Penance: requested by Heaven and hated by the world

Today is the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes. In 1858 the Immaculate Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, near Lourdes in France, in the cavern called “de Massabielle.” Through this poor, fourteen-year-old girl, Mary calls on sinners to change their lives by offering their suffering to God and doing PENANCE to make amends for the sins of the world. Through Our Lady’s apparitions and miracles at Lourdes, many in the Church have been inspired towards a greater love of practicing penance, to prayer and good works, for those who suffer, and in the service of the poor and the sick. “I am the Immaculate Conception”, Mary revealed to Bernadette in her final apparition. (Pope Pius IX had proclaimed the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception four years earlier, in 1854.) Today, up to six million  pilgrims visit Lourdes every year.


by Roberto de Mattei (and first published on Rorate Caeli, 27/1/16)


It there’s one concept that is radically foreign to contemporary mentality it’s that of penance. The term and the notion of penance evoke an idea of suffering we inflict upon ourselves to expiate our faults or those of others, and to unite us to the merits of the Redeeming Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The modern world rejects the concept of penance because it is immersed in hedonism and professes relativism, the negation of any good which is worth sacrificing oneself for, unless it is in search of some pleasure. Only this can explain episodes such as the present furious media attack against the Franciscans of the Immaculate, whose monasteries are depicted as places of torture, just because an austere penitential life is practiced there. Using the hair-shirt or impressing the monogram of the name of Jesus on one’s chest are considered barbaric, whereas the practice of sadomasochism or indelibly tattooing one’s body are considered an inalienable right of the person.

The Church’s enemies repeat, with all the power the media is capable of, the anticlerical accusations of all times. What is new is the attitude of the ecclesiastical authorities, who, instead of defending the defamed nuns, abandon them – in secret satisfaction – to the persecution of the media. This satisfaction has its origins in the incompatibility that exists between the rules which these religious persist in conforming to and the new standards imposed by “adult Catholicism”.

The spirit of penance has been part of the Catholic Church from its very beginning, as figures like St. John the Baptist and St. Maria Magdalene remind us, but today even for many churchmen any reference to the ancient ascetic practices is considered intolerable. And yet there is no doctrine more reasonable than the one which establishes the need for mortification of the flesh. If the body rebels against the spirit (Gal.5, 18-25), is it not perhaps reasonable and prudent to chasten it? No man is exempt from sin, not even “adult Christians”. Thus, those who expiate their sins with penance, aren’t they acting perhaps along the lines of a principle that is as logical as it is salutary? Penance mortifies the Ego, it bends rebellious nature, it makes reparation and expiates one’s sins as well as those of others. If then we consider the souls in love with God, seeking a resemblance to the Crucified One, then penance becomes a need of love. Renowned are the pages from De Laude flagellorum by St. Peter Damien, the great reformer of XI century, whose monastery in Fonte Avellana was characterized by its extreme austerity to the rules: “I would like to suffer martyrdom for Christ – he wrote – I don’t have the possibility – but by subjecting myself to blows, at least I am expressing the will of my ardent soul.” (Epistola VI, 27, 416 c.).

In the history of the Church, every reform has come about with the intent of remedying the evils of the age through austerity and penance. In the XVI and XVII centuries, St Francis of Paola’s Minims practiced (and did so until 1975) a Lenten vow that imposed on them the continuous abstention not only from meat, but from eggs, milk and all its derivates; the Recollects consumed their meals on the ground, mixing ashes with their food and they would lie down in front of the Refectory door [to be] under the feet of the religious who came through; in their constitution, the Friars belonging to the Order of St. John of God envisage “eating on the ground, kissing their brothers’ feet, subjecting themselves to public rebukes and public self-accusations”. Similar are the Rules of the Barnabites, the Scolopi, the Oratory of St. Philip Neri and the Theatines. There is no religious institute, as Lukas Holste documents, that does not envisage in their constitutions, the practice of the Chapter of Faults, discipline several times a week, fasts and the reduction of sleeping hours and rest. (Codex regularum monasticarum et canonicarum, (1759) Akademische Druck und Verlaganstalt, Graz 1958).

