Visit the new online stores
that offer a very large assortment of religious goods!
Order a copy
of the website!
Back to the Home Page

Back to Beautiful Teachings

Catholic Doors Ministry


The Conversion of the Heart to God.


Q. What is repentance?

A. Repentance, which is also called penance, is the sincere conversion of the heart from sin to God. To understand this, we must observe, that in sin there are two great evils, which Almighty God himself describes with astonishment in these words, "Be astonished, O ye heavens! at this - for my people have done two evils; they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and have digged to themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water," Jerem. ii. 12. In every mortal sin, there are two enormous evils, to wit, the turning away from God, infinitely good, and the very fountain of goodness and life, and the embracing, in his stead, the monster sin, by the allurement of some deceitful appearance of an imaginary happiness, justly compared to a broken cistern that can hold no water, but only filth. Wherefore repentance, which is the opposite of sin, and the destroyer of sin, must have these two opposite conditions, the turning away from sin with horror, detestation, and sorrow, for having offended so great a God, and the returning back to God, to embrace him by love, and faithfully to obey his holy law.

Return to Table of Contents


Q. What are the principal parts of which true repentance is composed?

A. The principal parts of true repentance are these three:

First, A sincere regret and sorrow of heart for our having offended so good a God by sin.

Second, A firm and determined resolution of never offending him again, followed by an effectual change of life and manners.

Third, Voluntarily punishing ourselves for the sins we have committed, in order to repair the injury done to God by sin, and satisfy, in some measure, his offended justice.

Return to Table of Contents


Q. What is meant by sorrow for having offended God by sin?

A. Sorrow is a painful feeling of the mind, when any evil comes upon ourselves, or upon those we love; and, if we ourselves have been the occasion of bringing evil upon those we love, our displeasure and pain at their suffering is still the greater. hen therefore we have a sincere love of God, and consider our sins as a grievous outrage and injury, by which we have offended him; and, on that account, feel a regret in our heart, a pain and displeasure in our mind; that pain, that regret, and displeasure, is the sorrow which constitutes true repentance. hence this sorrow is founded in a sincere love of God, a hatred and a detestation of sin, as being an offence and injury to God.

Q. What are the qualities which this true sorrow of repentance ought to have?

A. Chiefly these following:

First, It ought to be internal, that is, seated in the heart and mind; not a more outward sorrow of words or other external signs, nor even a more sensible sorrow, which some tender affectionate people are very apt to have, and which shows itself in sobs and tears, but without any real change of the heart; but it ought to be in the mind and heart;in the mind, by a full conviction of the evil of sin, and the injury it is to so good a God; and in the heart, which, having a sincere love of God, feels a real pain and regret for having ever displeased him. Where this is, there true sorrow is, though there be neither sighs nor tears; but where this is not, the sighs and tears will be of no avail.

Return to Table of Contents


Second, It ought to be supernatural, that is, rising from supernatural motives, through the grace of God. A person may be sorry for his sins; because by them he has brought disease, or loss, or disgrace upon himself. A sorrow of this kind will never find mercy with God. This is a mere sorrow of the world; but not a sorrow according to God. Now the scripture tells us, that it is only the sorrow that is according to God, which worketh penance steadfast unto salvation; but the sorrow of the world worketh death," 2 Cor. vii. 10. The sorrow of true repentance must arise from our having offended so good a God, from our ingratitude to Jesus Christ, from the danger our sins have put us in, of being eternally separated from God whom we love, and of being eternally condemned among his enemies in hell fire, from the fear of God's judgments, and from the horror of sin, on account of its opposition to God. These are supernatural motives which our faith teaches us, and which, by the help of God's grace, excite the true sorrow of repentance in our soul.

Third, It ought to be exceeding great; that is, our sorrow for having lost our God and his grace by sin, ought to be greater than if we had lost all that we love in this world; because, as our sorrow for the loss of any good is always in proportion to the love and esteem we bear towards that good, seeing we are obliged to love god above all things; consequently our sorrow and regret for having lost him by sin, ought to be greater than if we had lost all things else.

Fourth, It ought to be universal; that is, we ought to have this sorrow for all and every one of our sins, without exception; for, if we love any one mortal sin, though we should perfectly hate all others, we can never be said to have true repentance.

Fifth, It ought to be accompanied with a firm resolution of sinning no more, and a willingness to satisfy for past sins; of which afterwards,

Sixth, It ought also to be accompanied with a firm hope, in the mercy of God, of obtaining pardon.

