Being a disciple of Christ means that we are called to follow Him in His passion, death and resurrection. Penance offers us a unique opportunity to grow in our Christian life by taking up our cross and “dying to sin”. Penance is not a method or means toward self-perfection, but rather a joyful response to the gift of God’s life. The life of grace is a free gift, but it did not come cheap. Christ died for our sins! Therefore, the spirit and practice of penance play a crucial role in our daily life; penance is indispensable, not optional.
Following Christ and living His life, we are never isolated individuals. We belong to each other as members of the Church, the Body of Christ. What we do and how we live our life in Christ impacts others, who are members of the same Body.
It is in this context, then, that we must understand the penitential practices imposed by the Universal Catholic Church, as further detailed by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. The general practice for penance in Singapore is as follows:
When to do penance
In memory of Christ who died on a Friday, every Friday of the year is to be seen and lived as an occasion for special penance in union with Christ (unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday). The obligation to do penance every Friday remains an essential part of our Christian life. The season of Lent is viewed as a particularly special time to focus on penance.
How to do penance
In order to express penance in a common way by all members of the Church community, the Church asks Catholics from the age of 14 onwards to abstain from meat on Fridays. In this common practice, we can support one another to live a life of penance.
The Church declares that it is not a sin to eat meat on Friday. Thus, if one is unable to abstain from eating meat on a given Friday (at one’s own judgement), one should then choose another form of penance. This penance can be either “negative penance” (i.e. giving up something else) or “positive penance” (i.e. performing an act of mercy or kindness). Examples include, but are not limited to, the following:
Negative forms of penance:
- Abstaining from another enjoyable food (besides meat)
- Abstaining from alcohol
- Abstaining from smoking
- Giving up a favourite television show or video game
Positive forms of penance:
- Giving alms (i.e. donations to the poor)
- Spending time with someone who is sick or lonely
- Spending time with someone who is poor or disadvantaged
- Visiting the Blessed Sacrament
- Praying the rosary
- Praying with family
- Acts of kindness towards family, friends, strangers
- Reading an article or book to educate oneself in the Catholic religion
Ultimately, penance will vary from person to person and from one Friday to another. Whether one performs penance by giving up something enjoyable or by doing an act of mercy, the final aim is to grow in the life of Christ.
Penance during Lent
Lent remains the pre-eminent Penitential Season and is a special time to focus on our personal growth towards Christ by taking up our cross and dying to sin. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are distinct moments in the life of a Christian to join in Christ’s suffering and death. On these two days, both fasting and abstinence must be observed, except for health reasons.
Fasting means eating considerably less than the normal amount. In practice, this could mean eating three small meals with no food in between during the course of the day or one regular meal and a small meal (no food in between) during the day. Fasting should be practiced by all Catholics age 18 until the beginning of age 60 on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday except for health reasons.
Abstinence should continue on all Fridays during Lent, as well as Ash Wednesday. However, during the Season of Lent, Catholics are called to go ‘above and beyond’ in terms of acknowledging, through penance, Christ’s suffering and death for our sins.
During Lent, our participation in the Stations of the Cross takes on a particular meaning. Almsgiving is also an important sacrifice during the Lenten season and should be practiced by all Catholics.
May the Lenten Season be a special time of grace for all of us. May we learn to die to ourselves so that we will rise with Christ at Easter!
This article was first published in Catholic News.