The value of “forced” penance

It’s my plan for Advent (and yes, that is the current Church season NOT Christmas which doesn’t start until December 25th (gee, what a surprise), but I digress) to do a daily reflection on some nature of the Church and her history. This is mostly for me as a way to make the most of Advent. Sadly, it is already the 4th day of Advent, and this is my first one. Expect 3 days in the future with 2 reflections…

Today I read an article on the meaning and value of the Advent season and it was speaking of the need to do penance. He spoke of one penance he planned on doing, not eating meat on Friday, and then said, “Not much of a sacrifice, I know—especially since we’re supposed to do that every Friday throughout the year, or else undertake “another act of charity or penance,” according to an almost forgotten (but still official) decree of Pope Paul VI.”

The part of the statement that really struck me was ‘we’re supposed to do that every Friday… or else undertake “another act of charity of penance”‘. This was something I knew and had, just as the sentence said, forgotten about. See, before the 2nd Vatican council, every Catholic was obligated as a Catholic not to eat meat on Fridays all year long and not just during lent. This was an act of penance and a rememberance that Christ was killed (in the flesh) on a Friday. One of the big conclusions of the 2nd Vatican council was that there is a big risk in over-ritualizing or specifying actions for Catholics. The risk is that one may forget that these actions are not necessary for salvation but good things to do for Christ and an undue emphasis on their necessity may be placed on them. As a result of this conclusion, Pope Paul VI made the decree making meatless Fridays “optional”. However, the forgotten part of the decree was that it was only “optional” in the sense of what the weekly penance was, not that one does weekly penance.

And there-in lies the problem.

The conclusion of the 2nd Vatican council was a very good one and there is much risk to over-ritualizing and over-regulating the faith. However, there is a counter-risk as well, one that we have fallen prey to in the last 40 years. The counter risk is the failure of people to ‘undertake “another act of charity of penance”‘. See, everyone knows/remembers that we no longer HAVE to abstain from meat on Fridays but who remembers that if we choose not to abstain from meat on Fridays, we are expected to do some other form of weekly penance out of reverence for Christ’s death for us? The practical answer is: nobody.

I don’t say nobody because I want to chastize people for not upholding the faith but because it is human nature in two ways: 1. Humans are creatures of habit. 2. Humans are creatures to which peer pressure is very meaningful. We use habit routinely (yeah, I know that’s a funny sentence). We use it both to our advantage and our disadvantage. For example, I know that if I don’t schedule to play racquetball every Tuesday morning with my friend Todd and instead say, “every week when it is convenient for us, let’s play racquetball” the reality will be that we’ll end up playing infrequently. So, Todd and I play racquetball every Tuesday morning at the same time. That ritual or habit helps us to do what is good for us. Second, having that “peer pressure” of Todd waiting for me at the court is further incentive. I’m not nearly as good at lifting weights every Monday, even though I made that commitment to myself, because I’m the only one I let down. There is no peer pressure to re-inforce the habit. The reality is that a ritualized action, particularly actions that we do communally, although it risks people just going through the motions, also helps to ensure we actually do something, particularly in this era of extremely busy lives.

So, my suggestion today to all is to re-consider abstaining from meat on Fridays. Yes, it’s not required as a Catholic any more, but it is recommended and it is required that if you don’t do it, that you do something else. Are you? (I’m not.) So, let’s do it! Let’s do that weekly act of penance! And since it is something that all of us Catholics still know about and do during lent, it won’t be hard to make it a habit where my brothers and sisters in Christ can be the positive re-inforcement they should be.

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