The Penance Now Required

At the beginning of Lent every year, homilists instruct us that the Lenten season is not just about “giving up” – food, drink, desserts, watching TV, etc. They take a more positive approach – emphasizing being charitable to difficult relatives, doing extra services for others, etc. And this is a good idea – although in a pleasure-oriented society, a very pointed and sensory “giving up” may be the “idea whose time has come” (again).

In her apparitions at Fatima, Our Lady emphasized that penance was necessary to prevent future wars and even the possible annihilation of nations. But was it any specific kind of penance? In 1945, in an apparition to Lucia, the one still-living seer from Fatima, who had become a nun, Our Lord clarified what specifically was required: “The sacrifice required of every person is the fulfillment of his duties in life and the observance of My Law. This is the penance that I now seek and require.”

The fulfillment of the duties of one’s state in life? Of course we hope that all people perform the duties congruent with their state. But isn’t this a basic ethical mandate? And what does it have to do with penance? It seems counter-intuitive to propose this as a penance.

We know that the dramatic types of penance that fill the history of the Church and the biographies of the saints are not required. The Church now asks for rather “low key” types of penance – fasting on certain days, abstinence from meat on Friday; and supports the undramatic “little sacrifices” recommended by St. Therese of Lisieux in her “Little Way.”

On the other hand, the emphasis on duties of states of life in the 1945 vision may not be such a “new approach” after all. John the Baptist at the Jordan, when asked by sinners what sort of penance they should do, replied in a similar fashion:

Luke 3:12-13: “Tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He answered them, ‘Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.’” In other words, just do your job and collect the taxes, don’t take bribes or browbeat your fellow citizens.

Luke 3:14: “Soldiers also asked him, ‘And what is it that we should do?’ He told them, ‘Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.’” That is, just carry out what you are commissioned to do; but use only the force that is necessary, be respectful of persons, etc.

It should be realized, however, that sometimes performing the duties of one’s state in life is literally a penance. For example,

  • For the person imprisoned for past crimes, or especially for the person unjustly imprisoned for crimes he or she did not commit.
  • Or for the person whose past sins or bad choices have led to a difficult marriage, or a reluctant single parenthood, or an uncomfortable workday world that one never expected or desired to be part of.
  • Or for the talented or “overqualified” person unable because of financial straits, lack of education, etc. to find a suitable type of employment.
Called to penance: St. John the Baptist Preaching (Paolo Veronese, 1562)

But even for those of us who don’t fit into any of these categories, advice like that coming from John the Baptist is a call to penance. Just like the publicans whom John warned not to look for kickbacks, it is a penance for all of us not to look for extra perks, and be satisfied with our “job description.” And like the soldiers whom the Baptist admonished not to get carried away with their authority and to be respectful, it is penitential for all of us to accept from others indifference to, or even disrespect for, our importance, and to be courteous and responsive to those who seem to deserve no special consideration.

This wider meaning of “penance” is even adumbrated in the story in Genesis 3:16-19, concerning God’s displeasure with Adam and Eve because of their disobedience:

To the woman he said: “I will intensify the pangs of your childbearing; in pain shall you bring forth children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall be your master.” To the man he said: “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat, cursed be the ground because of you! In toil shall you eat its yield all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to you, as you eat of the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground, from which you were taken.”

In other words, a penitential life! We might call the above list by Yahweh the “generic” penance we inherit for original sin. But this wider sense of “penance” also includes the difficulties of childbirth for parents (which is only the beginning of the difficulties of raising children to be “images of God” in a sinful world), as well as the unceasing and often secret difficulties of all who work, with mind and body, trying to bring forth worthy fruits from often inadequate or recalcitrant materials. And, of course, many women would consider it penitential to be subject to their husbands.

So you may be tempted to think, “Well, I have a state of life, and perform my duties; so I don’t need any further optional penances.” There is a certain truth in that, but in order really to “pass muster,” imagine what John the Baptist – who lived on locusts and wild honey – might have to say in a person-to-person encounter. We can be pretty sure that he would ask us to do more than we, in our comfortable modern existence, would regard as “reasonable.”

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.