Welcome to Lent! It’s one of my favorite seasons of the Church year, because it’s so wonderfully steeped in centuries-old traditions. It kind of snuck up on me this year, but I am still looking very forward to it—and using it as a time to simplify life and concentrate on what really matters: relationship with God.

Catholics sometimes get a bit of a bad reputation around town for being morose or a bit heavy-handed—always insisting that people do penance, guilting (or worse, shaming) people into abiding by the commandments of God, not allowing this and not allowing that… All that of course comes from a misunderstanding of the Church’s theology (what we believe about God) and anthropology (what we believe about the human person). I won’t even attempt to correct all of it in one bulletin article, but there’s something for our Lenten mindsets that I think would be pertinent to address.

Penance, simply put, is not a punishment. Fasting is not—or at least shouldn’t be—depriving ourselves of good things just because some big, mean “god” demands it of us. Penance is rather the response of a joyful and grateful heart.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) talks about two types of penance: interior and exterior. Interior penance is conversion—it’s the turning of our hearts away from sin and toward God, trying to amend our lives as much as we can because of the hope that we have that God is merciful and will give us the grace to continue to grow in love and relationship with Him. Exterior acts of penance are what most of us probably think of: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Both, if you think about it, are the high calling of the Church to us during the season of Lent. But most of us generally only think of the latter. Our external penances are—or again, should be—acts that we perform out of our interior penance or conversion, outward manifestations of an inward reality. In other words, as I like to put it, it’s saying with our bodies what we believe with our souls.

What penance is decidedly not is an attempt to earn God’s grace. Grace is always and everywhere the free gift of God. God loves us freely and without coercion, and there is quite simply nothing that we can do EVER to change that, either in a positive or negative direction. God is unchanging, after all, so His estimation of us does not change because we did or did not do something. Certainly, though, we can choose to receive or close ourselves off to that grace, to demonstrate our acceptance of that grace by our acts of charity and penitence or our rejection of that love by acts of sin.

Some of you may be thinking: wait, don’t we get assigned a penance after confession precisely to “make up for” our sins? Yes! That’s another sense of the word penance—but here again, it’s not a punishment for the sins we’ve done or even a way to earn the forgiveness that we’ve already received. The penance assigned to us in the confessional is a way of making “satisfaction” for our sins. CCC §1459 puts it this way: “Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy the disorders sin has caused [to the sinner, or his/her relationship to God and neighbor].” Penance here is again a response to (not a cause for) our forgiveness, an attempt to rectify the damage, not to satisfy God or convince Him that we’re worthy of the gift. We receive forgiveness for free…but our response, in gratitude and joy, is to do something to demonstrate our reception of that grace and to make up, in sorrow, for the damage that our sin has caused in the world.

So our penances, Lenten or otherwise, shouldn’t be viewed as punishments for sin—they’re not really something morose or guilt-ridden at all. They are a participation in the realm of grace with the free and undeserved gift of God. They are an acknowledgement with our bodies that we want to receive this grace. It’s our free offering back to God, acknowledging that we are weak and that we are prone to turning away from Him. But by these penances, we speak our desire to live not in rebellion to His goodness, but in humble acceptance of His manifold grace.

Keep spreading joy!

Fr. Friedel

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