Is Penance Really Necessary?

With Ash Wednesday just a few days away, you are likely thinking about what penance you will take up this Lent. Or maybe you’re looking around at your non-Catholic friends and wondering why they don’t have to give up chocolate or alcohol or television for 40 days. Why do we Catholics do penance when other Christians don’t?

Fr. Matthew Spencer, OSJ recently discussed this topic on St. Joseph’s Workshop. He explained how the traditions of our Catholic faith bring us into deeper relationship with God, but also how these traditions in themselves are not enough. Fr. Matthew said:

“Catholics are accused by non-Catholics of all different stripes of having a lot of traditions that we hang on to that have no bearing, no root in Scripture. Which is not true, that is an uninformed opinion.

Of course, it’s not only Scripture that Catholics look to. We also look to our Tradition, looking at what the Church taught from the beginning. We also look to the Magisterium, the teaching office of the Church. So we have these three pillars – Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium – that form the tripod and foundation upon which we can be sure that our faith is firm. Fr. Matthew Spencer

So Catholics get this accusation. We have a lot of traditions like having ashes on our head. Where do we find that practice in Scripture? Well, we can find many references to penance and even ashes inside of Scripture. And then we look to our Tradition, and for centuries we have done this as our outward observance.

But I think it’s a fair lesson to be reminded of – that it’s not enough just to have the ashes put on our foreheads. It’s not enough just to follow through with the many different traditions we have.

Take, for example, the Sign of the Cross, blessing yourself with Holy Water as you enter into the Church. What a beautiful tradition! I love it. It’s a reminder of our baptism, it’s a way to dispel evil spirits, it’s a sacramental, it’s a way that we sign ourselves as claimed by Christ, with the Sign of the Cross on ourselves. It’s beautiful, it’s an amazing tradition we have as Catholics.

And yet, if it only becomes routine, if we do it unthinkingly, if we do it without a true appreciation of what’s going on, it has much less impact in our spiritual life. And especially when it becomes something that is just routine, we run the risk of losing a clear focus on what we are doing in our lives.

So while I would heartily disagree with people who dispel our many beautiful traditions as Catholics as inconsequential or as a distraction from the fundamentals, I do think there is something we can be reminded of.

See, for us as Catholics, it’s not one or the other. It’s not looking and saying I’m going to follow human tradition and forget about God’s commandments. No, we uphold both. God’s commandments are fundamental and essential. But also our traditions as a Church that have their origin in Jesus, in Scripture, in Tradition, and have continued through human leaders in our Church down through the ages.

These are things that we have embraced, not invented as though they are more important than what God desires of us, but as complementary to what God is asking of us.

We’re going to embrace all of it. We’re going to embrace the Law, the Law of love that Jesus gives to us. We’re going to embrace our Tradition, and we’re going to accept and follow the teaching authority of the Church. Thanks be to God, that’s a gift for us too. All three components.”

Listen to the full reflection below:

St. Joseph’s Workshop with Fr. Matthew Spencer airs weekdays at 7:00 p.m. Eastern/4:00 p.m. Pacific on Relevant Radio®.

Stephanie Foley serves as a Digital Media Producer at Relevant Radio®. She is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where she studied journalism, and she has worked in Catholic radio for 12 years. Stephanie is a wife, a mother of three boys, and in her free time she enjoys reading, running, and really good coffee. You can find more of Stephanie’s writing at and on the free Relevant Radio mobile app.