One day, in prayer, the Lord brought my attention to an interesting word… penance. To be honest, I wasn’t really excited about that. Penance was not something I wanted to dwell too much on. I wanted to talk about other things… pretty things… consoling things. But God had something else in mind.
When I heard that word, the first thing that came to mind was the penance we receive in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Sometimes a Hail Mary or an Our Father, kind of as an afterthought… not something I have spent much time praying on.
As I thought about it, I realized that the word had kind of a negative implication for me; there was a punitive connotation in my mind… this is not something I get to do, but something I have to do because I sinned. I’ve often heard the term used in other punitive settings, like when a priest is found to have committed grave acts and is removed from ministry and “assigned to a life of prayer and penance.”
I think that in my mind, I had connected penance with punishment. No wonder I didn’t even want to think about it. But God insisted, so I knew He had something for my good in mind.
I sat to pray, and in my mind, I heard an echo coming at once from Fatima and Lourdes: “Penance, penance, penance!” Such an urgent call from Heaven…
The angel and Our Lady were echoing the Word spoken back in Galilee… repent!
The word repent in this passage was translated from the Greek word metanoia. Interestingly, this word does not have any negative connotations for me; I like the word metanoia. I immediately understand it to mean a change of direction that begins in and flows from the heart.
Ok… maybe this penance thing is not what I thought it was. I had thought about it as something that came from outside, but God is calling us to have a change of heart.
To internalize this call to penance, we have to understand the WHY. “Because of hope in Divine Mercy”… Everything always begins and ends with God. It is His Mercy that makes us worthy of His Love. It is His Love that makes us dare to hope and want to change our lives.
“The intention to change one’s life.” That’s it, isn’t it? Are we willing to give up the sin we know, the sin we like? Are we willing to take the steps necessary to walk in the light? This begins with a change of heart, but it must overflow to action, to change… metanoia.
I love the word effort in the quote above… with sweat and tears. This is how we walk in the Way of the Cross. But every journey begins with one step. The penance we are given in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is meant to help us pivot to a new direction and take that first step. To let the sorrow of our contrition be the fuel that propels us to fulfill the promise we made in the Act of Contrition… “to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.
It is like our little boat comes to rest on a shore after being tossed out of route in a storm. It is repaired, restocked, and turned around… pointed in the right direction. Nothing will happen if it remains onshore. It needs a push… a little shove, a concrete external action, and then we can continue to row. We are going in the right direction, but the journey is long, and we grow tired. The undercurrent below threatens to pull us away from God. We cannot continue on our own.
“Penance, penance, penance!”; A clarion call from above...
One of the expressions of penance is prayer; the Mass is the highest form of prayer. Living from Eucharist to Eucharist, we find the strength to stay firm in our intent. It is in the Eucharist that we find the strength to remain in a state of grace.
A life of prayer and penance… doesn’t sound like a punishment to me. Funny how things always work out… I wanted to pray about pretty things, and it turned out penance is more beautiful than I could ever see.
If I asked you to picture Jesus… what image comes to mind? Do you imagine Him all grown up, or do you see Him as a child? Perhaps you see Jonathan Roumie from The Chosen walking around Galilee, or you see Jim Caviezel from The Passion of The Christ? Do you see Him walking on water, teaching in the synagogue, and feeding the crowds? Do you see Him enduring His Passion, saying His last words, taking His last breath? Or perhaps you see Him in His glorified body, walking through walls, ascending to the Father in Heaven?
But, how about as your priest? Does that image ever come to mind? Do you ever see Him in the priesthood of Christ?
Sometimes the gift comes unexpectedly, and it takes your breath away.
An elderly priest celebrated Mass for us one day. Frail and obviously in pain, he was determined to fulfill his mission. He struggled with each step as he leaned onto his cane. He went on to teach us about suffering, lessons learned by a lifetime of walking with God. He asked us to pray for him in his homily, but not for his suffering to be taken away. He asked us to pray instead for the souls that would be saved by the acceptance of his cross.
He taught us with his words, but he taught us more by his actions. The frailness of his body could not compete against the strength of his will because it was fueled by the grace of his ministerial priesthood; it was fired up in love.
As I saw him struggle up there, my heart was moved, and I wanted to help…but this was his task; he was the priest. Only by his words and actions would that piece of bread on the altar become the Bread of Life. Only by his words and actions would the cup of wine become the Blood of Our Lord.
