Christian Community and the Loss of Penance

Christian Community and the Loss of Penance February 20, 2015

In a private forum, someone asked why Catholics don’t talk about acts of penance so much anymore.  Why so little discussion of fasting, self-denial, self-mortification, and the like?  It’s out of vogue.

I floated a thought or two (summary: I’m Exhibit A for Poor Penitential Performance), and someone came back with the observation that penance is something we’re expected to do all on our own. It’s not communal.

I replied:

I think that’s true. We have all kinds of self-chosen suffering that’s widely practiced, and invariably there’s a strong communal aspect to it, both in being encouraged and accompanied. Beauty treatments and binge drinking both come to mind.

As a Catholic mother, my experience is that I’m far more likely to be criticized for being too pious and for being not worldly enough.  I don’t mean the wider world will criticize me; I mean that I can expect the clergy, the parish staff, and my fellow pewsitters to all murmur — openly or otherwise — if I exceed the approved amount of holiness.  It’s as if people are terrified that someone, somewhere, is *this close* to turning into St. Rose of Lima.

You get around a priest — a priest! — and you have to feel him out to find out whether he approves of this or that sacramental, this or that devotion, frequent reception of this or that sacrament.  Sometimes I wish the diocesan clergy directory came with notes next to each priest:

  • Wants to hear your confession ____ times per (circle:) month/year
  • Will anoint for medical conditions as severe as: Sinus Headache / Brain Tumor / Decapitation
  • Will / Will Not bless Rosaries
  • Thinks the faithful Should Eat Meat / Should Not Eat Meat / Owes Me a Steak Dinner with Dry Red on Fridays.

And so forth.  We could have abbreviations to save space.  FAMISM = Foams At Mouth If Sees Mantilla, SLL = Secretly Likes Latin. It would save us all so many awkward conversations.

Sometimes I feel like I have to wear jeans a certain number of times a month, just to prove my Novus Ordo bona fides.   Which is ironic, because the last thing I need is for my slacker tendencies to be enabled.  I need more rigor, not less.

The reality is that my husband and I pretty much don’t do anything about our faith unless it’s either something we’re naturally drawn to, or something that we can get sucked into just by going with the parochial flow.  I think we’re pretty typical that way.

I hear these people sometimes talking about the importance of a “faith community,” and a lot of times what they mean is, “I’d like you to make me a casserole, and also could you dress normal please?”


And I think that’s the answer to the problem of penance:  If our “faith community” isn’t willing to suffer for Christ, it’s because Christ is not what our “faith community” is about.



File:Giotto - estigmatização de são francisco.jpg

Artwork: The Angel in the Form of Christ Crucified Aims his Super Extra Penance Rays at Saint Francis, Who Definitely Did Not Eat Meat on Fridays,  Giotto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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