Penance, Meatless Fridays and True Conversion from the Heart

I’m a strong believer in penance, but not so much in assigned penances.

As a convert I think it’s highly likely that I just don’t “get” penance in the Catholic sense. Whatever the priest tells me to do as a penance in confession, I do. I don’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent. If the American Bishops decide that we should return to meatless Fridays all year round, I’ll do that, too.

But so far as I’m concerned, penance is an adjunct to conversion, not the cause of it. What I mean is that penance comes about almost naturally from a changed life, and a changed life is the inevitable result of genuine conversion from the heart. Is it a more signatory penance to eat a grilled cheese sandwich rather than a roast beef sandwich on Fridays or to give up your friends who cannot accept your stands on moral issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage?

I can tell you from personal experience that losing the people you love because they will not accept you as your conversion to Christ has made you is enduring and genuine grief. It hurts all the way through and the pain does not stop in a day or an hour or even, perhaps, a lifetime. The grilled cheese sandwich, on the other hand, does not even sting. It is, at most, a discipline.

If the bishops decide that such discipline is necessary and useful, I not only will follow it, I will trust that they know what they are doing and that it is, indeed, salutary. But it seems to me that such penances are only really effective if they lead to a deeper and more absolute conversion of the heart.

Jesus doesn’t just ask that we follow the rules, although He never abrogated following the rules. He asks that we live a life-giving Gospel of light, love and fidelity, and that we live it to the death, if need be.

Christians today must decide who they will follow. Will they follow the ever-expanding nihilism of the larger culture, or will they follow Christ? This is no longer a hypothetical for most Christians. It is the pressing reality of their walk of faith.  It can cut to the core of who you are. It asks you to follow Jesus even if your friends turn on you and become your enemies for doing so. It asks you to stay the course of true discipleship no matter where it leads you or what it costs.

It is my theory that following Jesus in this hostile world will send you enough penance to scour you clean if you can just accept it. The trouble is that these conversion-caused penances are painful almost beyond enduring. Everyone wants to run away from them. I certainly did and I certainly have. We all would like to slide by and live out a discipleship without cost.

But the devil will always make you choose. Those who do not follow Christ will turn on you and attack you and refuse to accept you. They will rip and tear at the fabric of friendships that have withstood decades, all in the name of pushing you to choose either them or Christ.

I’ve tried to find a way out of it, but I no longer believe there is one. You must, ultimately, decide who you will follow. And you must pay the penance that choosing Christ exacts of you.

To the extent that meatless Fridays prepares us for the greater penances we must pay for choosing Christ in this increasingly pagan world, it is a wonderful discipline. But if we do it mindlessly and resentfully, it will not build the strength in us that we will need to stand for Jesus in the coming days. Discipline of this type is always a practice for the real penances of life that can not be avoided and which, if we try to shoulder them alone, will break us.

On the other hand, if we are willing to accept the love and help God offers us in the face of the deep hurt of lost friendships, the pain and the isolation will make us stronger, more committed Christians. In time, it may allow God to fashion us into someone He can actually use to play a small part in His redemptive work in this world.



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  • Ted Seeber

    Penance is a *response* to conversion. The conversion comes first.

    Conversion brings about the realization of sin. Sin always has two effects, the eternal and the temporal. The eternal effects of sin are eliminated by the Grace of Christ in the three sacraments of forgiveness: Baptism, the Eucharist, and Confession. This forgiveness is a free gift- freely offered. You don’t need to do anything more to receive it in theory.

    But the temporal effects still affect our lives. And our minds. And because of that, receiving the forgiveness DOES require additional discipline on our own part. A good priest tailors the penance to the sin in such a way as to mitigate the effects of the sin.

    In addition to that, there are corporate penances designed to get us to think and convert further- and that’s what meatless Fridays is about. Not just honoring those who bring the fish to us- the very profession of our first Pope- but ALSO symbolically joining us in Solidarity with those who don’t have a choice on what to eat for dinner- or sometimes even if they get to eat dinner.

    A worthy concept to meditate on indeed.

