Penance and the Conversion of America

Lent is on its way. During this penitential season of grace, the Church’s liturgy will put sentiments of penance on our lips and in our minds. She will also enjoin us, in various ways, to do works of penance.

In my last Ad Rem, Christ’s Commission and Obama’s Mandate: A Teachable Moment, I made the argument that the Church in America is reaping the bitter fruits of our neglect. Having failed to cultivate our section of the vineyard — that is, to make America Catholic, or at least to labor in earnest for this goal — we are being smitten by the rabid vermin that have made it their abode.

As individuals, and as a “local church” — the Catholic Church in America — we must do penance for our failings. We must also bear in mind that there is a correspondence between the notions of penance and conversion. The life of penance is a life of conversion. By penance, we have a change of heart (metanoia, the Greek word for penance used in the New Testament, literally means a “change of mind”). What is this change of heart but a conversion? The Latin derived word conversion literally means a turning around, something which, when applied to the soul, is conceptually very close to changing one’s heart or mind.

We Catholics are ever in need of conversion, not to another religion, of course, but back to God from sin, from indifference, from tepidity in His service. In the office of Compline, we beg God to convert us: “Convert us, O God our Savior!” Benedictine monks profess a vow of “conversion of morals.” Vows are made to be lived, not simply recited, therefore the monk vows a life of conversion. Saint Andre Bessette, and Venerable Solanus Casey are both known to have petitioned others with the request, “Pray for my conversion.” A saint is one who is ever converting by ever turning himself to God.

Those who live a penitential life, a life of ongoing conversion, are the most effective apostles to bring others to conversion. Regarding the Benedictines, just mentioned for their vow of “conversion of morals,” it must be admitted that they converted a large percentage of Christendom. Saints Augustine of Canterbury, Ansgar, Rembert, and Boniface are only a few of the apostles of the nations who professed this vow enjoined by their spiritual Father and the Patron of Europe, Saint Benedict. Being converted made them good “converters,” just as Saint Peter could only confirm the brethren once he himself was converted (Luke 22:32).

In light of these considerations, we ought to be mindful of our own personal need of penance this Lent, and of the social impact that our penance can have. Making a good Lent and living a penitential life are working for a Catholic America. Making the explicit intention to do penance for this purpose cannot be less than pleasing to God.

I have written a separate piece on suggested Lenten resolutions. It may be helpful to readers. Beyond that, considering the following words on penance from Adolphe Tanquerey’s The Spiritual Life may help us make a good Lent.

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Penance is defined as a supernatural virtue, allied to justice, which inclines the sinner to detest his sin because it is an offense against God, and to form the firm resolve of avoiding sin in the future, and of atoning for it.

Concerning “The Works of Penance.”

No matter how painful these works may be, they will seem of light account if we keep constantly in mind this thought: I am  a fugitive from hell, a fugitive from purgatory, and, were it not for the mercy of God, I would be there now, undergoing the well-merited punishment of my faults; therefore, I can consider nothing as humiliating me overmuch or grieving me above measure.

The chief works of penance we must perform are:

(1) The submissive, willing, and joyful acceptance of all the crosses Providence may see fit to send us. The Council of Trent teaches us that it is a great token of God’s love for us that He deigns to accept as satisfaction for our sins the patient endurance wherewith we suffer the temporal ills He visits upon us. Therefore, should we have any physical or moral trials to undergo, arising from the uncontrolled forces of nature or from reverses of fortune, from failure or from humiliation, let us, instead of breaking into bitter complaint as our tendencies would suggest, accept all such suffering in a spirit of gentle resignation, persuaded that they are the just wages of sin, and that patience in adversity is one of the best means of atoning for it. This acceptance, a mere resignation at first, will gradually grow into a manful, nay, a joyous endurance of ordeals, as we see our woes thereby assuaged and made fruitful. We should be glad thus to shorten our purgatory, to become more like Our Crucified Master and to glorify the God we have outraged. Then patience will bear all its fruits and cleanse our soul because it will be a work of love: “Many sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much.”

(2) To patience we shall add the faithful discharge of our duties of state in a spirit of penance and reparation. The most acceptable sacrifice we can offer God is obedience: “Obedience is better than sacrifices.” Now, the duties of our state are the manifest expression of God’s will in our regard. To fulfill them as perfectly as we can is to offer God the most perfect sacrifice within our giving, a perpetual holocaust, since this duty rests upon us from morning until night. This is assuredly true for such as live in community: faithful obedience to their rule, general or particular, and the courageous accomplishment of the orders or directions of their superiors multiply their acts of obedience, of sacrifice and of love, and enable them to repeat with St. John Berchmans: “My greatest penance is community life.” Such perfect discharge of the duties of state is likewise the best means of doing penance for persons in the world. Fathers and mothers who loyally observe all their obligations as husbands and wives and as parents have many occasions of offering God sacrifices that will work unto the purification of their souls. The one thing necessary is that they acquit themselves resolutely of their duties in a Christian manner, for God’s sake, and in a spirit of expiation and penance.

(3) There are other works of penance recommended in Holy Writ, such as fasting and almsgiving.

A) Fasting was, in the Old Dispensation, one of the great means of making atonement; it was called “to afflict the soul;” but to be acceptable it had to be accompanied by sentiments of sorrow for sin and mercy towards others. Under the New Law, fasting is an earnest of grief and of penance. The Apostles do not fast as long as the Bridegroom is with them, but they will fast when He is gone. Our Lord, wishing to expiate our sins, fasted forty days and forty nights, and taught His Apostles that certain evil spirits cannot be cast out except by prayer and fasting. True to His teachings, the Church has established the Lenten Fast, that of the Vigils and of the Ember Days to offer her children the opportunity of making expiation for their faults. Many a sin takes its rise directly or indirectly in the craving for pleasure, in excess in eating and drinking, and nothing is so effective in making atonement as mortification in eating, reaching as it does the very root of the evil by mortifying the craving for sensual pleasure. This is why the Saints have made a practice of fasting even outside the seasons appointed by the Church. Generous Christian souls imitate them and, if they cannot keep the strict fast, forego some food at each meal in order thus to curb their sensuality.

B) Almsgiving is both a work of mercy and a privation; from this double title it derives great power of atoning for our sins: “Redeem thou thy sins with alms.” When we deprive ourselves of some good to give it to Jesus Christ in the person of the poor, God does not allow Himself to be outdone in liberality, and He willingly remits part of the punishment due to our sins. The more generous we are, each according to his means, and the more perfect our intention in almsgiving, the more fully are our spiritual debts canceled. What we say of almsgiving with regard to the things that minister to the body holds true even more of spiritual almsgiving, which is calculated to promote the welfare of souls and thereby the glory of God. Thus it is one of the penitential acts the Psalmist promises to perform in reparation for his sin: “I will teach the unjust thy ways: and the wicked shall be converted to thee.”

Lastly, there come the voluntary privations and the acts of mortification we impose upon ourselves in expiation for our faults, particularly those that reach the heart of the evil, by punishing the faculties that have had part in our sins. This we shall treat in the following chapter on mortification. The priest after absolving the penitent sums up in striking words the means by which we can atone fully for our sins and cleanse our souls from the remains of forgiven sins: “May whatever good you do and whatever ill you bear be to you unto the remission of sins….”

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Have a fruitful and penitential Lent.