Penance unites the Church to Christ in reparation

Father John A. Kiley

Father Stephen Dandeneau, recently installed pastor of St. Eugene Church in Chepachet, was intrigued about a unique retreat experience in Ireland and, wanting a fellow traveler, thought, “Well, Father Kiley is Irish background; maybe he would want to go.” The invitation was accepted and the retreat was experienced in June. Lough Derg is an ample lake not too far from the coast of Donegal in Ireland’s northern reaches. Since medieval times a monastery has endured there, maintained first by Augustinian monks, then Franciscan friars and currently by diocesan priests. The monastic grounds take up the whole island: a minor basilica, chapel, dormitories, public rooms, various shrines, a labyrinth and, of course, a gift shop. The calendar might have read June but the weather signaled November: dark, windy, chilly, rainy.

The retreat lasted three days. And get this — two of those days were without sleep, three were with bare feet and three were sustained on tea and bread. The core of the retreat was nine stages of private devotions consisting of kneeling before and circling about certain hallowed spots on the monastic property — in bare feet. There were crosses, crucifixes, statues, remnants of medieval cells, hilltops and Church buildings around which numerous Paters, Aves, Glorias, and Creeds were relentlessly recited. Each of the nine stages took about half-an-hour to fulfill, spread out over the three days. Mass was happily celebrated each day; confessions were quietly heard and baptismal vows were publically renewed. Only one talk was offered. A staff member spoke well on how religion must penetrate a retreatant’s daily life through fraternal charity.

The burden of the retreat was definitely the circling of the hallowed spots while reciting basic prayers. The skeptical could dismiss the entire venture as superstition. Holiness does not radiate from a statue.

The credulous might welcome the project as a chance at more intense piety. Bare feet on wet stones test anyone’s religious commitment. But the insightful will assess the experience as a reflection of Irish religious history. For centuries, the Irish were an oppressed people, certainly by the weather and equally by the English. Hibernia does not lend itself to the outdoor processions and festivals that quicken the piety of the Mediterranean world. (The very name means winter.)

A rosary recited before a peat fire is much more in line with the drizzle that keeps Irish grass green. And British occupied Ireland could not raise the basilicas and the cathedrals, the universities and the academies, that enriched the southern European Christian world. In penal times, Mass was offered in the fields and in barns; catechism was taught behind the hedges; devotions were personal and private. Irish Christianity inevitably developed solitary, individualized, personalized routines that enriched the soul and often challenged the body.

These handy but grim sources of spiritual renewal became the groundwork for the penance, sacrifice, self-denial and mortification that abound at Lough Derg and that mark much Celtic spirituality.

Indeed penance is no historical fluke limited to the rigors of the Emerald Isle. Nor is Erin’s penitential bent a mere relic of Jansenistic French religious fleeing the Revolution. Penance is a valid challenge for the universal Church. Penance as atonement for personal sins and as atonement for all sin that affront God’s goodness is actually demanded by justice. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross necessarily and completely atoned for the sins of all mankind. But believers are encouraged to offer willing sacrifices — penances — to God in union with Christ as an acknowledgement that the offense of personal sin needs to be repaired. Christ’s effective sacrifice is not an excuse for mankind to neglect personal sacrifice. Atonement is undeniably Christ’s work, but penance allows the sinner to lay claim to that atonement in a helpful way leading to a more profound contrition and a deeper renewal. Penance unites the individual soul as well as the whole Church to Christ in his work of expiation and reparation.

The history of the Church abounds in manifestations of works of penance. Lenten fasting and abstinence, meatless Fridays, the historical custom of fasting before a feast on the vigil of Holy Days, rogation days, the penances of the monastic life, the harsh bodily disciplines of many saints and the simple notion of “offering up” unpleasant experiences are found all throughout the Catholic world. Unfortunately voluntary mortifications have fallen on hard times in today’s secular environment. Self-expression is esteemed much more than self-denial.

Yet penance and the works of penance — extended prayer, occasional fasting, silence, maybe a sleepless night, or bare feet on wet pavement, and other practices — are tributes that acknowledge mankind’s fallen nature and humanity’s sore need of regeneration through the Cross of Christ.