Understanding the Virtue of Penance and How to Grow in It

In the readings for sexagesimal Sunday (II Cor 11:19-12:9), St. Paul boasts of his weakness and in so doing glorifies the power of Christ to overcome all human conditions… ultimately death itself.

It’s not often that we, boast of our weakness… ‘would that we might share such stories with each other more frequently to magnify Christ.  But there is one field in which we do still, experience this… The Sacrament of Penance.  There, in the quiet of the confessional, we admit our smallness, weakness, sinfulness… and in that very act of trusting admission we imply (hopefully) that Jesus can forgive us, heal us, and renew us in hope for the future.  

How appropriate during this time of preparation for Lent that we might pause to focus on the sacrament that so marks that holy season.  

Though we usually refer to it as confession, because that’s what we do in the sacrament.  The Church formally calls the sacrament Penance highlighting the virtue that’s at work:

The Catechism of Trent identifies some of the subtleties of the virtue.  It begins with the obvious… that penance is an anguish of soul because we become aware of our sin.

But the fathers then take an interesting turn that is so important, and often forgotten:

“Penance, however, in those who repent, must be preceded by faith without which no man may turn to God.”  Our Anguish is thus always couched in our belief in and encounter with the God who is love itself.  The CCC of St. JPII expresses this faith beautifully referencing St. Clement of Rome: “Let us fix our eyes on Christ’s blood and understand how precious it is to the Father, for, poured out for our salvation, it has brought to the whole world the grace of repentance.”

Picking back up with Trent: “No one can deny that it is a virtue to be sorrowful at the time, in the manner, and to the extent which are required.  To regulate sorrow in this manner belongs to the virtue of penance.  …Some conceive of a sorrow which bears no proportion to their crimes… Others, on the contrary, give themselves to such melancholy and grief, as utterly to abandon all hope of salvation… Penance, therefore, as a virtue, assists us in restraining within the bounds of moderation our sense of sorrow.

The eighteenth century theologian, Cardinal Alfonso Capecelatro describes this virtue in another way pointing out that the happiness of the world is marked by exceptional highs and its sorrows marked by the dejected lows. Secular man oscillates between these with exhausting frequency, “On the other hand, the habitual state of the man who is living according to the mind of Christ is, or should be, one of abiding peace which comes from the moderation of all things and the hope of the life to come; I say peace, not happiness, for happiness is the exclusion of pain and sorrow, wile peace does but lighten them and help us bear them with patience.  Circumscribed by Christian law this peace may be joyous or sad.  And thus there is a Christian joy and a Christian sadness.”

So our confessions should be rooted in this peace… a peace that flows from faith in the merciful God… a peace regulated by the virtue of penance.  

But the Word of God… in this case “Penance” …As Sexagesima Sunday’s Gospel relates (Lk 8:4-15)… It falls on many different types of ground.  The Path: there is no reception of the word, no faith: “Sin doesn’t matter at all… in fact there is no sin.”  or, alternately we go off the rails in the other direction and remain only ever miserable about our transgressions and those of others.  The Rocky Ground: I pay lip service to the virtue of penance… offer a superficial fly by recitation of my sins to get them out there but I leave and go back to the same old same old.  One indicator of this may be the “script” confession… literally the exact same word for word confession each time.  Another indicator of Rocky Ground is the frequent use of euphemisms for certain sins or antiquated language.  Hiding behind euphemisms and legalistic names suggests that there is still a fundamental fear of the sin in question, a lack of faith in God’s love for the penitent.  There’s a degree of sincerity, of reality here, but it withers quickly for lack of roots.  The Thorns: I do believe, I do confess thoroughly and with sincere purpose of amendment… I receive my penance and absolution fruitfully… then I turn on my TV or computer and read angry news, angry blogs, lustful websites and a host of other thorn bushes choke the good experience of penance.  And of course, every now and then the virtue of penance falls on good clear ground and we can bear fruit for real long lasting conversion.  

Brothers and sisters, as we proceed toward the holy season, let’s shine up that primordial Christian practice of boasting in our weakness that we might glorify Christ… let’s do it in our conversations, but let’s also refresh our practice of the virtue of penance …shake it up a bit… try a different examination of conscience… if things have become routine, change them up… Are there thorns around your practice of penance… identify them and radically pull them up this Lent… so that all of us may experience Christian peace through the virtue of penance. 

Amen.