Tanquerey