Friday, August 17, 2018

Retrieving Friday as a Day of Penance

With the ugly news coming out of Pennsylvania (old, almost all of it, but new to us and hideous), there are only so many words that can be offered in response. Sister Theresa Aletheia (@pursuedbytruth) is inviting others to join with her today in observing a day of fasting today, Friday, "in reparation for the sins of clergy who have preyed on the vulnerable and those who have protected and enabled them. We also pray for justice and healing for the victims." The Dominican Friars in Washington DC will also be keeping a day of fast on the last day of their community retreat, and invite others to join them in "prayer and penance in reparation."

Technically, every Friday (except for Solemnities) is a day when all Catholics are asked to offer some kind of penance, "a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified" (according to a 1966 statement from the US Bishops, echoing an age-old tradition). When I was small, there was a shared communal penance of abstaining from eating meat on Fridays. (In my family that involved a lot of fish sticks.) While this is no longer Church Law in the US, it is still highly recommended. However, some personal form of penance, preferably a positive act of self-giving, is expected of all Catholics, "making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ."

The headlines invite us to take up this much-neglected exhortation from 52 years ago and dust it off. It is more relevant than ever. Friday penance, in its communal dimension, does not say that all of us share blame or guilt for the sins that were committed by our clergy or covered up by generations of bishops. What it does say is that, as Jesus suffered on the Cross to "take away the sins of the world," sins that he did not personally commit, we unite ourselves in our small acts of penance in solidarity with him for the good of the whole Church. We also take upon ourselves, in penance, a tiny share of suffering in our own body as a way of asking the Lord to lighten the burden borne by the victims of those sins that are so hard even to hear about.

Communal penance is an acknowledgement that "we, though many, are one body" (1 Cor 12:12): the good or evil done by any member affects all the members. The charity of the saints stirs those around them to greater charity; the indifference of the tepid spreads like the common cold; mortal sins imperil everyone with a diminished ardor for the things of God. I know that not all of my contributions to society have been unfailingly positive. I owe a personal debt of penance for my sins and those which others may have committed because of failures on my part; those hard-to-identify sins of omission really ought to have much more focus in the daily examen of conscience. apart a period of time for Eucharistic Adoration is another way of observing Friday "in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ." I've prepared a prayer guide for a Eucharistic Holy Hour that can be made privately or by groups; I already heard of one parish which will be using it. (You may find that it has too much material for one hour; don't try to fit it all in! Use whatever helps you to turn to the Lord in freedom of spirit.)

St Paul reminded the Romans, "Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more" (Rom 5:20). It was true in the first century; it is true in the twenty-first, though the "enemy of the human race" is working very hard to make us forget that. Jesus has already won the victory. Let us place ourselves at the foot of his Cross to claim that victory not only for ourselves, but for every soul he died for.

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