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Chapter 4: Repentance, the Sacrament of Penance, and the Struggle against Sin

Question B:  What Are One’s Responsibilities to Do Penitential Works?

The essential act of penance is turning from sin toward God: emerging from darkness into light, from an unreal world of ideologies, rationalizations, and self-deceptions into the real world of which God is Lord, Jesus is Savior, and the Holy Spirit is Sanctifier. Having done that essential act of penance, however, penitential works are still necessary. But why is this so?

Since sins offend God and cause multiple disorders, they deserve punishment. Punishment for sin, however, does not mean the same thing as society’s punishment of wrongdoers. Society chooses something repugnant to the wrongdoer and imposes it as a punishment, but God does not choose and impose penalties for sin. Rather, he permits sin’s bad consequences to impact upon sinners; this is like human punishment only insofar as it causes sinners to experience suffering which they deserve.

Eternal punishment, hell, is the self-alienation from God and loss of human fulfillment resulting from persistence in mortal sin (see CMP, 18.H–I). Thus, while hell is entailed by mortal sin, this penalty is negated when the sin is forgiven. But other bad effects on the moral dimension of persons and their interpersonal communion—effects called “temporal punishment” insofar as they afflict the sinner without alienating him or her from God—remain (see CMP, 32.C). Therefore, one must do what one can—that is, do penitential works—to make up for one’s sins (see DS 1580/840, 1689/904, 1693/906). John XXIII approvingly quotes St. Augustine: “It is not enough for a man to change his ways for the better and to give up the practice of evil, unless by painful penance, sorrowing humility, the sacrifice of a contrite heart and the giving of alms he makes amends to God for all that he has done wrong.”15

1. Penitential Works Must Be Rightly Understood

The idea of doing works of penance to make up, or offer satisfaction, for sins can be misunderstood. Although penance is a punishment or reparation for sin, those concepts must not be understood legalistically, as if sinners really compensated for their sins or had to suffer gratuitously. Penance rather should be understood as a constructive step for the repentant sinner. As John Paul II explains: “To do penance means, above all, to re-establish the balance and harmony broken by sin, to change direction even at the cost of sacrifice.”16

a) The responsibility to do penance extends beyond the sacrament. Making satisfaction for sin belongs to the sacrament of penance; in the sacrament, a penance is imposed for this purpose (see DS 1692/905). But it is only a token of the will to make up for sin and overcome its residual effects in one’s life. Above and beyond this token, everything voluntarily done to satisfy for sin and overcome its effects—and everything suffered in life with a heart submissive to God—is penance (see DS 1693/906; S.t., sup., q. 15, a. 2).

b) Penitential works cannot really compensate for sins. Referring to the penance that the confessor assigns in the sacrament, John Paul II teaches:

What is the meaning of this satisfaction that one makes or the penance that one performs? Certainly it is not a price that one pays for the sin absolved and for the forgiveness obtained: no human price can match what is obtained, which is the fruit of Christ’s Precious Blood. Acts of satisfaction—which, while remaining simple and humble, should be made to express more clearly all that they signify—mean a number of valuable things: they are the sign of the personal commitment that the Christian has made to God, in the Sacrament, to begin a new life (and therefore they should not be reduced to mere formulas to be recited, but should consist of acts of worship, charity, mercy or reparation). They include the idea that the pardoned sinner is able to join his own physical and spiritual mortification—which has been sought after or at least accepted—to the Passion of Jesus who has obtained the forgiveness for him. They remind us that even after absolution there remains in the Christian a dark area, due to the wound of sin, to the imperfection of love in repentance, to the weakening of the spiritual faculties. It is an area in which there still operates an infectious source of sin which must always be fought with mortification and penance. This is the meaning of the humble but sincere act of satisfaction.17
Thus, doing penance does not satisfy or make up for sin by making adequate compensation for it, but by exercising one’s contrite will and maintaining it in one’s renewed relationship with God.

c) Penitential works must be united with Jesus’ sacrifice. As John Paul II also points out, solidarity with Jesus is the key to the effectiveness of any penance. People do not make reparation on their own but only through the Lord (see DS 1690–91/904). United with that of Jesus, one’s satisfaction for sin really contributes to one’s sanctification. For Jesus did not preempt his followers’ responsibilities: without him one can do nothing, but in him one can and must bear much fruit (see Jn 15.4–6).