To these “regular” penances, the most fervent religious added the so-called “supererogatory” penances , left to their personal discretion. St. Albert of Jerusalem, for example, in the Rule written for the Carmelites and confirmed by Pope Honorius III in 1226, after describing the kind of life in the Order and the penances related to it, concludes: “If there is anyone who wants to give more, the Lord Himself will reward him when He returns.”

Benedict XIV, who was a meek and balanced Pope, entrusted the preparation of the 1750 Jubilee to two great penitents, St. Leonard of Porto Maurizio and St. Paul of the Cross. Friar Diego of Florence, left us a diary of the mission held in Piazza Navona from the 13th to the 25th of July 1759 by St. Leonard of Porto Maurizio, who, with a heavy chain round his neck and a crown of thorns on his head, whipped himself in front of the crowd, shouting: “Penance or hell”. (St. Leonard of Porto Maurizio, Complete works. Diary of Friar Diego, Venice, 1868, vol. V, p.249). St. Paul of the Cross at the end of his preaching, inflicted such violent blows on himself that often a member of the faithful wouldn’t be able to bear the spectacle and jumped onto the stage, risking being hit themselves in trying to stop his arm (The Processes for the Beatification of Canonization of St. Paul of the Cross, General Postulation of the PP. Passionista, I, Rome 1969, p.493).

Penance has been practiced uninterruptedly for two thousand years by the saints (canonized and not). With their lives they have contributed to the writing of Church history; from St. Jane Frances de Chantal and St. Veronica Giuliana, who engraved the Christ-monogram on their breast with an incandescent branding iron, to St. Theresa of the Child Jesus, who wrote the Credo with her own blood at the backend of a little book on the Holy Gospels she always carried close to her heart. This generosity does not only characterize contemplative nuns.

In the 20th Century two holy diplomats illuminated the Roman Curia: Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val (1865 – 1930), Secretary of State to Pius X and the Servant of God Monsignor Giuseppe Canovai (1904-1942), representative of the Holy See in Argentina and Chile. The first, wore a hair shirt intertwined with small iron-hooks under his cardinal’s red. The second is the author of a prayer written in blood; Cardinal Siri writes: “the small chains, the hair-shirts the horrible lashings made by razor-blades, the wounds, the scars left by these horrible wounds are not the beginning, but the end of an interior fire; not the cause; but the eloquent and manifest explosion of it. It concerned the clarity for which penance in itself sees the value in loving God in everything and for this, in the excruciating sacrifice of blood, confirmed the sincerity of every other interior renunciation” (Commemoration for the Positio for Beatification March 23rd 1951).

It was in the 1950s that the ascetic and spiritual practices of the Church began to decline. Father Battista Janssens, General of the Company of Jesus (1946-1964), intervened more than once to call back his brothers to the spirit of St. Ignatius. In 1952, he sent them a letter on “continuous mortification” wherein he opposed the positions of the nouvelle théologie which tended to exclude reparative and entreated penitence. He writes that fasts, flagellation, hair shirts and other hardships must remain hidden from men, in keeping with the precept of Christ (Mat. 6, 16-8), but must be taught and instilled into young Jesuits until their third year of probation (Dictionary of the Institutes of Perfection, vol. VII, col.472). The forms of penance may alter over the centuries, but its spirit which is always opposed to that of the world, must not be changed.

Our Lady in person, at Fatima, foreseeing the spiritual apostasy of the XX century, called again on the need for penance. Penance is nothing other than the rejection of the world’s false words, the struggle against the powers of darkness contending with the angelic powers for the dominion of souls and the continuous mortification of sensuality and pride, rooted in the depths of our being. Only by accepting this combat against the world, the demon and the flesh (Eph. 6, 10-12) will we be able to understand the significance of the vision we celebrate the centenary of in a year’s time. The little shepherds at Fatima saw: “at the left of Our Lady and a little above, we saw an Angel with a flaming sword in his left hand; flashing, it gave out flames that looked as though they would set the world on fire; but they died out in contact with the splendour that Our Lady radiated towards him from her right hand: pointing to the earth with his right hand, the Angel cried out in a loud voice: ‘Penance, Penance, Penance!’.”

