Penance, ‘because of my many sins …’


“Because of my many sins…”
If you know the phrase you probably heard it tagged on to the end of a sentence, muttered gently but with a droll sense of irony, as in: “I’ve been appointed chair of the fundraiser … because of my many sins.”
Or, “They didn’t know where to put Uncle Willie at the wedding so I said he could sit by me … because of my many sins.”
The wry expression was, and perhaps is, most commonly heard from friends of an Irish, English or Scottish background, and for all that the phrase may mildly entertain, the theology behind it is sound. It runs along similar rails as the admonishment to “offer up” our sufferings, large or small, but is its own distinct act, as well. To offer up our woes and wounds, joining them to the sufferings of Christ for the sake of others, is to participate in the Savior’s own salvific action. To agree to do something you’d rather not, “for my many sins” is to embrace a penitential mindset. It is an “offering up” of our discomfort or inconvenience, but in reparation for our own behavior, our own failings — those times, perhaps, when we have ignored God’s presence and discomfited or inconvenienced others. It is being mindful of our own failings and willfully doing penance for our sins of commission or omission without waiting for a priest to assign one in the confessional.
But what do we mean by, and what’s the point of, penance? Lent is a penitential season, but we use that word, “penance,” in a number of ways. So how do we understand it? What is penance in the life of the believer?
Here’s a confession: I consider almost every meeting I am required to attend to be a penance. And, despite my best attempts to be charitable, and to love my neighbor as myself, some people simply are a penance for me. Into each life, a little Uncle Willie must fall.
More formally, penance is that which is imposed on us by the church to help bring about change in us — during Lent, yes, but all through the year we are asked to conform and be reformed for the sake of our growth in faith. So things like abstaining from meat on the Fridays of Lent, attending Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, the daily examination of our conscience and the practice of frequent confession, genuflecting before the Blessed Sacrament — in these and so many other ways, the Church encourages us, through practices of devotion and humility, to soften our hearts of stone.
There are obligatory, but also voluntary, expressions of our repentance. Fasting programs are all the rage, helping us cleanse our bodies internally or to lose weight. But foregoing things like certain foods, or programs that bring us pleasure, can help to deepen our attachment to God and foster a more merciful recognition of the struggles of those around us
And of course, there is the sacrament. While most often referred to as confession or reconciliation, the more venerable term is the “sacrament of penance,” for it is penance that motivates a good confession and that opens the door to reconciliation with God and the people in our lives. Here, we recognize the powerful help that the sacrament of penance is for the one who desires to please God and to prepare themselves for judgment. To be in that state of God’s grace, friendship restored, is the fruit of penance.
As a priest and pastor of two parishes, I often struggle in the confessional to find a most helpful penance for every good person who comes to the sacrament. I myself have benefited from a number of the penances given to me in the confessional, many of which have become part of my daily spiritual routine. For that reason, after listening to a worthy confession, I try to give something that will both fit the faults and help to spiritually restore and refine (or redefine, in a way) the person as penitent.
So, with Lent upon us, get yourself to the sacrament of penance. “Do” penance — don’t “be” a penance upon those you know, love and serve.
Let no one sit beside you and think, “because of my many sins … “
Bishop Robert Reed is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Boston, pastor of Sacred Heart/St. Patrick Church and president of the CatholicTV network.