THE IMPORTANCE OF PENANCE
1. Visitors to the Scalabrini Museum in the Mother House of his missionaries in Piacenza are struck by a showcase holding various instruments of penance, which his biography tells us that he used.
We know that his spirituality was well summed up in the invocation he so often repeated: "Fac me cruce inebriari! (O Mary,) let me be intoxicated with the cross!
He wrote to his friend Bishop Bonomelli saying that "if the Lord had not given me the grace of a little asceticism at the right time, I don’t know how I should have managed." Asceticism means penance.
2. Scalabrini also left his writings on the question in the form of ten pages for his first synod, as well as a Lenten pastoral letter for 1895, which is worth quoting - and not just because this year marks its centenary.
3. The structure of the pastoral letter - which also takes up some core theological concepts from the synodal text - encompasses the two points of "how necessary penance is, and how we should practice it." The first part gives the theological and biblical basis for penance, while the second describes its practical application in the context of the "favorable season" of Lent.
It should be noted that Scalabrini intends penance to cover not only the specific form of Lenten discipline called fasting and abstinence, but also any other form of voluntary or voluntarily accepted sacrifice and mortification, and that the Lenten form would also include prayer, listening to God’s word, and charity: all actions performed with a view to the sacrament of penance, "the second table of salvation" (1879 Synod and 1895 Pastoral Letter).
4. Scalabrini understands Christian penance in the same sense as the Church, in the first place as a sign of the disciples’ participation in the sorrowful event of their Savior’s passion and death, leading to the joy of the resurrection: "When a sovereign dies, do you think it right that public festivals and shows should be suspended in the cities? ... Would you accept an invitation to a festive banquet or a lighthearted conversation when your father or mother was dying or dead at home? ... Our Mother the Church ... invites all of us to a spirit of recollection, to constant meditation on the passion, agony and death of the Holy Redeemer. She exhorts us to return within ourselves, to be converted through fasting, tears and mourning" over the death of Jesus.
Scalabrini also says that Christians do not fast in the same way as certain contemporary lay people, as a protest or in order to sensitize public opinion to specific problems. Nor do they do it as a simple ascetic does, in order to obtain self-mastery, but for love and in memory of the sufferings of Jesus Christ. They also perform penance in order to obey and imitate their Master.
5. Even so, Christian penance is the sister of joy, not of "sadness" or "melancholy": "The law of fasting is the law of penance, not of destruction; a precept of mortification, not a decree of death," continues Scalabrini, highlighting the liberating rather than destructive value of Christian discipline.
The positive value of penance springs above all from the charity into which it is transformed and to which it incites us. "We want to die to self-love but in order to live to charity" - which is also a beautiful formula, capturing the essence of the ultimate significance of every form of Christian ascetics.
"Parish priests should encourage parents to bring their children with them to receive the sacrament of penance. In this way the parents will be not only ministers for their children, but truly merciful fathers" (Synod I, 1879).
Penance is asked of us as Christians
The law of penance is not only asked of us "to disarm" the lust innate in each person (part of the pastoral letter not quoted here), but above all because we are Christians, that is, disciples of Jesus, who made it obligatory for us not only with his teaching, but above all with his life, which was "all cross and martyrdom."
This is an application of the great law of the Christian: everything he does, he does in union with Christ and in imitation of him: prayer, work ... and also penance.
But there is more. Dearly beloved, if penance, is asked of us as children of Adam, it is also asked of us as Christians. The religion we profess is by its nature a commitment to penance; and this virtue is a kind of compendium, the spirit or character of Christianity. I turn the pages of its history and find that the Church’s saints and chosen ones were always a community of people who crucified their own flesh with its desires and its lusts, a spiritual army with no other leader than a crucified God, no other standard than the cross, no other exercise than suffering, no other weapon than mortification. I open the Gospel, this divine rule book according to which we must one day be judged, and on almost every page I find nothing but precepts of self-denial and sacrifice. I lend an attentive ear to Jesus Christ as he himself speaks, and what does the divine Master say, dearly beloved? He says first of all that he came to call sinners - in other words, everyone - to penance. He says that the kingdom of heaven calls for strength and that only the strong can conquer it. He says that anyone who does not take up his cross and follow him cannot be his disciple. He also says "Do penance." Then he adds: "If you don’t do penance, you will all perish in the same way." Could his words be clearer or firmer? While he withers the fortunate and pleasure-seekers of this world, he raises a voice of blessing over all those who generously mortify themselves and thus conquer their disorderly passions, over the poor, the meek, the humble, the pure in heart, over those who weep and those who suffer persecution for the sake of justice. Indeed, I would almost say that I hear only a single word, a single teaching, a single command from his adorable lips: penance!
