Questions For Catholics on Penance

  1. Are there any recorded incidents where penance has yielded results?

  2. How far can one go with penance before it becomes a sin? (Inflicting pain on oneself)

  3. What forms of penance are most powerful and meaningful?

  4. Can all discomfort and pain be offered as penance?

There are plenty in the lives of the Saints – usually in the form of a converted life.

It depends on the person, but it is very easy for a novice to the religious life to go “overboard” with penance. That is why any serious penance should be done only under the supervision of a mature spiritual director.

The ones that bring a soul to greater union with God. Penance is a means not an end.

Yes, and not only discomfort and pain, but joys and leisure, too. All can and should be offered to God. (refer to the Morning Offering).

Greetings Chris! I wanted to focus on this part of your OP.

I think the Catholic faith has the best understanding of the meaning and use of suffering. Yes, all discomfort and pain can be offered to God, for our benefit, and that of others:

Col 1:24
24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,

When we offer our sufferings to God, we join them with the suffering of Christ, and the Body is benefitted by our sacrifice.

Laudetur Iesus Christus.

I am struck by your phrase, “has yielded results.” Perhaps a few comments might be helpful .

Suffering and death were not of God’s design. They arose from man’s decisions. Sin is the source of suffering and death. Sin is an act of man. Hence, love of one’s neighbor is implicated in suffering.

Think of a beloved younger child. When one plays with him, lifting and wrestling, because of his inexperience, one is often hurt: a strained shoulder because the child hangs too abruptly on one’s arm; a bruised thigh because the child steps too sharply when climbing up. These pains are minor, but they are pains. It is a mark of one’s love for the child that the pain which he causes is indulged and accepted, even without comment, so as to not spoil the game. Gradually, with patient explanation, and repeated experience, the child learns to play more gently and the accidents become very rare. The point is that accepting the pain is an expression of love.

The sins of men are so numerous and their consequences so pervasive that pain and suffering arise without clear assignable cause. When one suffers a disease or a cancer, it is hopeless before the Second Coming to guess exactly whose sin and when was the cause of that particular bit of pain. Further, the reverberations of sin though the world, emanating and reflecting and overlapping, suggest that no one person, but many sin’s might be implicated in causing any one disease or other occasion of suffering.

All of this pain and suffering therefore has a dual aspect. On the one hand it is displeasing to God, since it is the result of sin. On the other hand, it is an opportunity for solidarity and even affection for men, since it is the result of human action. Because of the Incarnation, and especially Christ’s Passion, these formerly disparate aspects have been brought together and reconciled.

One can deplore suffering as a sign and consequence of sin. In deed one must do so to align oneself with God’s will. On the other hand, one can express one’s indulgence, even one’s mercy, for the men and women who have committed sin through the ages, by accepting suffering as the consequences of their errors. Thus, accepting suffering is an occasion of solidarity with all of mankind. Finally, accepting suffering is an act of union with Christ, both because He condescended to join the ranks of mankind and also because His Passion and death have made these consequences of sin acceptable offerings, expressing Christ’s love for His God.

Thus, a carefully formed approach to suffering entails (1) open-hearted acceptance, expressing affection and love for the men and women who caused it; (2) a firm rejection and condemnation of the sin’s committed, expressing sorrow for the sins which have offended God; (3) an offering of both this rejection of sin and the acceptance of mankind as acts of worship to the Father, furthering the reconciliation made possible by Christ’s Passion and Death.

In this context, and as an extension of these attitudes, it is consistent to make every effort to reduce suffering in the world, as an act of solidarity with both God and man. This is in concert with God, who never willed suffering. It unites one with sinful mankind, by attempting to reduce the damage which man’s sins have caused, thereby assisting and joining those who have sinned in repairing the damage which they have caused to God’s creation. Hence, since the issue is love and the desire to perfect God’s creation, which has been damaged by our brothers and sisters, suffering should be reduced overall, even though it might not be appropriate for one to personally avoid it. The issue is the love of God and solidarity with men, not of the avoidance of personal pain.

In this light, I would say that it is wrong to create suffering so that one can endure it. However, one is often obliged to suffer the pain associated with a good act, such as the ache in one’s knees during prayer, since man’s sin has caused the suffering, and one cannot let that prior sin deprive one of prayer. If God had His way, all acts of love would be painless and filled with joy. Because of man’s decisions to act against God’s will, most acts of love entail some element of pain or sorrow. Hence, it is now proper in the Church Militant to accept acts of love as being both painful and full of joy.

When done well, this form of penance is a “result” in itself, since it is one form of love itself.

Pax Christi nobiscum.

John Hiner

By “penance” do you mean corporal mortification and similar austerities, such as fasting?

Are you referring to penances given in the context of confession? (These are usually token ones.)

Or are you referring to the Sacrament of Confession/Reconciliation generally?

The word “penance” has all three meanings.

I’m thinking more along the lines of penance done in conjunction with prayer and how far we can afflict ourselves.

Could we inflict pain on ourselves by eating spicy food and offer that as penance?

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