The best penances are those that God sends us. These penances are immediately consequent upon His “will signified,” that is, the natural moral law and any positive law to which we are bound in conscience, e.g., the Church’s laws on fast and abstinence, or the rule of a religious congregation. They are also consequent upon God’s “will of good pleasure,” which we see in the various events which He causes or allows to occur in our lives. The next best penances are those that help us to extinguish sin, that aid us in fulfilling the duties of our state in life, and that foster genuine devotion in our souls.
The following suggestions are made with this in mind. Many of these penances are good habits that should extend beyond Lent, but we need to start somewhere, and Lent is the best time for that.
For All: I will keep the Church’s traditional Lenten fast and abstinence. Traditionally, every day of Lent (excluding Sundays) was a fast day, defined as having only one meal, with two light collations allowed, both of which together do not add up to a full meal, with no additional snacks. Every day of Lent was also traditionally a day of abstinence from flesh-meat (hence the pre-Lent carinval — from carne vale, “goodby meat!”). No longer obligatory, these are still salutary penances.
For All: I will add such-and-such practices to my spiritual regimen. (Positive devotional practices would include spiritual reading, mental prayer, daily Mass, family Rosary, weekly confession. Starting these habits and/or augmenting them slightly during Lent will entail some penance by sacrificing time or preferences. Such a regimen must not interfere with the duties of our state in life.)
For Fathers: I will get to know my boys better, in fact, I will get to know all my children better, so that I will cultivate a healthy relationship with them. This will help me to be someone they will trust for advice, and open up to about their troubles. To do this will entail a sacrifice of time, and possibly other sacrifices too, as I will have to speak with them and do things with them when I might rather attend to other matters.
For Mothers: Knowing how important it is to teach by example, I will make the sacrifice of getting up a little early so that I will get my children to school (and/or Mass) on time. (This resolution would obviously pertain to anyone who has had a problem in this area.)
For Men: I will read The Three Marks of Manhood by G.C. Dilsaver and try to implement its exhortations in my life.
For Husbands: I will listen more to my wife — not obey, but listen — so that I can cultivate a genuine sympathy for her, studying to understand her needs, fears, and concerns. This is not to forfeit my role as head of the family; rather, it is to make me fulfill that role in a truly Christian manner: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the church, and delivered himself up for it” (Ephesians 5:25).
For Wives: I will revere and obey my husband as head of the family. I will not criticize him to others,[1. Evidently, seeking counsel from a confessor, director, or close, trusted adviser about one's husband may require some measure of speaking ill of him. This would not violate the resolution, but it must be kept in mind that not every lady friend constitutes a "trusted adviser": Be in peace with many, but let one of a thousand be thy counsellor (Ecclus. 6:6).] mindful of the example of Saint Monica, whose own husband, Patricius, was very abusive toward her, but who castigated ladies who spoke ill of their husbands in her presence. (“Wives, be subject to your husbands, as it behoveth in the Lord.” Colossians 3:18; cf. Ephesians 5:22-24.)
For Women/Girls: Taking the warning from Our Lady of Fatima that most people go to hell for sins of the flesh, and knowing that one of the nine ways of being an accessory to the sins of another is “provocation,” I will adopt a traditional Catholic dress code, not only for Mass attendance, but also for all places and occasions. (Note: Women are supposed to be beautiful. God made them that way for good reason. He also commands them to be modest. I say this to illustrate that feminine beauty and modesty are not contradictory, but complementary. Our sisters have a list of modesty resources on their IHM School blog, including a link to Coleen Hammond’s succinct Outfit Guideline. Mrs. Hammond’s Dressing with Dignity is highly recommended reading.)
For Children/Youth: I will not murmur when given a directive or correction by a parent or any other authority figure. Instead, I will be punctual in obeying it. (“Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing to the Lord.” Colossians 3:20)
For Children/Youth: I will do something pleasantly surprising for my mother and/or father on a regular basis. Note: It will not necessarily be pleasant for me, but will entail some sacrifice, even if only small.
A Lenten program should be genuinely penitential but also within our reach, which means we must be able to sustain it for the entirety of Lent. It would do us no good to spend a week on bread and water, in sackcloth and ashes, if we become discouraged and give up.
The reader might pleasantly surprise your confessor by asking his advice on a good Lenten penance. He might also surprise you — by giving you exactly the penance you need!