Having heard the language of Jesus Christ, I turn to contemplate his person. He is the great model of Christian life, a model so essential, my dear ones, that the secret of our predestination lies, as St. Paul attests, in similarity to him. This said, I would then ask which road he took to go up to heaven? That of wealth, riches, glory and pleasure, or rather than of poverty, humiliation and suffering? The whole of his life, writes St. John Chrysostom, was nothing but cross and martyrdom! From his first to his last moment, how much hardship, how many troubles, how much work, how much persecution, how much slander, how many sufferings, how many pains!
"I contemplate Jesus crucified: if my God did not intend to deceive me when he came to earth, if he became visible to my eyes so that he could be my guide, I am forced to greet penance as the sole hope of Adam’s children" (Pastoral Letter of 1895).
Penance so as to avoid falling into sin
The basis for the need to do for penance, in other words moral ascetics, is a result of our condition as sinners, for even after baptism we are weak and can sin. Christians are therefore urged to vigilance, sobriety, renunciation, and spiritual combat in order to hold the positions they have reached. Scalabrini quotes St. Paul, who described this ascetics in terms of combat, using sporting metaphors - "gymnastics," "running, "wrestling," "boxing" (found in the letter but not quoted here).
Penance is needed, my dear ones, not only in order to expiate the sins committed, but also to avoid committing new ones. So long as we are in this life, we are like weak reeds exposed to every wind. I mean that created goods entice us, temptations assail us, passions corrupt us, bad examples lead us astray: everything we see in the world, the very air we breathe, infects and seduces us. Only penance makes us as unyielding as stones to every assault, and indifferent to every vain and gratifying surface appearance, by deflating our pride and self-love, crushing our desires, curbing our sensual appetites and detaching us from earthly pleasure. St. Augustine writes that the righteous man can remain in grace only as long as he is upheld by penance. And why? Because, answers the Council of Trent (and experience, sad to say, confirms this), even after making bold resolutions, our will is still so weak, so illinclined, because of acquired habits, that the danger of a relapse is always there. For this not to happen, constant efforts and precautions are needed, a more powerful action of divine grace. And God’s minister in this work of perseverance and salvation can only be penance. This is why St. Paul could say: "I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified" (1 Cor 9:27).
Penance as liberation and interior joy
The authentic meaning of Christian penance is that found in the Gospel, and the Gospel aims first and foremost at a moral purification from the lack of truth and love - in other words from all the egoistic passions that prevent man from accepting God’s will in its purity. Penance thus becomes a liberation from our own selfishness in order to be more available to do good toward our neighbor.
It is therefore accompanied by interior joy: "The Christian life also has its pleasures and joys here below.... And what pleasure can be purer than the one that comes from experiencing our own dignity, contempt for luxuries, peace of conscience, a trusting abandon to the divine mercy, sweetness of repentance, expectation of the eternal prize?"
Some people have a very superficial and small-minded idea of Christian penance, believing that self-mortification is a wish to suffer out of a simple taste for suffering. No, dearly beloved, no. We aspire to a much higher goal. With an illustrious philosopher, I will say that when we mortify ourselves we do not want to destroy, but to edify; we want to repress the flesh, but in order to give freedom to the spirit; to strip ourselves of the old man, but in order to put on the new man; repudiate our corrupt will, but in order to replace it with God’s holy will; to die to self-love, but in order to live to charity; to demolish the rule of evil, persecuting it in itself and in its external and internal accomplices, but in order to found the rule of good, the rule of truth and love, within us; to lose something of the present, but in order to ensure our future. In other words, we want to take up our crown again; to be not only men, but also Christians; to rule in time and in eternity.
And is it not true that observance of the divine law calls for much less toil and suffering?
If we were alone in this struggle of the passions against the spirit, my very dear brothers and children, we should certainly have cause not only to tremble but to succumb. But God is with us; he is with us with his light, his strength, his grace, his sacraments. Jesus Christ is not a cold lawgiver who commands implacably: "Here is my law. Keep it." He knows how weak we are, and he says: "I am here, sons of my blood, to help you. I shall bear your burden; I shall sweeten your toil. Take courage! And when you do happen to fall wretchedly, take fresh courage: for I am here to hold out my hand to help you up and clasp you again to my bosom: ‘Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Mt 11:18)."
Yes, Jesus is always the Redeemer, the Father, the Friend of men! Observance of his law is still a source of ineffable consolation! It brings with it a sweetness, a peace, that is far more satisfying than all the joys, all the delights, all the pleasures of the world.