2. Some Acts Are More Appropriately Penitential than Others

Any virtuous act or suffering of a person in friendship with God can be a work of penance if united with Jesus’ passion. That is clear from the prayer of the confessor for his penitent, now optional, which formerly ended every celebration of the sacrament of penance: “May the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of all the saints, whatever good you do and suffering you endure, heal your sins, help you to grow in holiness, and reward you with eternal life.”18 Still, the purpose of satisfying for sin is especially clear in accepting suffering and in acts such as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

a) Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are basic forms of penance. Although recognizing other forms of penance, the Old Testament proposes three typical practices: prayer for the pardon of sin, fasting, and almsgiving (see Tb 12.8–10, Is 58.3–10). While Jesus condemns abuses in these practices, he teaches that, done rightly, they are meritorious and will receive the Father’s reward (see Mt 6.1–18; cf. DS 1543/807).

Their point is clear enough in light of the fact that sin alienates the sinner from God, upsets the order of the self, and damages human community; but prayer draws one nearer to God, fasting imposes order on oneself, and almsgiving expresses love of neighbor which forms community. Again, there are three roots of sin: “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches” (1 Jn 2.16). These can be understood as unruly sensual appetites (to which fasting is an antidote), excessive desire for earthly goods (to which almsgiving is an antidote), and proud self-confidence that fails sufficiently to recognize dependence on God (to which prayer is an antidote).19

b) Prayer is the best way to expiate sin and overcome it. By prayer, the fundamental category of Christian action (see CMP, 29), God’s revelation is constantly appropriated and brought to bear on life. Work and other action become prayer only if regularly shaped and enlivened by intervals of explicit, conscious prayer. As, for fallen men and women, the act of faith necessarily is an act of conversion from sin and toward God, so every sincere prayer is at least implicitly penitential: a work of acting against sin and making up for it. Jesus’ model prayer includes specific petitions for forgiveness of sin and protection against temptation (see Mt 6.12–13, Lk 11.4); but with or without specific penitential content, prayer, both personal and liturgical, is the best sort of penance. Best of all is the sacrifice of the Mass.

Other penitential works are effective only insofar as they express conversion of heart, and conversion of heart begins and is maintained only in prayer. Moreover, since no human work really compensates for sin and any effort to overcome its consequences can only begin to do so, prayer is essential to invoke the help of the Holy Spirit, who accomplishes what one cannot do for oneself (see CMP, 29.C). So, for instance, prayer is necessary to overcome the world’s disbelief, widespread avarice, and the conflicts threatening humankind.20

c) Fasting subordinates sensuality and liberates spirituality. Superficial satisfactions often make it difficult for people to exercise reasonable deliberation and free choice in shaping their personalities according to faith, hope, and charity, and bringing themselves into conformity with Jesus. Seeking to escape fear of death and other lesser anxieties by plunging into what is immediate and tangible, they all too easily begin to consider the unseen kingdom less real than the visible world and heaven a mere fantasy.

Fasting—that is, the deliberate renunciation not only of food but of other means of consumption, stimulation, and sensory enjoyment—frees the mind and heart for spiritual life, and so serves the penitential purpose of overcoming the residue of sin and strengthening a person to persevere in the purpose of amendment. Fasting serves prayer by facilitating it, while prayer complements fasting by making it fruitful (see S.t., 2–2, q. 147, a. 1).21

Besides denying oneself what must be denied in order to avoid sin and fulfill the responsibilities of personal vocation, one should limit the enjoyment not only of food and drink, but of sleep, entertainment, play, and other forms of enjoyable experience. This is in order to redress the balance for previous self-indulgence, increase self-mastery over desires, and intensify the readiness to act according to the Christian modes of response and the hope for their promised heavenly fulfillment (see S.t., 2–2, q. 147, a. 3).

d) Self-denial purifies one’s vocational commitments. Following Jesus is fulfilling one’s personal vocation. Yet initially the commitments that make up that vocation are imperfect. Young people study partly to display their talents for others’ admiration, take jobs partly to gain wealth and status, and so on. Couples marry in the Lord, yet their good motives are mixed with not-yet-integrated desires for the pleasures of marriage and the comforts of family life. Men and women become priests or religious to serve Jesus and his Church in special ways, yet they also are motivated by elitism, role playing, and other unworthy concerns.

