Penance, repentance—it all sounds so… negative. These words might leave a bad taste in our mouth but they’re essential to the Christian life, especially during Lent. Fr. Eric Nielsen, pastor of the Saint Paul University Catholic Center at the University of Wisconsin, joined The Inner Life® to discuss this practice of penance that has been in the Church since the beginning.
Why must we repent?
“When John the Baptist comes out of the wilderness, the first thing out of his mouth is, repent! And when Jesus shows up after being in the desert for forty days, fasting on pretty much nothing, his first words are, repent. That word repent in English has kind of a narrow definition, but in Latin at least it’s a broader definition, it requires you to actually do something. John the Baptist tells this to the Pharisees and Saduccees, they were coming to him for baptism and he says: “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance,” says Fr. Nielsen.
Repentance requires action. “We need to do good, it’s not just enough to say ‘I’m sorry’ and to be forgiven; it’s also important that we actually do something to show that we are truly contrite and to make up for the sin that we committed. And so repentance is a way that we overcome the effect of the sin in our life,” explains Fr. Nielsen. He gives the example of a child who shows up late to dinner. His father forgives him, but tells him that for the next week, he is to show up 10 minutes early for dinner each evening. “Repentance has that first fruit that it heals the disorder left in us from the sin that we commit.”
I say to you, unless you shall do penance you shall all likewise perish. – Luke 13:3
Little Things with Great Love
We must do penance for our sins, but also for the sins of others. Fr. Nielsen points to Our Lady’s apparitions at Fatima to explain why. “Before Our Lady appeared to them an angel showed up and told Lucy … ‘You must do penance.’ And Lucy replied, ‘Well, how and why?’ And the angel responded, ‘Do penance out of what you will be able. Give a sacrifice to God in act of reparation for the sins by which he is offended and to plea for the conversion of sinners. In that way you will attract peace to your country.’ So this understanding that by doing penance this little shepherd kid living way up in the mountains in the middle of no where is going to bring peace to her country just by her penance and by making small sacrifices. So we have to believe that the penance we’re doing is not only repairing the sin in our own hearts but it’s also repairing the sin in our own communities. So let us grab onto this wholeheartedly!”
Our penances need not be monumental, they could be as simple as not putting cream in your coffee every other day, says Fr. Nielsen. But if you make the decision to set aside tiny comforts during your day and offer them in reparation for sins, those little sacrifices will make a big difference.
Listen to the full episode here: