by Tilman Pesch, SJ
Necessity of Penance
Christ has done penance and made satisfaction for my sins; am I myself exempt from any such necessity?
In the exercise of His Divine Mercy, God Himself, in the Person of Christ, deigned to offer the satisfaction which justice demanded. Would it be consonant with Divine Wisdom to set us wholly free from the obligation of bearing our share in this reparation and penance?
God does not work alone; in the plan of Divine Providence it is ordained that the creature shall co-operate with the Creator. What pertains to the natural, pertains also to the supernatural order. Where penance is concerned, are we to believe that God does everything?
Whether in the natural or supernatural order, man is a wholly dependent being. Is he who has become conscious of sin and desirous of regaining grace, to consider himself out of all men alone entitled to independence?
The sinful dispositions of the human heart are revealed in man’s proud desires and his love of sensual delights. Are his sins to be forgiven him whilst these sinful dispositions still hold sway? Must not a spirit of true penance rise up to take their place in his heart, teaching him to humble himself and be ready for sacrifice and self-conquest?
Man was the perpetrator of his own sins; is he to stand idly by when there is question of being reconciled to God?
The Christian revelation teaches us that penance is a necessity for sinful man, and repeatedly, and in the most solemn tones, it summons him to submit himself to it. Throughout the whole life of the Church, she has never ceased to preach penance.
Power of Penance
Penance is that virtue by which we offer satisfaction to God for the foulness of our sins, in so far as we are able, we seek to make them good, and to annul their consequences within us.
Penance does away with the guilt of sin, cancels the punishment which naturally follows upon it, and brings our disorderly passions into subjection. Man has no right to determine either the nature or the mode of his penance; the one essential is that he should know what is the will of an offended God regarding it.
God’s justice might have dealt stringently with us and exacted severe penance, but His mercy elected only to impose such as would prove salutary and consoling to man himself.
In the first place, God asks for an open, humble and contrite acknowledgment of sin. Whoever desires forgiveness must be prepared to confess his sins. Added to this, there must be a real forsaking of sin on the part of the penitent; he must definitely will no longer to defile his soul, and to cease from being the cause of his own misery. Further, he must vanquish and slay all disorderly affections within his heart. Lastly, he must unite his penance to the penitential life of Christ. Christ did penance, in that he suffered and toiled; we too must toil and suffer.
Which of us is free from the manifold vexations and difficulties incidental to every state of life? We need to have Saint Dominic’s words continually on our lips—“Here is my penance.” If the spirit of penance is lacking, it is impossible for man to overcome temptations to impatience. Christ trod the path of penance by His humility and gentleness; we too must be meek and humble of heart.
By penance we co-operate with God in the way He asks of us. Beholding the merits of Christ, God effaces all stain of sin in the heart of the penitent, and enables him to stand before Him, not merely a justified soul, but truly regenerate and possessed of a supernatural life.
Effects of Penance
What miracles can be wrought by penance, even where the weakest are concerned, may be read in the life-history of many who, from being great sinners, became great saints. Turned aside from worldly paths by seemingly adverse circumstances, they yielded themselves wholeheartedly to those noble thoughts which befit the children of God. Despite many earthly weaknesses and the liability to occasional back sliding by reason of the power of former evil habits, they achieved, step by step, a purity of heart and virtue to which no mere human strength could ever have availed to bring them.
The lives of these penitents are a mighty stimulus to mankind in its strivings after the ideal. These “great sinners” spent themselves with marvelous results for the sublime ends of the Church and in the cause of civilization. One may well say that they were the instruments chosen by God before all others for the promotion of His glory, the service of His Church and the advancement of the true welfare of man.