It there’s one concept that is radically foreign to contemporary mentality it’s that of penance. The term and the notion of penance evoke an idea of suffering we inflict upon ourselves to expiate our faults or those of others, and to unite us to the merits of the Redeeming Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The modern world rejects the concept of penance because it is immersed in hedonism and professes relativism, the negation of any good which is worth sacrificing oneself for, unless it is in search of some pleasure. Only this can explain episodes such as the present furious media attack against the Franciscans of the Immaculate, whose monasteries are depicted as places of torture, just because an austere penitential life is practiced there. Using the hair-shirt or impressing the monogram of the name of Jesus on one’s chest are considered barbaric, whereas the practice of sadomasochism or indelibly tattooing one’s body are considered an inalienable right of the person.
The Church’s enemies repeat, with all the power the media is capable of, the anticlerical accusations of all times. What is new is the attitude of the ecclesiastical authorities, who, instead of defending the defamed nuns, abandon them – in secret satisfaction – to the persecution of the media. This satisfaction has its origins in the incompatibility that exists between the rules which these religious persist in conforming to and the new standards imposed by “adult Catholicism”.
The spirit of penance has been part of the Catholic Church from its very beginning, as figures like St. John the Baptist and St. Maria Magdalene remind us, but today even for many churchmen any reference to the ancient ascetic practices is considered intolerable. And yet there is no doctrine more reasonable than the one which establishes the need for mortification of the flesh. If the body rebels against the spirit (Gal.5, 18-25), is it not perhaps reasonable and prudent to chasten it? No man is exempt from sin, not even “adult Christians”. Thus, those who expiate their sins with penance, aren’t they acting perhaps along the lines of a principle that is as logical as it is salutary? Penance mortifies the Ego, it bends rebellious nature, it makes reparation and expiates one’s sins as well as those of others. If then we consider the souls in love with God, seeking a resemblance to the Crucified One, then penance becomes a need of love. Renowned are the pages from De Laude flagellorum by St. Peter Damien, the great reformer of XI century, whose monastery in Fonte Avellana was characterized by its extreme austerity to the rules: “I would like to suffer martyrdom for Christ – he wrote – I don’t have the possibility – but by subjecting myself to blows, at least I am expressing the will of my ardent soul.” (Epistola VI, 27, 416 c.).
In the history of the Church, every reform has come about with the intent of remedying the evils of the age through austerity and penance. In the XVI and XVII centuries, St Francis of Paola’s Minims practiced (and did so until 1975) a Lenten vow that imposed on them the continuous abstention not only from meat, but from eggs, milk and all its derivates; the Recollects consumed their meals on the ground, mixing ashes with their food and they would lie down in front of the Refectory door [to be] under the feet of the religious who came through; in their constitution, the Friars belonging to the Order of St. John of God envisage “eating on the ground, kissing their brothers’ feet, subjecting themselves to public rebukes and public self-accusations”. Similar are the Rules of the Barnabites, the Scolopi, the Oratory of St. Philip Neri and the Theatines. There is no religious institute, as Lukas Holste documents, that does not envisage in their constitutions, the practice of the Chapter of Faults, discipline several times a week, fasts and the reduction of sleeping hours and rest. (Codex regularum monasticarum et canonicarum, (1759) Akademische Druck und Verlaganstalt, Graz 1958).
To these “regular” penances, the most fervent religious added the so-called “supererogatory” penances , left to their personal discretion. St. Albert of Jerusalem, for example, in the Rule written for the Carmelites and confirmed by Pope Honorius III in 1226, after describing the kind of life in the Order and the penances related to it, concludes: “If there is anyone who wants to give more, the Lord Himself will reward him when He returns.”
Benedict XIV, who was a meek and balanced Pope, entrusted the preparation of the 1750 Jubilee to two great penitents, St. Leonard of Porto Maurizio and St. Paul of the Cross. Friar Diego of Florence, left us a diary of the mission held in Piazza Navona from the 13th to the 25th of July 1759 by St. Leonard of Porto Maurizio, who, with a heavy chain round his neck and a crown of thorns on his head, whipped himself in front of the crowd, shouting: “Penance or hell”. (St. Leonard of Porto Maurizio, Complete works. Diary of Friar Diego, Venice, 1868, vol. V, p.249). St. Paul of the Cross at the end of his preaching, inflicted such violent blows on himself that often a member of the faithful wouldn’t be able to bear the spectacle and jumped onto the stage, risking being hit themselves in trying to stop his arm (The Processes for the Beatification of Canonization of St. Paul of the Cross, General Postulation of the PP. Passionista, I, Rome 1969, p.493).
Penance has been practiced uninterruptedly for two thousand years by the saints (canonized and not). With their lives they have contributed to the writing of Church history; from St. Jane Frances de Chantal and St. Veronica Giuliana, who engraved the Christ-monogram on their breast with an incandescent branding iron, to St. Theresa of the Child Jesus, who wrote the Credo with her own blood at the backend of a little book on the Holy Gospels she always carried close to her heart. This generosity does not only characterize contemplative nuns.
In the 20th Century two holy diplomats illuminated the Roman Curia: Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val (1865 – 1930), Secretary of State to Pius X and the Servant of God Monsignor Giuseppe Canovai (1904-1942), representative of the Holy See in Argentina and Chile. The first, wore a hair shirt intertwined with small iron-hooks under his cardinal’s red. The second is the author of a prayer written in blood; Cardinal Siri writes: “the small chains, the hair-shirts the horrible lashings made by razor-blades, the wounds, the scars left by these horrible wounds are not the beginning, but the end of an interior fire; not the cause; but the eloquent and manifest explosion of it. It concerned the clarity for which penance in itself sees the value in loving God in everything and for this, in the excruciating sacrifice of blood, confirmed the sincerity of every other interior renunciation” (Commemoration for the Positio for Beatification March 23rd 1951).
It was in the 1950s that the ascetic and spiritual practices of the Church began to decline. Father Battista Janssens, General of the Company of Jesus (1946-1964), intervened more than once to call back his brothers to the spirit of St. Ignatius. In 1952, he sent them a letter on “continuous mortification” wherein he opposed the positions of the nouvelle théologie which tended to exclude reparative and entreated penitence. He writes that fasts, flagellation, hair shirts and other hardships must remain hidden from men, in keeping with the precept of Christ (Mat. 6, 16-8), but must be taught and instilled into young Jesuits until their third year of probation (Dictionary of the Institutes of Perfection, vol. VII, col.472). The forms of penance may alter over the centuries, but its spirit which is always opposed to that of the world, must not be changed.
Our Lady in person, at Fatima, foreseeing the spiritual apostasy of the XX century, called again on the need for penance. Penance is nothing other than the rejection of the world’s false words, the struggle against the powers of darkness contending with the angelic powers for the dominion of souls and the continuous mortification of sensuality and pride, rooted in the depths of our being. Only by accepting this combat against the world, the demon and the flesh (Eph. 6, 10-12) will we be able to understand the significance of the vision we celebrate the centenary of in a year’s time. The little shepherds at Fatima saw: “at the left of Our Lady and a little above, we saw an Angel with a flaming sword in his left hand; flashing, it gave out flames that looked as though they would set the world on fire; but they died out in contact with the splendour that Our Lady radiated towards him from her right hand: pointing to the earth with his right hand, the Angel cried out in a loud voice: ‘Penance, Penance, Penance!’.