Friday, March 10, 2017 - Updated: 7:00 am
QUESTION: I am a bit confused about the “penance” that we receive in confession. What is the purpose of that?
QUESTION: A recent homily informed us that “unless we do penance we perish.” The only way I understand “penance” is the little prayer that the priest gives us when we finish our confession. In the context of the homily, what is the meaning of “penance?”
ANSWER: The sacrament of reconciliation has several parts: contrition (sorrow for sin), confession (acknowledgement) of sin, act of penance (satisfaction) and absolution. The purpose of the “penance” is given in the church’s Rite of Penance when it says that “true conversion is completed by acts of penance ...” (6). It goes on to add that “the kind and extent of the satisfaction (penance) should be suited to the personal condition of each penitent so that each one may restore the order which he disturbed ...” (6).
Therefore, the “penance” of the sacrament of reconciliation has at least two meanings. First, it is directly related to the conversion that should accompany our contrition. We should be willing to express our sorrow for sin by our actions. Thus, if I confess sorrow for anger against a neighbor or relative, I should be willing to perform a penance that might include praying for that person.
In addition, the penance should be related to the consequences of the sins we have committed. Thus, as a result of my sorrow for sin, I should be willing to repair some of the damage my sin has done. If I was sorry for harming a person’s reputation, would I not want to take steps to restore it? If I was really sorry for stealing something, would I not want to take steps to return it?
The penance spoken of in the second question is related to but not identical to what we speak of in the sacrament of reconciliation. This notion of penance is rooted in the words of Jesus “to take up your cross and follow me.”
These words continue to challenge the Christian to a life-long attitude of penance. It is not always to be seen in individual acts but in the willing acceptance of the path of Jesus, a dying and rising, a Good Friday and an Easter Sunday.
This vision is at the heart of our Christian vocation. We are called to share in the glory of the Resurrection, but only after we have shared in the cross. We have been “baptized into his death” so as to share in his resurrection.
Practically what this means in our everyday lives is that we appreciate what the disciples and early church came to realize. Our relationship to Christ does not mean an end of suffering but rather offers a meaning to it. Christ asks us to see the suffering and difficulties of our lives as part of our individual and corporate acceptance of the cross. This notion of penance is not necessarily one of choosing individual acts but of applying a specific attitude to some of the difficulties we face in daily life.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.