Since all such mixed motives eventually cause trouble, vocational commitments must be gradually purified and repeatedly reaffirmed. In some cases, faithfulness will be impossible otherwise, so that such purification eventually becomes a matter of urgent moral necessity. Progress can be hastened by deliberately frustrating the selfish and otherwise unworthy elements of one’s motives as one becomes aware of them. This is done by acting contrary to the unworthy motive insofar as that promotes or is in harmony with the more appropriate motive, for example, giving up the pleasures of marriage insofar as that promotes or at least is in harmony with the real goods of marriage and family. Carried out in a penitential spirit, this practice is an important sort of fasting. Its specific fruit is the deepening and stabilizing of vocational commitments, so that in fulfilling them one more and more truly takes up one’s cross and follows Jesus.

e) Retreats and pilgrimages should combine prayer and self-denial. Many common pious exercises are reducible to prayer and fasting, taking fasting in an inclusive sense. Retreats and pilgrimages, for example, are times for prayer whose success depends on self-denial: setting aside normal activities and distractions, choosing not to use available leisure in some other way, accepting the austerities of the retreat house, the inconveniences of travel, and so on. Like other penitential works, retreats and pilgrimages are useless unless one has a contrite heart.22 If accompanied by most of the comforts and distractions of a vacation—although vacations also have their place—a retreat or pilgrimage hardly qualifies as penance.

f) Almsgiving opens one to others and fosters communion. There are at least two popular misunderstandings of almsgiving: that it is gratuitous condescension toward people whose claim to help is questionable and that it includes only handouts to relieve pressing immediate needs. These misunderstandings prejudice many against a practice which Jesus teaches is necessary for entry into his kingdom (see Lk 12.32–34).

Almsgiving should be understood as sharing what one has with others in need, out of love of neighbor (see 1 Cor 13.3). By almsgiving people open themselves to others, set aside the selfishness underlying their sins, and so cancel the boundaries between mine and yours. Those who give build up the communion of love, which is Jesus’ body, and so give alms to him personally (see Mt 25.34–40).

Almsgiving is not limited to handouts to beggars, but extends to helping others meet any kind of bodily or spiritual need (see S.t., 2–2, q. 32, a. 2). Hence, one gives alms in using time and talents to help others (as is done in every form of apostolate), offering them comfort when they suffer, and so forth.23

Almsgiving in practice opposes both the quest for security in wealth and the false notion that what one has is absolutely and exclusively one’s own, to do with as one pleases (see below, 10.E.5.b–e). It is an essential penitential practice inasmuch as it works against the harm sin does to genuine community while stimulating hope for the real security of heaven.

g) Work for justice can be a form of almsgiving. Some disparage conventional almsgiving, maintaining that such help, directed toward the materially poor, humiliates the recipients and even contributes to maintaining the unjust social structures and other oppressive conditions which underlie economic want. Two things must be said in response.

First, if motivated by charity, it is a form of almsgiving to get at the roots of social injustice by using any morally acceptable means which have a reasonable prospect of helping those suffering from poverty and oppression; indeed, this is better than other almsgiving insofar as it requires self-sacrifice and promises greater benefits for those who suffer. On the other hand, using morally questionable means to fight social injustice at best helps some at the expense of others, and so is contrary to charity; moreover, as a way of dealing with evil, it is self-defeating, for it extends and perpetuates sin, the ultimate source of all human suffering.

