Friday, December 15, 2006

Day of Penance

Amy reports that Fr Cantalamessa has called for a day of fasting and penance in response to the clerical sex abuse scandals in recent times.
He is not the first person to suggest this, and I must confess that the first time I heard that suggestion my reaction was to think, "I've done nothing wrong, it's those horrendous clerics who should be doing penance!" However, I had an insight recently which has changed my thinking on this.

The Fathers of the Church present Jacob as being a prefiguration of Christ, and one of the ways in which he pre-figures Christ is that scene in Genesis (Gen 27) when Jacob secures the birthright of his brother Esau by covering himself in goatskins, and thereby deceiving his blind father Isaac into thinking he is his hirsuite son Esau. Now, we might have some difficulty associating this act of deception with the redeeming work of Christ. But of some of the patristic authors noted the use of goats in the Old Law as sin offerings, and as symbolising sinners in the New Testament. (c.f. Matt 25, for example) Jacob putting on the goatskins is a foreshadowing of Christ taking on the burden of our sins. Christ became sin, although He was sinless. (c.f. 2 Cor 5:21)

And so it seems to me, a willingness to do penance for the sins of another, without regard for the merits of the one who sinned, is a very powerful way of imitating Christ and conforming our minds to His. Obviously, our penance does not have the redemptive value of Christ's sufferings, but as we form members of His Body the Church, it seems to me that such penance is certainly a participation in the redemptive work which only He can truly accomplish. (c.f. Col 1:24)

We must resist this awful temptation to think that by doing penance of this kind we are somehow getting abominable sinners 'off the hook'. What a horrid way to look at things. We seem to have the impression that what we should desire is that the perpetrators of this vile abuse should be cast into he eternal hellfire. It may well be that their sins warrant that. But that is not what we should ultimately desire for them. Should we not rather be praying that they reached a stage of repentance and conversion? We can never allow ourselves to take the place of the elder brother of the prodigal son who begrudges the mercy shown to our fellow sinners, rather than rejoicing that there is no sin which God can not or will not remit for those who repent and turn back to Him. The tears and prayers of St Monica gave us St Augustine. Should we not cry out to heaven and ask that our penance and sacrifices might have a role in bringing the worst of sinners to repentance?

This is not something novel. St John Vianney would give serious sinners light penances in the confessional and make up for it by his own mortifications. I know more than one holy priest who encourages the lesser sinners amongst their penitents to multiply their penances on behalf of those who come to them with extremely grave sins. Devotion to the Sacred Heart has always included an element of offering prayer and sacrifice in reparation for the sins of others. The Divine Praises were initially introduced as an act of reparation for the sin of that sunny against the Holy Name. Prayer for the holy souls necessarily involves taking on some of the burden of another's sin.

We don't really take the unity of the Church as one Body seriously in this age. Penance in reparation for the sins of clerical sex abuse and as a mark of solidarity with those who suffer because of this abuse would be a powerful reminder that the sins of some members of the Church wound the entire Body. If we are Christians, we will drop any pretence of egotistical individualism and realise that we can't form One Body in Christ if we ask the question, "Am I my brother's keeper?"
I think Fr Cantalamessa has hit the nail on the head - some demons can only be exorcised by prayer and fasting. (c.f. Mark 9:29)


Nicholas said...

Unfortunately, you've got Isaac and Jacob backwards, although the rest of your post is spot-on.

Devin said...

Your post brings to mind this story from the Desert Fathers.

Two brothers went to town to sell what they had made. In the town they seperated and one brother fell into fornication. Afterwards the other brother said, "Let us go back to our cell, brother." But he replied, "I'm not coming." The other asked him, "Why, brother?" He replied, "because when you left me, I was tempted, and was guilty of fornication."
The other, wanting to help him, said, "The same thing happened to me; after I left you I also fell into fornication. Let us go together, and do penance with all our might, and God will pardon us sinners."
When they returned to their cell, they told the brothers what had happened to them, and were told what penance they should do. But the one did penance not for himself, but for the other, as though he himself had sinned. God, seeing his earnestness and charity, revealed to one of the elders, a few days later, that he had forgiven the fornicator becuase of the charity of the brother who had not sinned. Truly, this was to lay down his soul for his brother.

I just was struck by this passage and then saw your post. It seems a fitting tale. Let us do penance for the sake of our fallen brothers.

Zadok the Roman said...

Nicholas, thank you! I've corrected that error. I feel particularly foolish because I actually had the passage in question before me as I posted, but still managed to mix up Isaac and Jacob.

Devin, many thanks for that story. There's much to chew on in it.

romaryka said...

thank you zadok for your post (and thanks to your commenters) - your insight is a revelation indeed, and a humbling light of inspiration.