1. Fasting, almsgiving, and prayer were traditionally proposed as the three typical acts of penance (see Tb 12.8–10; Is 58.3–10). While Jesus condemned abuses in these practices, insisting that they be done in a proper spirit and not for show, he by no means abolished or criticized the practices themselves. Rather, he taught that, done in a proper spirit, they are meritorious, and the Father will reward them (see Mt 6.1–18).
2. It is understandable that Jesus should have commended these three practices (see S.t., sup., q. 15, a. 3). Sin is self-destructive, antisocial, and alienating from God. The self-restraint of fasting makes up to some extent for the destructive self-indulgence of sin; the mercy of almsgiving makes up for the damage done by sin to the Church’s communion of love; loving praise of God and petition to him make up for the alienation from God and pride involved in sin.
3. Christian thought has never regarded these penitential practices narrowly or considered them arbitrary and irrational impositions. In keeping watch and praying, for example, one keeps a vigil, that is, denies oneself rest as a means to serve the Lord more perfectly (see Mt 26.36–41; Mk 13.33; Lk 21.36). Again, as St. Leo the Great points out, fasting and almsgiving go together; what one denies oneself is available for the needs of others.22 Essentially, then, the classic system of penance is: Give up what might be legitimately claimed as one’s own, use it to serve others, and draw nearer to God by prayer.
4. Paul VI’s apostolic constitution on penance, Paenitemini, places traditional penance in a contemporary framework. Urging that internal conversion and external penance be closely linked, he makes three points: first, “that everyone practice the virtue of penance by constantly attending to the duties pertaining to his state in life and by patiently enduring the trials of each day’s work . . . and the uncertainties of life”; second, that those especially burdened by infirmity, disease, or oppression should offer their misery; and, third, that priests and religious should follow Jesus more closely in his emptying of self.23
5. Although the legal obligation to fast and abstain has been considerably reduced by the Church in recent years, the obligation still exists, and, in any case, fasting and abstaining remain a highly relevant form of penance. Pope Paul suggests, for example, that Catholics in wealthy countries deny themselves sufficiently to make it clear they are not in conformity with their culture’s attitudes and practices in regard to food and material possessions, while practicing charity toward others, especially the wretched in distant countries.24 In the United States, the bishops have retained a minimal framework of the traditional discipline of penance, while urging works of mercy as especially appropriate penance.25
A person who completely organized his or her life by vocational commitments would have included the principles of penance to such an extent that no supplement of penance would be possible. But few if any of us are so well organized. Therefore, penances can be chosen in addition to those which fulfill some other commitment.
In the line of fasting, one obviously can give up unneeded food, drink, and sleep, according to older practices; one also can deny oneself free and unrestricted use of one’s time, energy, money, and possessions. One can give away things one likes; settle for less pay than one might obtain; take one’s exercise in manual labor, as St. Paul did, rather than in a pleasant game or sport; deny oneself the pleasure of idle talk; allow others to have their way in matters of taste, as long as no question of principle is involved.
In the line of almsgiving, one can give money. But one also can give all sorts of help to others: truth which is not welcome and one’s time and energy more fully than one is strictly required to do in the fulfillment of one’s duties.
Prayer remains an important form of penance, especially in resignation, the acceptance of suffering and pain as God’s will. To accept is to control one’s feelings and actions as much as one can in a way that is fitting for a Christian. For example, if a woman loses her husband to death or a man loses his job due to some injustice, then they accept what has happened by understanding it in faith, judging it with hope, and acting with love toward themselves and others involved. The beginning of the whole process is prayer. Without prayer, there is no Christian resignation, and without Christian resignation, there is no Christian life. For a large part of any truly Christian life is disappointment, frustration, and pain.
Spiritual direction can be helpful for self-examination and for shaping a serious but moderate penitential life, as well as for a more regular and consistent use of the sacrament of penance itself.26 Pilgrimages are inherently suited to the penitential dimension of Christian life. They symbolize the fundamental characteristic of Christian life as a journey still to be completed toward our heavenly home.
22. See St. Leo the Great, Sermo 13, P.L., 54:172.
23. Paul VI, Paenitemini, 58 AAS (1966) 182; Apostolic Constitution . . . on Penance, The Pope Speaks, 11 (1966), 368.
24. Ibid., 369.
25. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Penance and Friday Abstinence,” The Pope Speaks, 11 (1966), 356–61.
26. See Pius XII, Menti nostrae, 42 AAS (1950) 673–75; Apostolic Exhortation to the Clergy of the Entire World (Washington, D.C.: National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1950), 19–21.