You have clear evidence of this, my dear ones, in all the true servants of the Lord; in thousands and thousands of truly Christian souls; in those poor religious and in those humble virgins who live apart from the world; above all, in the examples and lives of the saints. Surrounded by the harshest penances, the cruelest persecutions, and deprivation of every kind, they could often be heard exclaiming with St. Paul: "I am intoxicated with consolation, overflowing with joy." This was the case with St. Francis Xavier, St. Philip Neri, St. Francis de Sales, St. Vincent de Paul, Blessed John Gabriel Perboyre, and hundreds and hundreds of others. You would be awe-struck, dearly beloved, if I could describe to you the joyful scenes, the superhuman delights of the soul happy in virtue.
Penance and charity
Fasting must be transformed into solidarity, which is the name of justice guided by love: whatever I save must quickly go to wherever it is needed. Christian penance is linked in this way with the bodily and spiritual works of mercy in which the Church is so rich. This is the value of penance that is felt most strongly today.
For what joy is greater for the Christian soul than being able to help the poor, teach the ignorant, relieve the oppressed, dry the tears of the unhappy, save some souls, in other words do a little good?
Jesus Christ in his entirety cries out to us with one voice: "Penance!" It is the second table of salvation for man, the source of every good for families and society. It is what created the apostles, the martyrs, the confessors, what peoples the deserts with anchorites, the cloisters with virgins, the earth with saints, paradise with the blessed. To penance we owe the most beautiful centuries of Christianity. And we must be grateful to this sublime inspirer of every holy and glorious action if even today, in the midst of so much perversion of ideas and depravity of habits, we can see souls who remain faithful to God, setting an example of every beautiful virtue, and consecrating themselves day and night to the service of their brethren in hospitals, insane asylums, prisons, on battle-fields, in places infected with plague, and wherever a groan of pain is heard.
The sophisms of the world
Even in Scalabrini’s day, the practice of penance was seen as oldfashioned by orthodox thinkers. But Jesus Christ and his law belong to all times! Indeed - and here Scalabrini’s thought has especial relevance to our times! - we have even more need of it than in the past, living as we do in a society of luxury, consumerism and pleasure, with its "incentives to vice."
Despite this, people say that the law of penance is now out of step with our age - an age of civilization and progress, an age in which science is making life more comfortable and pleasant every day, with its wonderful discoveries....I know; but what of it? Just because the times have changed, has God perhaps changed? Has he promulgated an easier, more indulgent gospel than the one our forefathers and mothers followed? Does this mean that the kingdom of heaven was the reward for harsher struggles, more generous sacrifices and more arduous toil for them, and will be the reward for sloth, soft living and every evil satisfaction of desires for us? Come on! We must not be seduced, my very dear sons and daughters, by the sophisms of a corrupt and corrupting world. The incentives to vice and the dangers of falling have increased today precisely because of the increase in the comforts and pleasures of living. Which is why Christians have an obligation to walk more cautiously than ever, be more vigilant than ever, and embrace mortification and penance with still greater alacrity. The law exists: Jesus Christ, the immortal King of all ages, promulgated it, and human events are incapable of destroying or lessening it. "Heaven and earth will pass away," says the Lord, "but my words will not pass away" (Mk 13:31) .
Others will then object that this means that our life must always be depressing and melancholy, always full of trouble and distress .... Even if this were true, and the law of penance were in fact the harsh, frightening thing you imagine, surely God would have the right to impose it on us? However, he gives us sacrifices that are extremely light compared with the suffering due to sin! In any case, we all know that we cannot hope to win major prizes except by dint of major effort. As St. Paul says, if athletes steadfastly abstained from anything that could weaken their bodies, hardening themselves with harsh exercise and accustoming themselves to suffering in order to win a corruptible and short-lasting crown (the laurel wreath that was given to winners), should we not be even more willing to wear ourselves out for a crown that will never fade or wither, but last for all eternity? Of course! People subject themselves to abstention from food and drink, and surrender their bodies to iron and fire, in order to recover lost health; they put up with trials and tribulations, facing danger and not rarely putting their very life in danger, shrinking from nothing for a worthless and fleeting - and often uncertain - gain. How is it that everything seems so difficult and too much to bear for the infinitely noble gain, the full, eternal prize of the salvation of soul? And tell me, do those who give free rein to their own unruly passions then taste the satisfaction and happiness they expect? Ask the crazed seekers of worldly pleasures, ask the ambitious, the shameless and wanton, the miserly. Alas, how many painful treatments they undergo, how many dashed hopes, how much humiliation, sadness, suffering, anxiety, remorse - and at the very moment of tasting the pleasure.
"St. Francis de Sales says that confessors need the patience and gentleness of a martyr: ‘One is a martyr,’ he says, ‘not only confessing God before men, but also confessing men before God", (First Synod, 1879).