The Importance of Penance and What It Is

Mary M. Dillon

The Importance of Penance and What It Is

Lent is a season of the Liturgical Year whereby the faithful prepare for the great feast commemorating Christ’s Resurrection from the dead—Easter Sunday. Throughout the history of the Church, this period of time has been associated with the practice of penance through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and other pious practices.

The Constitution on Sacred Liturgy of Vatican Council II points to “two elements especially characteristic of Lent—the recalling of baptism or the preparation for it, and penance” stating that “It is by means of them [baptism and penance] that the Church prepares the faithful for the celebration of Easter while they hear God’s word more frequently and devote more time to prayer” (“History of Lent,” Father William Saunders).

The History of Practicing Penance during Lent

Earliest Church history gives evidence of some kind of Lenten preparation for Easter. St. Irenaeus (d. 203) writing to the Pope at that time, St. Victor I, makes observations on practices in the East and West with regards to Easter and in Eusebius, History of the Church, V 24, there is a passage about the fact that there was a 40 day period of Lenten preparation since the “time of our forefathers (a reference to the Apostles)” (Saunders).

The “40” of the 40 days of Lent is spiritually significant as well. The number “40” is connected to preparation in Scripture:  Moses on Mt. Sinai preparing to receive the Ten Commandments “stayed 40 days and 40 nights without eating any food or drinking any water” (Ex 34:28); Elijah walked “40 days and 40 nights” to Mt. Horeb (1 Kgs 19:8); Jesus, most significant of all, “fasted and prayed 40 days and 40 nights” before his public ministry (Mt 4:2).

Practices and duration of Lent were not yet regularized in the Church until about A.D. 313 (Saunders). The origin of the Lenten period, then, had to do with the immediate need for making ready the Catechumens. This necessitated  “penitential practices” (such as fasts) in preparation for them to receive baptism which included forgiveness of sins as they were received into the Church. Catechumens were received into the Church during the Liturgy of the Easter Vigil.

With the Christianization of Europe, the catechumenal aspect of Lent shifted towards Catholics who were already baptized. These Catholics, “recalling their baptism” yearly at the Easter Vigil Liturgy renewed their baptismal vows “renouncing Satan and his works and promising to serve God in the Holy Catholic Church,” while new converts received baptism at the liturgy.

In the early Church, for those who after baptism committed serious sin such as idolatry, murder, adultery, questions arose about whether they should be excommunicated or be re-baptized. The eventual solution was to impose “penitential practices” some of which in the early Church were extremely severe and prolonged. Over time, the Church modified her penitential discipline with the Sacrament of Penance. The Sacrament of Penance eventually became more regularized with private confession of sins along with absolution and an assigned penance becoming the common form (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1447).

What Penance Is and Why We Do It

Penance, then, the second element characteristic of Lent is defined as “the virtue or disposition of heart by which one repent’s of one’s own sins and is converted to God.”  It is further defined as: “ . . . the punishment by which one atones for sins committed, either by oneself or by others” and includes as well, “the Sacrament of Penance, where confessed sins committed after baptism are absolved by a priest in the name of God” (Modern Catholic Dictionary, J. Hardon, SJ).The priest gives a prayer or an action to be performed after we confess our sins— this is one’s “penance.”

St. John the Baptist, in “making straight the way of the Lord,” went about preaching repentance for one’s sins. “Do penance, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” The command to do penance brings us to the question of the reason for “doing penance” and the meaning of “penitence.” St. Thomas Aquinas’ explains that penance is a virtue by fact that its originating source is “to be found in the human will.” And further, that “Penitence is a rational act or set of acts; it is the apt response to something we have done, over which we are justifiably sad, and our sadness is explained by our being conscious of the fact that what we did was an offense against God. True penitence is very much other-directed; it is oriented toward God” (“Penitence,” D.Q. McInerny, Ph.D.).

To elucidate this, St. Thomas notes that, “the human will is able to act in this beneficial way because of the enabling inspiration of divine grace, which is always there, but it is up to us to properly respond to it.” St. Thomas Aquinas then, sees penitence as “a species, a particular manifestation, of the virtue of justice; when we act penitently we are acting justly, we are rendering to God what is due to God” (McInerny).