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22 Responses to Penance: requested by Heaven and hated by the world

  1. toadspittle says:

    “Using the hair-shirt or impressing the monogram of the name of Jesus on one’s chest are considered barbaric, whereas the practice of sadomasochism or indelibly tattooing one’s body are considered an inalienable right of the person.”
    Personally, I’d suggest that “barbaric” applies equally well to both sets of practices.
    Might even get some agreement on that. But then, I might not.

  2. Michael says:

    P.S. It strikes me as noteworthy that the revelations to Saint Bernadette were ‘bookmarked by the lives of Saints John Vianney and Therese of Lisieux, insofar as the latter advocated a ‘little way’ of penance and charitable acts for those who either struggle with or are overwhelmed by the penitential paths of many saints in preceding ages, and something very similar to this ‘little’ way was advocated by Saint John Vianney in that sermon of his reproduced here very recently.

    In brief, both of these saints made the Way of the Cross more understandable and (for want of a better word) achievable for people in their everyday lives, just before and just after the message that the world was in dire need of repentance was given to Saint Bernadette at Lourdes; and did so without at all lessening the seriousness of that very call to repentance.

  3. Robert says:

    The Mystical Body of Christ is
    1/ Church Triumphant (Heaven)
    2/ Church Suffering (Purgatory)
    3/ Church Militant (on Earth wayfarers)
    Penance recognises that We are in Church Militant.
    Peace in Our Lives comes from the Sacraments (life of grace) and stripping out of what is NOT essential. Satans controls Man through the temptations of the flesh
    Desires of the flesh including but not only food, clothes, sex, homes, cars, holidays, luxuries, music, art, books, films, plays, poetry, television, alcohol, drugs, idolatry of famous people (living and dead) .
    Lent is the time to strip these away from your hearts through fasting.
    Don’t be one of those who cheers at Palm Sunday and Crucifies by Friday!

  4. toadspittle says:

    “Penance: requested by Heaven and hated by the world….”
    ..The world, in my experience, does not “hate”* penance. Most reasonable people are of the opinion that those who feel like doing penance, are perfectly welcome to do so – even in public, as long as they don’t frighten the horses, or slow down the traffic flow.
    I’ve never met anyone who “hated” penance, and I don’t ever expect to. A judicious bit of it is probably salutary for everyone. Certainly, fasting is no bad thing for greedy fatties, like Toad.

    [Moderator – one sentence deleted.]

    *Most popular word on CP&S?

  5. Robert says:

    Michael Couldn’t agree with you more!
    1858 is a very special year (Melanie was told she could publish her secrets in that year!)
    St Bernadette was also given secrets (these have not been revealed yet).

  6. Again and again I can’t help thinking that the choice open to our civilization may be either to do penance or to suffer punishment for its excesses. Yes, this is a very “fundamentalist” idea, but even fundamentalist ideas may be true.

  7. Robert says:

    Robert John
    Whenever the Faith has suffered schism’s . heresy’s etc.. It goes back to the Apostles, Sacred Tradition Plus the Dogmas of the Popes PLUS the Public Revelation (Gospels) with the Bible.,The Bible and its books were preserved and protected by the Church who even declared what was and wasn’t Canonical.
    Never forget that there is a difference in the books of the Old Covenant between the Jews and the Early Church (sic Tobias etc..).
    I intensely dislike fundamentalism because the Faith isn’t organic and growing through the Holy Ghost we understand that Our Lord restores ALL things but in His time. So this might Tree is rooted in sacred tradition and revelation.
    Now Lent? doesn’t this equate to Our Lords 40 days of preparation in the desert? and Satan temptations? false promises?
    Peace requires that we break Satans shackles and hence choosing to deny Self and rip away what isn’t necessary so that Christ’s Light can shine in a world that cannot find Peace and never will find Peace without the Prince of Peace.