Second, until social injustice is entirely eliminated at the parousia, conventional almsgiving will remain necessary, for without it those who could meet others’ desperate needs would leave them uncared for. Merely expressing righteous indignation about social injustices benefits nobody. It is no substitute for immediate help to individuals in desperate need.

h) Suffering willingly in union with Jesus is an excellent penance. While God’s re-creative act will finally overcome all evil, in this life everyone suffers. This happens when one is personally aware of something bad while experiencing or undergoing it. But even though one’s feelings rebel, this awareness itself actually is a good, for it is a grasp on reality as it truly is (see 1.E.6.b). Often suffering motivates people to do what is required to avoid or overcome evil; for example, the suffering alcoholism causes is a motive to avoid this form of self-destruction. Suffering is harder for those without faith, because they see no point in it. But faith views as a more or less direct consequence of sin everything else bad and the suffering it brings; and insofar as an individual’s own sins deserve it, he or she should accept this consequence as punishment.

Many people nevertheless suffer undeservedly because of defects in their heredity or social situation, poverty, sickness, failure in the pursuit of good objectives, or other hardships. Especially if they suffer for doing what is right, they are like Jesus in suffering undeservedly, and they can be still more like him by accepting unavoidable suffering and offering it to the Father as a loving sacrifice. In this way, their suffering takes on a penitential value. For, united with Jesus’ suffering, it atones for sin and merits God’s re-creative act, which alone will repair all the horrible consequences of sin. John Paul II teaches:

In the cross, God has changed radically the meaning of suffering. The latter, which was the fruit and testimony of sin, has now become participation in Christ’s redemptive expiation. As such, it contains within it, already now, the announcement of the definitive victory over sin and its consequences, by means of participation in the glorious resurrection of the Saviour.24
Thus, for Christians, willingly accepted suffering is a very appropriate penance.

3. One Should Do the Penance the Church Prescribes

The penitential works imposed in the sacrament of penance will be treated in the next question. Those to be considered here are the ones the Church prescribes by her general law and discipline.25

a) Much of what is prescribed is required on other grounds. The primary prescription is to do penance by faithfully fulfilling the commitments of one’s personal vocation, accepting hardships patiently, and enduring life’s inevitable anxieties. Those afflicted with infirmity, illness, poverty, or misfortune are called to offer their suffering with Jesus for the benefit of others as well as their own benefit. Beyond this, the Church urges every Catholic to perform some voluntary acts in response to the divine precept to do penance, and calls on priests and religious to satisfy the precept more fully.

To resist worldliness, people living comfortably in affluent societies should practice greater self-denial while at the same time helping people elsewhere in the world who suffer from material poverty. (Helping others can be and often is a duty in strict justice: see 10.E.5.b–d.) Using what is saved by self-denial for the benefit of others makes renunciation more meaningful, and so renders it not only easier but more joyful.

b) The Church prescribes a minimal common observance of penance. In the United States, Catholics are required to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and every Friday of Lent, and to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Everyone over fourteen is bound by the law of abstinence, and adults are bound to observe the law about fasting from their nineteenth birthday until after their fifty-ninth birthday. While an exception to this minimal law may be made for a serious reason, arbitrarily ignoring it is a grave matter. Small children are not bound by it, but pastors and parents are to teach them a true sense of penance, which they should put into practice in some appropriate way.

All the Fridays of the year and all the weekdays of Lent (unless they happen to be solemnities) remain penitential time: works of penance, including fast and abstinence beyond the minimum required, are strongly recommended. Participation in daily Mass also is strongly recommended during Lent. Moreover, being required to fast and abstain less than they might be, Catholics in the United States are especially urged to practice almsgiving.

4. Personal Penance Should Be Supplemented by Indulgences

An indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven. As was explained in the introduction to this question, temporal punishment refers to certain effects of sins that can continue to afflict sinners even after the sins themselves are forgiven. Thus, indulgences are not concerned with the guilt of sin, which is the main concern of the sacrament of penance, but with punishment consequent on sin, also dealt with to some extent by penitential works. Indulgences are partial or plenary, depending on whether they free one from part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.