We needed him to do his job. I thought of St. John Paul II leaning into his Cross, teaching us by his frailty the meaning of love. Holding my breath, I asked the angels to hold his arms up like Aaron and Hur did for Moses (Exodus 17:12). And then I saw…
During the Consecration prayer at Mass, I know the priest is acting "in persona Christi," in the person of Christ. I usually picture Jesus at the Last Supper, breaking the bread, blessing the wine. But this day, I saw something different.
As the elderly priest leaned into the altar and struggled to raise the Host, I saw Jesus crucified, suffering for us. His words, shaken with pain, poured out in love, united to the One He Loves, called Him down for us. The words "IN PERSONA CHRISTI" took on a new tone. This was not Jesus commanding the demons to leave with His voice; this was Jesus trampling down Satan with His silent obedience, with His unfailing Love… This was my Jesus, suffering, dying on the Cross for us.
I’ve always thought it would be nice to own a grandfather clock. The idea of a clock marking the passing hours with a chime just speaks to my heart. Perhaps the thought brings back memories of the clock at my grandparent’s house or the Church bells at our school. I’ve mentioned this desire to my husband a few times, and his reaction has always been the same… “That sounds like it would get annoying very quickly!” Needless to say, we don’t own a grandfather clock…yet, but I have acquired something that, in marking the passing of time, has had a considerable impact on my life. It is an app on my phone that reminds me to pray the Angelus.
For those of you who might not be familiar with it, the praying of the Angelus is an old devotion in the Catholic Church, where we remember the Incarnation and the role Mary played in the story of Salvation. Every day, at noon, my phone chimes. I stop what I am doing and, with bells ringing in the background, I unite my prayer to that of the Church. It takes less than a minute to pray, but I have to say, I feel like it has made a huge difference in my prayer life.
I love how this prayer invites me to slow down the passage of time. What I usually think of as one moment, one mystery, “The Incarnation,” is broken down into smaller moments. The prayer brings us in to participate in the conversation between Mary and the Angel. A back and forth between Heaven and earth. But there is something else. The way the bells just “show up” in my life, often catching me by surprise, is like God knocking on the door, checking up on me, saying, “What have you been doing with your time?”
Sometimes I am in the middle of writing an article or preparing an RCIA class. Other times I might be helping my son with schoolwork or ordering groceries online. But there are times when the bells find me scrolling down aimlessly through social media, or in other words, wasting my time.
Whether my morning was spent wisely or foolishly, this simple call to prayer has become a call to be awake, to stop, and to listen. What if death was the one who was calling this day? Would it find me ready? Would it find me at my station, fulfilling my duties, or would it find me indulging in some escapist behavior, being lulled to sleep by the white noise of the world?
“The angel of the Lord declared on to Mary…” Mary was ready. Will I be ready when it is my time? This prayer, this daily practice, helps me to keep this question in mind. Seeing how often I fail at it does not discourage me because I immediately repent and bring the Incarnation of Christ to mind. It is in this very prayer where the graces I seek are to be found. In pondering on the readiness and receptivity of Mary, I make room for those virtues to grow in my heart. This is how we grow and change, a little at a time. Falling, failing, but turning back to God each time.
After high school graduation, I went on to study engineering in college. I graduated and went on to work as a software engineer for a few years. I really enjoyed working in that field. I had problems to solve, and I used flowcharts and rules to achieve the desired results. When a test failed, I had methods to follow to find the error, and everything eventually made sense. I’m sometimes tempted to think that my “engineering brain” gets in the way of my growth in holiness, but it is quite the opposite. It is that desire in me for understanding Truth that always leads me to the Cross, where eventually everything makes sense.
In order to remain in Jesus’ love and have complete joy, we must love one another as He loves us. How can we do this? We can’t, at least not on our own. We need His love in us; we need His heart in ours. At first glance, the scripture passage above seems like a catch-22, but it is not. In His command, Jesus is inviting us to discover how He loves us. He points us to the answer, the Cross. This is where we begin, and this is where we end.
As we accept His invitation and ponder on the mystery of the Cross, we allow ourselves to receive the love and mercy that pours out from His Sacred wounds. As we let the reality of this mystery wash over us and fill our minds and hearts, His own love living in us allows us to love our neighbor and experience joy.
“Remain in my love,” remain at the Cross. Do not run away. Do not search for happiness in fleeting things but come to the source of complete joy. It might not make sense for a while, but ask for the grace, and “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
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We are Ivonne J. Hernandez, Rick Hernandez and Laura Worhacz, Lay Associates of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, and brothers and sisters in Christ.
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