The Practice of Penance
and the Observance of the Friday Fast
by Father John A. Hardon, S.J.
The practice of penance is simply living out the virtue. Where the virtue is the divinely endowed power, the practice is our exercising this power. Of course, we still need grace to practice penance, but nobody is going to do it for us. We must practice. God gave us the virtue, but then we have to use the penitential energy received. We must decide that we are sinners and act accordingly. Sometimes watching some people act, the way they behave, you would think they had never once in their twenty, forty, or sixty years committed the smallest peccadillo. Every Our Father in which we pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” every Hail Mary in which we ask “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death,” every Apostles’ Creed in which we say “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” is a profession of our sinfulness and an invitation to put our virtue of penance into practice.
One aspect of the practice of penance has to do with the proper observance of Fridays. I am afraid there is some misunderstanding on the subject. In 1966 when Pope Paul VI issued his Constitution on Penance, he did not change the essential meaning of Friday as an obligatory, yes, obligatory day of penance to be observed in union with the passion of the Savior. Fridays were, and they remain, mandatory days of penance. A Catholic has no option as to whether he will do penance on every Friday. This is a duty specified by the Church. The only option is the kind of penance one performs.
At the risk of being technical about this important matter, let me explain. Each member of the Church should be united with his fellow Christians in offering reparation to God for sins. We can choose to do penance on any day and in any way that appeals to us. A work of penance is always pleasing to God. To do penance is a divine law. But besides the divine law, there is an ecclesiastical precept, a law of the Church to practice penance on certain days and in the manner the Church requires. What was formerly given as the second precept of the Church could now be modified to read, “to fast and abstain, or do some act of penance approved by the Church, on the day commanded.” The question may be asked, “In place of abstinence on Friday other forms of penance are mentioned by the Church. Are these of obligation or merely a matter of counsel?” The answer to this question, is that a person who avails himself of the choice of eating meat on Friday is not merely advised to undertake some other form of penance; he is bound to do so.
Friday penance, therefore, is not a matter of mere counsel, but of actual precept. In plain language, a Catholic commits sin if he or she allows a Friday to pass without an act of penance. In Pope Paul’s Constitution on the subject entitled Poenitemini (which is the imperative of the verb “Repent”), after the Holy Father enumerates the days of penance, he states, “The substantial observance of these days binds gravely.” It may be recalled that there were some questions among commentators after the constitution was issued as to how this phrase should be interpreted. Did it refer to the days taken singly, so that on each Friday there was a grave obligation to penance with due allowance for slightness of matter, or did substantial observance mean that the days were to be taken collectively and only then was the obligation binding under mortal sin? The question has been authentically answered by the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, that it does not necessarily refer to each day, but that a person would sin seriously who omitted a part of the Friday penitential observance prescribed as a whole, if the part omitted were notable with regard to either quantity or quality and there was no excusing cause.
In the light of this teaching of the Church, when would a person be guilty of serious sin by not observing Fridays as days of penance? A practical answer is when he or she had failed to observe a notable number of Fridays, without proportionally grave reason. Many Catholics continue to satisfy their precept of Friday penance by regular abstinence from meat. This is highly commendable. But if they prefer to eat meat on Friday, they are bound in conscience to practice some other, corresponding penance instead. The proper observance of Fridays is critically important for the Church. This is where pastors must instruct the people, and confessors should enlighten their penitents to help them form a correct conscience.
All of this needed to be said, I believe, in order to clarify what I fear is being neglected, out of ignorance rather than bad will.
Our approach to the practice of penance, however, should not be mainly to avoid transgression. We should look upon penance not as something unpleasant, but as an opportunity to expiate our sins and thus be more closely united with our Lord in His sufferings for the salvation of mankind. It is my belief and fond hope that a recovery of Friday as a weekly day of penance, legislated as such by the Church, will help all of us in the post-conciliar age to rediscover what must be the foundation of our spiritual life. What is this foundation? That we realize we are all sinners. Our sanctity begins when we admit that we have sinned, because then, Jesus makes sense to us. We realize He has something to save us from.
We are sinners, indeed, and therefore we need to make reparation for our sins. How? We need to love God more, by more frequent and fervent prayer and reception of the sacraments. We need to love others more, by being more generous with our time and more willing to sacrifice comfort, convenience, effort, and money to assist those who are in need. We need to suffer more, by doing without things that are not necessary, by giving up luxuries and delicacies, by willingly bearing with discomforts and even some positive pain, in order to make up for our past self-indulgence, and the sins we have committed by seeking our pleasure and ease.
A final word. We shall grow in virtue and the grace of God, in the degree that we mortify our self will. Every surrender of what I prefer, to what God prefers, is an act of penance, pure and pleasing to the Lord. And this kind of penance is available to everyone who loves much, because he or she has been forgiven much. I suspect that on this point all of us qualify.
Copyrighted by © Inter Mirifica. Used with permission.
Previously published in The Tilma, January 2004