  8. toadspittle says:

    “Desires of the flesh including but not only food, clothes, sex, homes, cars, holidays, luxuries, music, art, books, films, plays, poetry, television, alcohol, drugs, idolatry of famous people (living and dead) Lent is the time to strip these away from your hearts through fasting.”

    Surely you can’t want us to give up holidays, Robert?
    Be reasonable.

  9. kathleen says:

    Toad @ 11:19 yesterday

    “The world, in my experience, does not “hate”* penance.”

    It most certainly does, Toad!
    The ‘world’ (those with no understanding of Christianity) looks upon anything to do with suffering, sacrifice, and most especially “penance”, as horrors to avoid at all costs. This is why we see so much pride, selfishness and self-indulgence everywhere around us, and so little humility or self-sacrificing love.

    There are very many ways we can do penance; ‘the little way’ of St. Therese (that Michael mentions) is a holy path anyone can, and should try to follow. Our day is filled with opportunities – some small, others requiring more effort and humility – to do penance in reparation for sin. At the end of the day when we examine our conscience, we will often recall a dozen little things (penances) we could have done, but failed to do! We should not let this faze us, but pray for heavenly help to do better tomorrow.

    The hard, extra-difficult and even painful penances undertaken by those specially chosen souls who desire to do more out of love for God and to save more souls from hell will bring great graces upon themselves and the Church. These penances are only seen as “barbaric” if we refuse to see that we are fighting dragons (devils) here on earth who want to devour us, for spiritual battles can only be won by prayer, fasting and sacrifice.

    Not everyone is called to do harsh penances though, and even saints (like the holy Fr Willie Doyle) warn others of not ‘jumping off the deep end’ too soon. Better to start along the path of holiness gradually, with little daily penances of self mortification and humble acceptance of every small suffering that comes our way. Even then, our steadfastness will often be challenged by the ‘child of Adam’ we all carry within us!

  10. toadspittle says:

    Inspired by Rogor, I am resolved to do penance for Lent by denying myself the necessities of life – and attempting to survive on the luxuries alone.
    Your prayers are asked.

  11. toadspittle says:

    “The ‘world’ (those with no understanding of Christianity) looks upon anything to do with suffering, sacrifice, and most especially “penance”, as horrors to avoid at all costs.”
    Ah. I see what you mean, Kathleen. But what I’m suggesting is that most people are all in favour of penance – as long as someone else is performing it – and they’re not. A bit like cleaning the lavatory – a fine, character-building, and essential task – but I’d prefer that you were the one doing it.
    I think you and I might agree on that.
    In my opinion, there is a plentiful sufficiency of suffering kicking around the world already. No need to go artificially manufacturing the stuff.
    Just being old is penance enough.

  12. Markus River says:

    “The ‘world’ (those with no understanding of Christianity) looks upon anything to do with suffering, sacrifice, and most especially “penance”, as horrors to avoid at all costs.”

    Really? Except, for example, anyone – without necessarily any understanding of Christianity – who has chosen to endure the suffering and self sacrifice required to; firstly achieve the badge of soldier / seaman / airman. And then, having earned that status, being prepared to sacrifice their very lives to protect the people they have chosen to defend.

    Seems to me that your definition of “The World” could do with some qualification.

  13. kathleen says:

    Markus @ 11:20

    It does indeed, Markus; thanks for pointing this out.. Sacrificing one’s life to protect the lives of others is not a noble virtue limited solely to Christians – of course you are right there. I was using the term “world” as in the Christian sense of the three temptations that drive men to sin, i.e. “the world*, the flesh and the devil”.

    * Here understood as egoistical, selfish, hedonistic distractions.

  14. Robert says:

    Sacrificing is as old as Man!
    But what we are talking about here is the putting on of Christ and stripping out anything which is not Of Christ. This for the Love of God and Our Neighbour (includes Holy Souls in Purgatory). We are seeking to do the Holy Will of God.
    To ask reference the World is to reveal a misunderstanding of the Faith. Pickup Our Cross and Follow Him.
    We also deny SELF. Self awareness (and self centred is the opposite of the Faith!) was experienced by Adam and Eve immediately after the Fall. There is No self with the Trinity!
    So self denial is the road to Christ Peace.
    Holy Days and Pilgrimages Toad excellent I take it you are NOT referring to the SELF CENTRED INDULGENCES AWAY FROM HOME WHICH GO UNDER THE LABEL SPOIL YOURSELF?

