Why Catholics Do Penance?
I start today's blog with a quote from one of the early leaders of the primitive church in the mid- fourth century. Athanasius, a bishop, was instrumental in combatting the heresy of Arianism and was one of the church fathers involved in the formulation of the Creed.
Let's hear what he said about confession: Athanasius (d. 373): "As the man whom the priest baptizes is enlightened by the grace of the Holy Ghost, so does he who in penance confesses his sins, receive through the priest forgiveness in virtue of the grace of Christ" (Frag. contra Novat. in P. G., XXVI, 1315).
This illustrates that a priest being able to transmit God's grace through the sacrament of penance (confession) was known and practiced in the early church. There are many other writings of the church fathers including Augustine that support the fact that confession is not a novel doctrine created later in church history.
Now onto Penance.
If Christ forgives our sins through absolution given by the priest, why then do we need to do anything further?
As alluded to in my blog earlier this week, the Bible is clear about the notion of making restitution, or requiring satisfaction for our sins. Though Christ forgives us, he still requires us to "fix" what we broke so to speak, repay what we stole, etc. When we sin, even if privately, we disturb our union with God and our communion with His church. Did you ever notice how sheepish you feel sometimes going to fellowship or worship after a particularly difficult time of wallowing in the pig troughs? So clearly, even our "private" sin affects our relationship to others. By performing acts of penance, we restore this relationship and "make amends" for our sins.
We don't gain forgiveness for our sins by penance, that is done by Christ acting through the priest.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states it much more eloquently than I:
1459 Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must "make satisfaction for" or "expiate" his sins. This satisfaction is also called "penance."
1460 The penance the confessor imposes must take into account the penitent's personal situation and must seek his spiritual good. It must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed. It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear. Such penances help configure us to Christ, who alone expiated our sins once for all. They allow us to become co-heirs with the risen Christ, "provided we suffer with him." The satisfaction that we make for our sins, however, is not so much ours as though it were not done through Jesus Christ. We who can do nothing ourselves, as if just by ourselves, can do all things with the cooperation of "him who strengthens" us. Thus man has nothing of which to boast, but all our boasting is in Christ . . . in whom we make satisfaction by bringing forth "fruits that befit repentance." These fruits have their efficacy from him, by him they are offered to the Father, and through him they are accepted by the Father.
When I made my first confession after 31 years away from the church I thought my penance would be some formula of "Hail Marys" and "Our Fathers." Guess what? The priest gave me penance by asking me to " tell someone everyday about what Jesus has done for you."
That was it! That was my penance! And to this day God has given me the opportunity one way or another to share what He has done for me through the Catholic Church. I walked out of that confessional feeling truly forgiven and unburdened and God imparted a great amount of grace to me. Each Saturday my priest hears confessions. That is my opportunity to speak into the "ear of God" and a "window of heaven" is opened and God's grace comes pouring down on me. Thank you Jesus for your Amazing Grace!