An indulgence is obtained by a rightly disposed Christian who meets certain conditions set by the Church. The Church can grant indulgences because Jesus authorized her to bind and loose, thus giving her the power to apply his own merits and those of the saints.26 Though a characteristic feature of Catholic penitential life (see CMP, 32.2), indulgences often are misunderstood, and many Catholics never take advantage of them.

a) The merits of Jesus and the saints underlie indulgences. Someone who dies in God’s friendship but without having done sufficient penance by way of temporal punishment due to his or her sins will suffer a cleansing called “purgatory” after death (see DS 856/464, 1304/693, 1820/983). However, penitent Christians are not isolated individuals left to their own resources. Repentant and reconciled with the Church and with God, they are in solidarity not only with other members of the Church on earth but with Jesus and all who rejoice with him in heaven. Thus, those whose own penitential works are inadequate to deal with the temporal punishment due their sins can be helped by the merits of Jesus and the saints. Authorized by Jesus to administer the saving fruits of his sacrifice, the Church can apply those fruits and the merits of the saints to benefit repentant sinners and lighten their burden. The act by which the Church not only prays for repentant sinners but intervenes authoritatively on their behalf is called “granting an indulgence.”

b) Indulgences should be appreciated and used. The main reason to use indulgences is that doing so helps overcome some of the consequences of sin, and so limits—and possibly even eliminates, for oneself or others—the purgation that otherwise might be necessary after death. Using indulgences also is a reminder of the seriousness of sin and of one’s personal inability ever to make up for it. Indulgences build up the fellowship of the Church: they depend on, and so increase, one’s solidarity with Jesus and the saints, while their use acknowledges the Church’s authority to employ the keys to the kingdom of heaven. In offering indulgences for those in purgatory, furthermore, one exercises love toward them and so strengthens one’s bonds with them. Finally, indulgences encourage the Church’s members to meet her conditions in granting them, and that is spiritually beneficial.

c) To use indulgences, several things must be taken into account. Rather than substituting for personal penitential works and sufferings, indulgences enhance their worth and effectiveness before God. To gain an indulgence, then, certain conditions must be met. Having done so, one may pray that the benefit of the indulgence apply to the dead who can use the help of other members of the Church to complete their purgation and enter into heavenly glory, or, except in a few cases where the indulgence can be applied only to the souls in purgatory, to oneself. (However, an indulgence cannot be gained for another living person.)27

d) Many partial indulgences are gained very easily. Indulgences are called either “partial” or “plenary” insofar as they offer remission of either some or all of the temporal punishment due sin.

While some remission of temporal punishment can be gained through one’s own penitential acts, that remission often can be doubled by gaining a partial indulgence, which the Church attaches to various acts. For example, the Church offers a partial indulgence if one engages in various pious exercises and devotions, gives alms, denies oneself something licit, or in the course of one’s daily work and suffering thinks of God with humble confidence and adds some invocation.

In order to gain partial indulgences, for himself or herself or on behalf of the dead, one who lives in friendship with God need only intend to do so. This option may be made generally and for the indefinite future, and also may be changed from time to time. Thus, someone who does penitential works and lives prayerfully can gain many indulgences every day without even thinking about doing so.28

e) To gain a plenary indulgence, further conditions must be met. To gain a plenary indulgence, one must be a member of the Church in good standing and in the state of grace, must do the specific work to which the indulgence is attached, and within several days before or after must receive the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist, and pray for the pope’s intentions. It also is necessary to be free of all attachment to sin, even venial sin. The prayer for the pope’s intentions need be no more than one Our Father and Hail Mary, and may be some other prayer. A single sacramental confession suffices to gain several plenary indulgences, but it is necessary to receive Holy Communion and pray for the pope’s intentions to receive each.

If the conditions are not perfectly met, an otherwise plenary indulgence becomes partial. (But in some situations, confessors and bishops can mitigate the conditions for those who cannot fulfill them.) Except for the dying, who are offered a plenary indulgence at the moment of death, and who need not fulfill the usual conditions provided they have habitually prayed, only one plenary indulgence can be gained each day.29

f) Not all these conditions are easily met. There are many opportunities to gain plenary indulgences if one intends to do so, is not excommunicated, is living in friendship with God, receives the sacrament of penance regularly and frequently, and offers some prayer for the pope’s intentions each time one receives Holy Communion. But the requirement of total detachment from sin, including venial sin, may not be so easily met.

