Second Week of Lent

What Is Penance?

Penance simply means turning away from our sins and turning toward God. It is a conversion of our hearts. Does that mean that fasting and other forms of self-denial are unnecessary or unhelpful for true penance? Not at all! The Catechism states in paragraph 1430:

Jesus' call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, "sackcloth and ashes," fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures, and works of penance.

The important thing is to get the order right: a change of heart comes first and is then expressed through actions. This makes sense: humans are both spiritual and physical creatures, and we need to use our bodies to incarnate what is going on in our souls.

Penance, accompanied by God's grace, is also a way to discipline our desires so we are not enslaved by them. It is our weapon against the flesh, meaning our tendency to sin with our bodies, not our bodies as such. Penance is essential to spiritual warfare because it helps us grow in self-control and express our sorrow for our sins and our resolution to sin no more.

We'll return to this theme in a few weeks when we talk about the Sacrament of Penance, also known as Confession and Reconciliation. For now, how can you take on acts of penance for the remainder of Lent (or renew the ones you've already undertaken)?
Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.

This collect prayer begins the Mass for Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Jesus is calling us to "take up battle against spiritual evils." We'll explore fasting itself in a few weeks; during the week of Ash Wednesday, we're going to dig into an important set of weapons the Lord gives us to fight evil: sacramentals.

What's a sacramental? Well, if you attend Mass on Ash Wednesday, you're probably going to receive one on your forehead.