There is, then, a necessity to make amends in order to make things right because as St. Thomas says, “sin is a negative response to God’s love, an act of supreme ingratitude”. “When we sin we have, if not severed our relationship with God, at least damaged it, and we are under an obligation to restore things” as much as possible to where they were before. For St. Thomas the very heart of penitence is “a specific act of the will by which we decide to take action to reconstitute a healthy relationship between ourselves and God.” The “way” of taking this action is through penance. Penance is thus “a process of negation” in doing our best to undo what should have never been done. Penitence is “a kind of sacrifice” denoting “an offering to God” of the most cherished gift —“a sorrowing self”—and serving as an on-going act of reparation (McInerny). Finally, for St. Thomas the virtue of penitence is worthy of special praise “because it has the effect of destroying past sins, and this can be said of no other virtue. That by penitence we can wipe clean our sinful past was regarded as a source of great consolation by St. Thomas.

The Saints' Insights on Penance

The Saints give testimony to the forms of penance practiced in the early Church. St. Athanasius (d. 373) “implored his congregation to make a 40 day fast prior to the more intense fasting of Holy Week.” St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 461) also emphasized fasting. Abstention from meat and animal products was also common penitential practice. While fish was excepted from abstinence by some,  Pope St. Gregory (d. 604) included not only meat and flesh, but all thing that come from flesh such as milk, cheese and eggs (Saunders).

Throughout this time, holy men and women in the Church were observing remarkable penitential practices via traditional means of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in application for themselves and for the souls of many others. The Church in time, realized that sins could be “expiated not only by the sinner [through penance] but by others: indeed the whole Church, militant, suffering and triumphant cooperates in the expiation of sins” (“Assigned Penance in the Sacrament of Confession,” Hardon).

These Saints have given us wise counsel, and there is much more of this to be found:

        St. John the Baptist: “Make straight the way of the Lord.” (Luke 3:4)

        St. Paul: “Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thess. 5:17)

        St. Francis of Assisi: “Let us chastise our body crucifying it with its vices, concupiscence and sins, because by living according to the flesh, the devil wishes to take away from us the love of Jesus Christ and eternal life and to lose himself in hell with everyone else.”

       Our Lord to St. Faustina (Diary 1767): “My daughter, I want to instruct you on how you are to rescue souls through sacrifice and prayer. You will save more souls through prayer and suffering than will a missionary through his teachings and sermons alone.”

       The Angel of Peace at Fatima to the three children, Jacinta, Francisco, Lucia in 1916: “Penance, Penance, Penance!”

“Our approach to the practice of penance  . . . should not be mainly to avoid transgression. We should look upon penance not as something unpleasant, but as an opportunity to expiate our sins and thus be more closely united with our Lord in His sufferings for the salvation of mankind.” And further “Every surrender of what I prefer, to what God prefers, is an act of penance, pure and pleasing to the Lord. And this kind of penance is available to everyone who loves much, because he or she has been forgiven much” (“Practice of Penance,” Hardon).

Living Up to Our Lenten Requirement

While there are still requirements for days of abstinence and fasting (Lenten Observances), they have been greatly simplified. Additionally, there are numerous opportunities for the faithful to engage in penitential practice, which happily include many pious practices during Lent. Among these are the daily Rosary; The Five First Saturday Devotions; Weekly Holy Hour; prayers for the souls in Purgatory; Stations of the Cross; The Divine Mercy Chaplet and Divine Mercy Novena starting on Good Friday; Prayers to end Abortion such as the 40 Days for Life apostolate; weekly Confession; nightly examination of conscience; performing Corporal Works of Mercy and Spiritual Works of Mercy; Attendance at daily Mass; spiritual reading (”Pious Practices for Lent”). Here are some helpful online meditations and guides for Lent “Pray your way through Lent” by Carl Olson (editor of Catholic World Report); “The Secret of Lent” by Fr. Thaddaeus Lancton, MIC; “Finding Everyday Masterpieces” by Sarah Chichester.

In his Ash Wednesday homily, Father Peter Stravinskas preached on many important subjects. His words about our baptism as related to penance were particularly enlightening. First quoting Pope St. John Paul II who had asked Catholics during a pastoral visit, “What have you done with your baptism?” Father Stravinskas then asked the congregation to consider the question “What have I done to the relationship of grace I had on the day of my baptism?”.  His advice: that we make an examination of conscience. But this self-assessment should not only be by using the Ten Commandments as guide, but also the Christian theological virtues—faith, hope and charity—which were given by God to us as gifts at baptism. He makes clear that only after such a complete examination, should we “approach the tribunal of mercy, which is the Sacrament of Penance, which ought to be an integral part of one’s Catholic practice.”

As a life-long Catholic, I have grown steadily in my appreciation for the gift of baptismal grace, and the richness of penitential practice in the history of the Church and in the stories of each or our lives.


How do you practice penance during Lent? Share in the comments!