    • Robert King

      Penance can also be a pedagogue. Different people are at different stages of their journey, and for some the experience of giving up meat on Fridays (or doing what their confessor tells them, or any other imposed penance) could open up the realization that such things are possible, that there is something more important than meat, that God takes all of our actions seriously, or other such insights. It can be a preparation for deeper conversion as well as a fruit of it.

      And, of course, for some it will be merely a hoop to jump through. But at least we will all be jumping through it together, and it will support a social unity within the Body. That social unity, too, may be a preparation for deeper conversion as well as a fruit of it.

      Meatless Fridays are hardly the most important thing in the world, and it’s a prudential judgment on the bishops’ part so it’s open to question and discussion. But I think it’s important to see that the same act can have a variety of purposes.

      • J. H. M. Ortiz

        When I was about to marry my Protestant wife (now deceased), her mother expressed misgivings to her about her marrying a Catholic. But when she and I went to Tennessee (few Catholics there, mostly either Baptist or Church-of-Christ), she habitually prepared a fish meal for us, not out of any religious reason (Friday abstinence was not obligatory for American Catholics in the 1980′s), but because that’s what she and apparently most of her Protestant friends and relatives in Tennessee had always done on Friday!

        • Rebecca Hamilton

          Interesting. I’ve never heard of this.

        • Rebecca Hamilton


    • Chuck Murphy

      I think we should go to a day without any red meat or seafood. There are abundant choices that might get us to think.

      I am thinking Pope Paul VI had it right. This is the sort of thing that becomes an end in itself, instead of a mean of loving God more. Also, Jack Horner syndrome can arise (“what-a-good-boy-am-I”) we make up spiritual rules and then congratulate ourselves for complying. What is God asking each of us to do? Are we fulfilling God’s will? It shouldn’t be seen as an external, as +Dolan says, but like closing the door to our room and serving God is secret.

  • Bill S

    Wow. I didn’t realize how much pain you have had to endure for your face (can’t trust voice recognition. Make that faith ). It doesn’t apply going the other way. I wouldn’t even go out of my way to defend atheism. I have decided to judge people’s faith by its fruits. If the food is good, the faith is good (fruit, not food). I am surrounded by people of faith and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ll even give up meat on Friday just for the heck of it. I’m sorry if my lack of faith offends anyone. I don’t mean to.

    • Anna Dawson

      Lol I get a lot of pain for my face. I wear a paper bag in public and that helps.

    • Ted Seeber

      I know you don’t, Brother Knight. Which is why I responded differently to you than to Earl on that other thread about Mt. Angel Abbey.

      I feel certain that with a bit of study- you’ll find the answers you seek. Maybe even God again.

      There is a reason why it is so hard to suspend a Knight and kick him out of the order.

  • Bill S

    I should’ve said just for the halibut.

  • Anna Dawson

    I think it’s important that our bishops encourage some kind of uniform penance, whether abstinence or fasting or what have you, to encourage spirits that are willing to sacrifice and hearts that are not inordinately attached to things we cannot take with us beyond death. The Friday abstinence was never itself abrogated, of course–we were just given the option to either abstain from meat or make another sacrifice. Given the choice, what most Catholics have done is eat meat on Friday and la-di-da, forget about replacing it with some other pious act. Sometimes, when we act like children, we need the grownups to tell us what to do for our own good. I wonder how much of our current situation of direct assaults on our religion can be attributed to the lackadaisical, nonsacrificial attitudes which sprung from taking advantage of having our meat and eating it too. Any little thing that helps us remember this is not our home, these are not our belongings, indeed these are not even our bodies, help us grow and strengthen for when times are really lean.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Good points Anna.

  • Patrick

    Perhaps this small penance may not do much for conversions, and I can certainly understand your opinion.

    That said, it was penance that drew this revert back. To be honest, I missed the Lenten observance more than anything else in my lapsed state. I was homesick for asceticism, and I knew that there was only one home for me that day forward.

  • euphemos

    I noticed recently that disciplining yourself comes first, before taking up our cross and following. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me…”

    What’s more meaningful self-denial: giving up something we choose that seems appropriate in our eyes, or submitting ourselves to the authority of the Church? I submit that the real self-denial Card. Dolan is proposing isn’t giving up meat and fine seafood, but becoming willing to give up our right to choose.

