Penance, Healing, & Renewal

Today the Catholic bishops of the United States begin seven days of intensified prayer and fasting. As they prepare for next week’s meetings, they have much to pray about. Healing and renewal will never happen without serious penance and dying to self. Only when our old ways die can we experience the newness of Christ.

Do penance. Engage in acts of self-denial as an outward sign and instrument of inner renewal. This was the message of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:8). It was the first message of Jesus in his preaching of the Kingdom (Mark 1:15). It was the message of Paul when he urged us to crucify the desires of our flesh (Galatians 5:24). For centuries, Christians embraced serious acts of penance as a normal part of discipleship: all-night prayer vigils, periods of fasting, pilgrimages to holy sites, and so forth.

During the last five decades, penance has virtually vanished from Christian life. A little in Lent and that’s it. My smart phone proves the point. I tried using voice-to-text to speak the word “penance,” and it simply would not cooperate: Pennants. Pendants. Pendulum. Penmanship. Seriously, “penmanship?” Apparently even the lost art of handwriting is more common in our digital age than self-denial.

Our culture has been one of regular self-gratification. The result has been the steady corrosion of healthy relationships, not to mention serious scandals. Priests and bishops are called to even more self-denial than others. We are supposed to be signs to the world that the Kingdom of God is so much more real than these passing pleasures. We have let people down. Trust has been damaged, and needs to be restored.

Restoring trust includes “talking about the tough stuff.” That is something healthy families do. It has not always happened in Catholic institutions. Our people have every right to hear our bishops and Pope Francis talk openly about these problems.

But talk alone will not suffice. To quote the wisdom of Stephen Covey: “You can’t talk your way out of a problem that you behaved yourself into.” Thankfully, we can add the insight of his son: you can behave your way out of the problem you behaved yourself into. Trust can be restored by consistent behavior.

Part of “behaving” may include more resignations or removals of bishops from office. But there is no “one and done” solution here, no utopian structure that will magically make human sinfulness go away. To be fully human means being fully free. The choice to be healthy and holy must be renewed each day.

The real battleground is the human heart. We live in a confused and disconnected age in which most human beings in affluent countries have developed a distorted understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to love, what sexuality is for, and what constitutes healthy relationships. Many people do not experience a harmony of body, mind, and spirit in their lifestyle choices or in their relationships. This dysfunction and disconnected way of living has infected Catholics of all walks of life.

Some have suggested that priests getting married would somehow solve the problem. I totally disagree. Marriage is no solution to sexual dysfunction. Sometimes married people figure that their mate will make their emptiness, wounds, fears, or insecurities go away. Not true. Marriage does not heal old wounds – that is not what marriage is for! Likewise, some young men figure that the grace of Holy Orders will heal their old wounds. Not so. In both cases, the wounds worsen. We then become wounded wounders. When priests are wounded wounders, the opportunity to wound is worse.

Our society believes the lie that sexual gratification is a “need.” There are many things we are convinced (in the moment of temptation) that we “need” – sex, junk food, an impulse buy, approval from others, etc. Underneath the urges can be found our deeper and truer desires: to know that all will be well, to feel connected, to feel wanted, and to be a child of God. We definitely need those things in life, and if we stop paying attention to our emotional and spiritual needs, we might find ourselves drifting into some ugly behaviors – even if we are priests.

Penance is quite helpful in laying bare the deeper desires of our heart. As we begin to say “yes” and “no” with fuller freedom, we rediscover the harmony of body, mind, and spirit. Healing in one area cannot happen without paying attention to the others.

Penance also is a wonderful way of expressing the communion of the saints – our oneness and solidarity in Christ. Even if I myself am not the perpetrator, by doing penance I am proclaiming, “I belong to the people of God!” Like Moses atop the mountain or like Jesus in the desert, we suffer for the sins of the whole community and pray for God to win the victory in every human heart.

Our “old self” will not go down quietly. Part of us will always rebel repeatedly against the newness that Christ brings. That epic struggle, that battle-to-the-death, is part of the human experience. It must be fought by saints of all walks of life: monks, nuns, priests, bishops, married men and women, widows and widowers, elderly, disabled, teens, and children.

Therefore, I plan to join our bishops by fasting at least four days this week. In my case that means eating only one meal, and if needed one or two small snacks. More importantly, I am committed to listen attentively to the still small voice in my heart inviting me to reduce or renounce other behaviors – the “panic rooms” that I wrote about last month. Dying to self is painful. Sometimes God’s requests bring tears to my eyes. But they always bring new life to my heart.