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The PenitentI started this post yesterday, but didn’t manage to finish it — though it would have been more apropos if I had, since Friday is a day of penance for Catholics and other Christians.  Nevertheless, every day is a good day to ask: “Is penance still relevant?”

All right — we need to first establish what penance is not.  Forget about familiar images of shirtless monks flagellating themselves with heavy whips until they are nearly half-dead and bathed in blood (there is a practice of mortification involving a rope, but it is much milder than that).  We Catholics do not hate our bodies, and I cannot emphasize that strongly enough.

Apart from religious reasons, I would argue that penance (prudently undertaken, of course) has tremendous benefits for the human person in general, and for today’s society in particular.

First, it encourages patience.  Without a doubt, we live in an instant gratification society.  We want what we want when we want it.

NYC_subway_riders_with_their_newspapersWe often complain (rightly) that our society is too busy, and that the professional world moves too fast and demands too much of our time and energy.  But what we tend to forget is the reason for this.  Our jobs and culture allow us so little leisure precisely because we are an immediate-satisfaction society.  Satisfaction of this desire demands that our industries, businesses, and other providers be constantly at the grindstone.

A spirit of penance encourages us to delay satisfaction and gratification, to say “no” to ourselves in the moment so as to build discipline and pave the way for greater, deeper rewards.  If 25 people in our society embraced a spirit of penance, imagine what effect that might have on our “go-go,” “get-get” culture.

The second benefit penance has for our society is related to this point.  Like I said, we modern Westerners have the tendency to move way too fast.  When we fast, when we deny ourselves certain legitimate pleasures for a time, or when we impose rigorous disciplines on ourselves, we then give ourselves occasion to grow in gratitude.  We come to realize that all good things are gifts from God, on Whom we depend for our every need.  This realization helps us to slow down and appreciate even the little things in life that we take for granted.

I could go on longer, but enough said for now.  Hopefully, this illustrates how even those aspects of traditional Christian teaching that are counter-intuitive are, in the last analysis, life-giving, and meant only for the good of humankind.

Images from Wikipedia

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This video (which is under 20 minutes) features Fr. Michael White, pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD.  Not too long ago, this church parish was ready to sputter its last breath and die.  Fr. White was ready not only to leave the parish, but also the priesthood over its condition.

Now it is perhaps the most thriving Catholic parish in the United States.

Here, Fr. White talks a bit about the philosophy behind the journey toward revitalizing the parish.  It’s interesting viewing, and a useful contribution to New Evangelization efforts.

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