    • J. H. M. Ortiz

      Yes, but Catholics (rightly) already are under obedience to Church rules, such as the one-hour Eucharistic fast, which, tho of course not hard, often requires looking at a clock; or to Holy Days of Obligation, which (again rightly) require that, surrendering our choice, we set aside time for these admittedly good things. Then there are the difficult teachings of the Church about God’s commands to forgive those who injure us, to give more than a token amount of our money to the destitute, etc. Whoever feels called to practice asceticism, let him do it, but there’s just no need at all for a layman to try to make OTHER laymen do it under pain of violation of a Church rule.

  • Pinulotta

    Pennance is not only something which is assigned in the confessional. Pennance is a way of life; it’s following your vocation with a cheerful, willing attitude. Whether your calling is that of being a wife, mother and homemaker, or of one to the religious life, or that of a singlr person, follow the teachings of the Catholic Church and God’s will , daily with the right attitude. That is all that He asks of us. As for Fridays, some type of pennance must be observed – for all Fridays throughout the year. It may be that of giving up meat, or some other type of pennance. The only time that meat must be given up is on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays in lent. I am thankful for the privledge of pennance – just think of how much closer to Jesus we become when we willingly sacrifice for the love of Him. How much He suffered for us ! A little pennance in this life can go a long way and lead us to eternal happiness.

  • Ssouth

    I have just come out more publicly in defense of the Church during the past year as I have felt attacked by the HHS Mandate in particular and perceive increased derision of Christianity in general. I’ve received a great deal of backlash from friends and family and have felt torn between shaking the dust from my sandals and staying the course in an attempt to be a light for Christ. Is that piety? Stupidity? It has certainly kept me up at night and is making this a very dreaded holiday season. It makes me want to seek out more friendships with like minded people, but that feels rather narrow minded. Being at odds with the world has its price, but the rewards are great.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      You are describing something that we are all experiencing, me included. I understand you when you say you want more friendships with like-minded people. I feel the need to for the companionship of other committed Christians every single day. My experience has been that it’s not so much being narrow-minded as accepting reality. I have bent over backwards so far I am ashamed of it trying to accommodate old friends I love. But they will not allow you be Christian and their friend. You can accept them, but they won’t accept you. At least that’s how it’s been for me.

  • Manny

    I’m a cradle Catholic and I will have a problem with meatless Fridays. The point of this type of penance I think is to join our hearts with Christ’s suffering, and therefore be more like Him. I guess the cafeteria will have fish more available for lunch but my choices will not be very open. But I also have the hurdle of my wife not being Catholic. I’ll be conscious of going meatless, but I don’t know if I can be 100%.

    • Ted Seeber

      I hope so. I can’t encourage my son to go meatless on Fridays- Beaverton Public Schools doesn’t even recognize Lent anymore, there’s no fish option.

      • Manny

        Oh that’s ashame Ted. I wonder if you can make lunch for him and he can brown bag it on Fridays. My mother used to send me to school with lunch in case I didn’t like what they were serving.

        • Ted Seeber

          That’s what we normally do.

  • Matthew

    I am a Catholic. I don’t usually eat meat on Fridays. I think the practice of abstinence and other penances on Fridays should be encouraged, but I don’t think a specific penance should be made mandatory. It is much better to encourage penances done out of love, rather than out of fear.

  • Imelda

    Penance – true, it is a training for the soul to give up the things and circumstances that hinder our path to God. Yet it is also a way to stand with the Lord especially during His Passion and crucifixion. Like a mother watching a sick child, the one who stands watch with God foregoes many creature comforts to be with God. Sadly, while I know it in my head and in my heart, I have a difficult time with self denial. :-)

    This post reminds me of the oft-repeated homily themes in our parish – (1) living a faithful life in this day and age is itself Penance and sacrifice; (2) faithful performance of the duties of life is penance by itself; (3) little things – done with generosity – sanctify a soul.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Beautifully put Imelda. Thank you.

      “This post reminds me of the oft-repeated homily themes in our parish – (1) living a faithful life in this day and age is itself Penance and sacrifice; (2) faithful performance of the duties of life is penance by itself; (3) little things – done with generosity – sanctify a soul.”