Catholic Classroom: Penance
Question: Why do Catholics perform acts of penance?
Lent is a penitential season in which we enter into our Lord’s passion in preparation for his glorious resurrection. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, this liturgical season is particularly appropriate for acts voluntary self-denial such as fasting and abstinence. However, penances such as these are not reserved for Lent alone. Every Catholic does penance after receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation, and some Catholics choose to impose penances at other times for various reasons. So where does the concept of penance come from?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of penance is “an act of self-abasement, mortification or devotion performed to show sorrow or repentance for sin.” We are all sinners in need of repentance and thus we are all obliged to do penance.
When talking about penance, it is important to note two things. First, acts of penance are not arbitrary punishments. Any mortification that we impose on ourselves should flow from a sincere repentance for our sins, and should be an outward sign of our desire to be ever-more closely united to Jesus. The Catechism says: "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. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance." (CCC 1430)
Second, our personal penances do not cleanse of us of our sins. Only God’s mercy, received through the Sacrament of Penance, can do that. Our penances should be done with hope in God's mercy and trust in his grace.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus explains what true repentance and penance should look like through a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee pridefully boasts about his fasting and tithing, whereas the tax collector humbly beats his breast and prays, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee’s acts of fasting and tithing are superficial and empty because he is not truly sorry for his sins. The tax collector, on the other hand, beats his breast out of an authentic recognition of and sorrow for his sins. At the end of the parable, Jesus says the tax collector “went home justified.”
Acts of penance should remind us that we are sinners, but they should also remind us that we can turn away from our sin and take part in the divine life of Christ. Lent is a wonderful opportunity to deeply examine our lives, repent of our sins, and perform these humble acts of penance. God’s mercy is endless, and even after we have sinned, he is always eagerly waiting to welcome us back into his loving embrace.