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The command to do penance was uttered by Jesus Christ in no uncertain terms: Unless you do penance, you shall all likewise perish,” (Luke 13, 3-5).

While the external circumstances of penance have changed in this modern age, the burden of fasting having been lightened and dispensations multiplied to fit the less physically strong but more hurried and strained modern day lifestyle, we are still called by our Master to deny ourselves and take up the Cross to follow Him, praying with Him in the desert. The materialistic notion that many have of penance often leads to its entire neglect or unworthy performance. The superficial is satisfied with the external act of penance; the self-indulgent find it too burdensome to even attempt. This is why penance has lost its proper place and many have wandered away from it.

The primary purpose of penance is a closer union of the soul with God. Man was made for God and sin frustrates this purpose. True penance is a turning away from sin and a returning unto God. The external act of penance is a means to an end which should not just be the self-satisfaction we feel for the expiation of personal sin, but the impulse of love to remove all that is obnoxious or offensive to our Blessed Lord. The external acts are very necessary, but if it lacks this true spirit, it is as dust.
Holy Church instructs us, during Lent, to turn away from sinful pursuits and even harmless and legitimate ones as well, in order to have more time for God, to enter more fully into the life of Christ, and to participate in His Passion as willing disciples and explore the depths of His love. We frustrate the interior purpose of penance when we find ready excuses for frequenting time- consuming entertainments that are often fatiguing and that leave us less time & taste for prayer, Stations of the Cross, daily Mass, and even an unreadiness for receiving Holy Communion.
Fasting and abstinence cultivates strength in unselfishness, subordinating our lusts to reason and will. These laws of Holy Moth- er Church will help us cultivate temperance and preserve life, and in the practical cultivation of this spirit, the letter of the law will acquire new meaning–and even attraction.

The Council of Trent teaches that good works, whereby satisfaction is made for sin, are reducible to these three familiar classes: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Christ’s Passion imparts two rights or privileges to our good works: first, the privilege to merit the rewards of eternal happiness; and second, the privilege to satisfy for the punishment due to our sins.
After we have turned our wills from God by sin, after we have given our- selves over to pleasure contrary to our duty to Him, these penitential woks are means of deliberately turning about, facing the loving God we have offended. They are the means whereby we pay back a measure of pain and sorrow for the measure of forbidden pleasure and joy we have taken in sin. Therefore, these acts partake of the character of punishment. If we consider these three classes of good works, we see that they are the principal weapons to be used against our triple enemy, the three great passions of our soul and the source of our sins: concupiscence of the flesh, concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life.
Prayer, which subjects the faculties of the soul to God, is opposed to pride. The good works of prayer include all the acts of the virtue of religion; participation in the Mass, reception of the sacraments, hearing sermons, reading spiritual books, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, prayers– mental and vocal, public and private and other act.
Fasting, which sacrifices to God the inclination of the body, is opposed to the concupiscence of the flesh, the source of most of our sins. The good works of fasting include, besides fasting and abstinence, all kinds of mortification, both interior and exterior kinds.
Almsgiving, which surrenders time, material goods of value, and service to our neighbor, is opposed to concupiscence of the eyes, or avarice. It is a type of penance greatly to be recommended today when Christians are so frequently lost to the Faith by falling victims to the allurements of wealth and material possessions. These good works include the giving of alms and the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and they oppose the first five capital sins.

If we choose our penances wisely, we will not only satisfy for the temporal punishment due to our past sins, but we will be building up spiritual and moral strength that will preserve us from future falls into the same sins. In this way, by striking at the roots of sin, we gradually purify ourselves, lessen our sins, and please God by becoming more like our divine Lord. We naturally feel a repugnance to penance. We may think it will interfere with our happiness by checking our natural tendencies and desire. But we
must not look at the practice of penance as an end in itself. It is only a means, though a very necessary one, of death to sin and the remains of sins so that we may live a Christian life more fully. Great masters of the spiritual life have considered the quiet, cheerful bearing of little crosses that flow from our daily duties as the best and safest penances of all for they require great and continued courage.
Source: The Ark and the Dove
Right Rev. Msgr. Clarence E. Elwell


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