  15. toadspittle says:

    “Holy Days and Pilgrimages Toad excellent I take it you are NOT referring to the SELF CENTRED INDULGENCES AWAY FROM HOME WHICH GO UNDER THE LABEL SPOIL YOURSELF?”
    Well, yes, I was actually – Robert.
    Don’t take them myself; don’t need to.
    My entire life is a holiday.

  16. The Raven says:

    I am puzzled by your statement, Markus; do you not not have any servicemen or women in your circle of acquaintance? None of my friends or family members who are or have been in the forces conceptualise it in terms of sacrifice and even those who put themselves through the ordeal of selection for elite units did so out of a sense that they were working towards something that they themselves wanted.

    Of those who have seen active service (and lost friends in the fighting), all of them have said to me that they saw themselves as doing a job of work. The idea of servicemen as offering themselves in sacrifice is alien: an idea that has currency among civilians.

  17. johnhenrycn says:

    Old Man River: Now there’s a name I haven’t seen in a dog’s age. Hope all is well. I occasionally run into your old comrade-in-arms, Micky Ross, in the pages of The Spectator; but no battles royale as in the good old Teleblog days. Cheers.

  18. toadspittle says:

    I too, pondered Markus’s comment. I recall meeting two very young soldiers after the Falkland war who had joined up for “…a bit of excitement and travel – rather than a boring desk job,” – which they duly obtained, by “shooting Argies,” an activity they had enjoyed enormously. Not much thought of sacrifice for their country on show there; more like “death or glory.”
    Well, takes all sorts, of course.

  19. Robert says:

    The Church Militant?
    Markus uses the key words self sacrifice. Soldiers in the heat of battle are in support of those next to them, their comrades. But the uniform they wear the weapons they use and the orders they follow whence comes these? Our Lord spoke of and to the Roman Soldiers,
    Soldiers acting under and following orders? this is what the Angels do.
    Following orders! Angels obey God theirs is not to know the full extent or details, they do the job assigned to them.
    In the Early Church there were many martyrs who gave their lives without being baptised (baptism of blood!) . Don’t confuse the excitement of the moment, heat of battle with that of the murderer!
    Soldiers, Obedience and putting their lives on the line.
    How much more so with those enlightened by their Faith doing cheerfully Prayer and Penance in the Church Militant

  20. Markus River says:

    The Raven

    My father served in the Royal Air Force, though not in a front line capacity. The club at which I play golf, due to its geographical location halfway between London and Portsmouth, has long been a favourite for Royal Navy officers. The who’s who of old club captains is replete with Captains, Commodores and the odd Rear Admiral. So I do have some experience of, at least, socialising with those of a military background. And as you say, they do treat their military careers as merely a job that needed doing. But it’s not a job that just anyone can do. And it requires more than just a flashy CV and a twenty minute interview to be accepted to do it. Whether or not they conceptualise as self sacrifice, the dedication and effort required to accept military discipline and work within it to achieve high rank, there is no doubt in my mind that a sacrifice has been made, and that it would be far easier to walk a less arduous path.

    As George Patton once said, “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other [guy] die for his.” Tell a squad of soldiers that their mission is likely to incur heavy casualties, not one wouldn’t be thinking, I’ll miss you guys. So no, they don’t approach any mission with the thought of making the ultimate self sacrifice at the front of their minds. But that doesn’t take away the fact that the possibility of death is part of the job description, and that it’s a possibility that is all too often the reality.

  21. Markus River says:


    Thanks for you comment. All is indeed good with me, Mrs River and the (not so) little tributaries. I hope the same is equally true for you and yours.

    Ahh, the Telegraph blogs, interesting times indeed. All the best.

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