In praying that a plenary indulgence be applied to the dead, however, one might wonder: Must I be totally detached from sin to gain a benefit for a soul who is totally detached from it? It would seem not, since total detachment from sin seems to be a disposition for the remission of punishment rather than a condition for effective action on behalf of another. Hence, even those unwilling to give up some venial sin may be able to gain plenary indulgences on behalf of the dead.30

15. John XXIII, Paenitentiam agere, AAS 54 (1962) 488, PE, 269.29; St. Augustine, Serm. 351.5.12, PL, 39:1549.

16. John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 26, AAS 77 (1985) 243, OR, 17 Dec. 1984, 9.

17. John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 31, AAS 77 (1985) 263–64, OR, 17 Dec. 1984, 12.

18. The Rites, 363.

19. See John Paul II, Message for Lent (1979), 2, AAS 71 (1979) 346–47, OR, 12 Mar. 1979, 1; Homily in the Parish of John the Baptist on Via Giulia, 5, Inseg. 6.1 (1981) 642–43, OR, 16 Mar. 1981, 11; S.t., sup., q. 15, a. 3. For a balanced, brief treatment of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting: Bouyer, Introduction to Spirituality, 176–83.

20. See Pius XI, Caritate Christi compulsi, AAS 24 (1932) 185–88, PE, 213.15–21. This encyclical, published in 1932 in response to worldwide economic collapse, goes on to call for penance, and summarizes (AAS 191, PE, 28): “Prayer, then, and penance are the two potent inspirations sent to us at this time by God, that we may lead back to Him mankind that has gone astray and wanders about without a guide: they are the inspirations that will dispel and remedy the first and principal cause of every form of disturbance and rebellion, the revolt of man against God.” The same theme is developed in Mary’s messages at her various appearances of recent times.

21. See Paul VI, Paenitemini, AAS 58 (1966) 181, Flannery, 2:5; John Paul II, General Audience (21 Mar. 1979), Inseg. 2.1 (1979) 683–87, OR, 26 Mar. 1979, 1 and 12.

22. See Pius XII, Le pèlerinage de Lourdes, AAS 49 (1957) 612–15, PE, 259.35–42.

23. See John Paul II, General Audience (28 Mar. 1979), Inseg. 2.1 (1979) 724–29, OR, 2 Apr. 1979, 1 and 12.

24. John Paul II, Address at Cottolengo Institute for the Sick and Aged (Turin), 3, Inseg. 3.1 (1980) 873, OR, 28 Apr. 1980, 5; also see his Salvifici doloris, 25–27, AAS 76 (1984) 235–42, OR, 20 Feb. 1984, 6–7.

25. See Paul VI, Paenitemini, AAS 58 (1966) 182–85, Flannery, 2:6–9; CIC, cc. 1249–53; adapted for the United States: National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Implementation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law: Complementary Norms (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1991), 19, 29–34.

26. For the preceding definitions of indulgence, partial indulgence, and plenary indulgence: CIC, cc. 992–93. The treatment of indulgences here is based mainly on Paul VI, Indulgentiarum doctrina, AAS 59 (1967) 5–24, Flannery, 1:62–79. See Basil Cole, O.P., “Whatever Became of Indulgences?” Homiletic and Pastoral Review 80 (May 1980): 60–68.

27. See CIC, cc. 992–94.

28. See CIC, cc. 993–94 and c. 996; Apostolic Penitentiary, Enchiridion of Indulgences, 2nd rev. ed., trans. William T. Barry, C.Ss.R. (New York: Catholic Book Publishing, 1969), 15–40.

29. See CIC, c. 996, §1; Enchiridion of Indulgences, 25–27, 60.

30. If this view is sound, the opportunity to help others greatly by forgoing what may be a relatively slight advantage to oneself argues in favor of forming the intention that any plenary indulgence one gains until the moment of one’s own death be applied to that soul in purgatory who has the greatest claim on one’s love.