How penance can make for a more fruitful Year of Faith

On July 1, 1962, news of a joint U.S.-Mexican statement against totalitarianism topped the nation’s headlines. “The Music Man” was playing in theaters, and Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You” was America’s most popular song.  

And Blessed John XXIII issued Paenitentiam Agere (“To Do Penance”), his seventh encyclical letter. 

“Doing penance for one’s sins is a first step toward obtaining forgiveness and winning eternal salvation,” the pope began. “That is the clear and explicit teaching of Christ, and no one can fail to see how justified and how right the Catholic Church has always been in constantly insisting on this. She is the spokesman for her divine Redeemer. No individual Christian can grow in perfection, nor can Christianity gain in vigor, except it be on the basis of penance.” 

Pope John issued the encyclical three months before the opening of the Second Vatican Council, which he hoped would “give all possible impetus to the spread of Christianity,” lead to a “renewal of Christian life” and “refurbishing of Christian morality,” and inspire souls “to truth and virtue, to the worship of God both in private and in public, to a disciplined life and to missionary zeal.” 

When Jesus began his public ministry, the pope noted, “He did not begin by revealing the principal truths of the faith. First, he insisted that the soul must repent of every trace of sin that could render it impervious to the message of eternal salvation.” Similarly, the pope believed Catholics needed to do penance and pray in the months preceding the council in order for it to bear fruit. 

“We were made aware that the success of the Council depended upon the participation of all Catholics, at least in their prayers, penances and sacrifices,” recalled Bishop Thomas Doran, who was ordained to the priesthood in 1961 and led the Diocese of Rockford, Ill., from 1994 until March 2012. 

“Prayers for the success of the council were greatly encouraged, and I think people took that request seriously,” added Bishop William Skylstad, the former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who was ordained in 1960 and served as bishop of Spokane, Wash., from 1990 to 2010. 

Two kinds of penance

Penance, Blessed John taught, is internal and external. “Our first need is for internal repentance; the detestation, that is, of sin, and the determination to make amends for it. This is the repentance shown by those who make a good confession, take part in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, and receive holy Communion.” 

“Often our greatest obstacles to faith are our unconfessed sins, because they get in the way of our relationship with God,” said Mike Aquilina, coauthor of “Living the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished Christians” (OSV, $14.95). “You know how it is in family life or friendship. If someone offends someone else, things aren’t right till they’re resolved with an apology.” 

At the heart of external penance is our reaction to the challenging circumstances God permits in our lives.  

External penance, the pope taught, entails “acceptance from God in a spirit of resignation and trust of all life’s sorrows and hardships and of everything that involves inconvenience and annoyance in the conscientious performance of the obligations of our daily life and work and the practice of Christian virtue.” 

Kevin Lowry, author of “Faith at Work: Finding Purpose Beyond the Paycheck” (OSV, $14.95), said that “this observation goes to the heart of how we as Christians can grow in our faith through our work: by turning the inevitable hardships of our daily work into penance, acts of love.” 

Pope John added that external penance also entails taking “the initiative in doing voluntary acts of penance and offering them to God.” In doing so, we should seek “example and inspiration” from the saints — and ultimately from Christ, who voluntarily sacrificed himself on the cross. 

The Year of Faith

Fifty years later, Blessed Pope John’s encyclical remains relevant as Catholics around the world prepare for the Year of Faith, which will begin on Oct. 11, the 50th anniversary of the opening of the council and the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. 

“We want this year to arouse in every believer the aspiration to profess the faith in fullness and with renewed conviction, with confidence and hope,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Porta Fidei (“Door of Faith”), his 2011 apostolic letter announcing the Year of Faith. “To rediscover the content of the faith that is professed, celebrated, lived and prayed, and to reflect on the act of faith, is a task that every believer must make his own.” 

In January, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith offered recommendations to bishops and priests as they develop plans for the year and invited all the faithful “to read closely and meditate upon” Porta Fidei in preparation.  

The Maryvale Institute, a Catholic distance-learning college in England, has launched Catholic Year of Faith (catholic-year-of-faith.com), a website that highlights these local initiatives while bringing Vatican teaching on the year to a wider audience. 

“We would be wise to make Blessed John XXIII’s call our own in preparation for the Year of Faith, to repudiate through the Sacrament of Penance the immoderate quest for earthly pleasures that debase and weaken the nobler powers of the human spirit,” said Maryvale’s Deacon Nick Donnelly, quoting Pope John’s encyclical. 

“As we prepare for the Year of Faith, we as Catholics are invited into a more intense time of formation, prayer and penance,” added Bishop Skylstad. “Prayer keeps us connected with our God, and penance has a way of clearing out obstacles on our faith journey that keep us from a deeper relationship with the Lord and one another. The idea of penance is not to rack up a big scorecard, but to purify our hearts and minds in service to the Lord and one another.” 

J.J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.