Return to Table of Contents


Q. Is this sorrow absolutely necessary for true repentance?

A. It is the very essence of true repentance, as appears from innumerable testimonies of scripture. Thus David says to God, "If thou hadst desired sacrifice, I would indeed have given it; with burnt-offerings thou wilt not be delighted; a sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit; a contrite and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise," Ps. 1. 18.; where we see that no outward means of appeasing the wrath of God, even by sacrifices appointed by himself for this purpose, will find acceptance with him, unless they be accompanied with a true sincere sorrow of the heart, which humbles it, and breaks it, as it were, to pieces, and with affliction of the spirit, or regret of the mind, for having offended so good a God; but that an afflicted spirit, and contrite heart, will never be despised by him. So also the scripture says, "When thou shalt seek the Lord thy God, thou shalt find him; yet so if thou seek him with all thy heart, and with all the afflictions of thy soul," deut. iv. 29.

Again, the prophet Moses says to his people, "Now, when thou shalt be touched with the repentance of thy heart - and return to him - the Lord thy God will have mercy on thee," Deut. xxx. 1, 2, 3. So likewise Jeremiah exhorts sinners in these words to true repentance; "Gird thee with sackcloths, O daughter of my people, and sprinkle thee with ashes, make thee mourning as for an only son, a bitter lamentation," Jer. vi. 26. And God himself, by his prophet Joel, "Now, therefore," saith the Lord, "be converted to me with all your heart in fasting, and in weeping, and in mourning, and rend your hearts and not your garments, and turn to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, patient, and rich in mercy," Joel ii. 12.

Such was the true sorrow of David, which he describes in these words: There is no "health in my flesh, because of thy wrath; there is no peace for my bones, because of my sins; for my iniquities are gone over my head, and as a heavy burden are become heavy upon me - I am become miserable, and am bowed down even to the end; I walked sorrowful all the day long," Ps. xxxvii. 4. Such was the repentance of King Ezekias, when he said to God, "I will recount to thee all my years in the bitterness of my soul," Is. xxxviii. 15. Such, in fine, was the repentance of all true penitents, who found mercy with God, the Ninivites, the humble publican, St. Mary Magdalen, St. Peter, &c.

Return to Table of Contents


Q. How many kinds of this sorrow are there?

A. It is considered as divided into two kinds, which agree in all the above-mentioned qualities, and differ only in the motives from which they arise, and in the effects they produce.

Of the supernatural motives mentioned above, some are most perfect and excellence, because founded in charity, or the pure love of God for himself alone; as when we are sorry for our sins; purely because by them we have offended so good a God, whom we love above all things, without any attention to the evils sin brings upon ourselves.

Such was the sorrow of St. Mary Magdalen, of whom our Savior says, "Many sins are forgiven her, because she has loved much." A sorrow that arises from this motive is a perfect sorrow, and is called perfect contrition. Others of the supernatural motives above-mentioned, are less perfect, because they include an attention to our own interest, accompanied with an initial, and less perfect love of God, considering him more as being good to us, than as infinitely good in himself. Of this kind are our fear of losing heaven, or of being condemned to hell; our fear of the judgments of God, and the like. A sorrow for sin, which arises from these motives, is therefore called imperfect contrition or attrition.

Q. How does contrition and attrition differ in their effects?

A. Perfect contrition, as it arises from a perfect love of God for himself alone, is so pleasing in his sight, that the moment a person has it, God is reconciled to him, and forgives his sins; for, as the scripture says, "charity," or the perfect love of God, "covereth a multitude of sins," 1 Pet. iv. 8.; and such was the effect it had in St. Mary magdalen. This however, is to be so understood that such contrition does not free a person from having recourse to the sacrament of penance, where it can be had; the command of receiving that sacrament being laid upon all without exception. Attrition, on the other hand, in no case obtains of itself the remission of sin, but only disposes the soul for receiving that grace by means of the sacrament of penance.

Q. is this sorrow for sin, which arises from the fear of hell, or of God's judgments, or of losing heaven, a virtuous and laudable sorrow?

A. Most certainly: It is a gift of God, and therefore David prays for it: "Pierce thou my flesh," says he, "with thy fear: for I am afraid of thy judgments," Ps. cxviii. 120.; and Christ himself commands us to have this fear of God: "Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do; but I will show you whom you shall fear; fear ye him who, after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell: yea, I say to you, fear him.: Luke xii.4.

Return to Table of Contents


Q. What is meant by purpose of sinning no more?

A. It is a firm and resolute determination of the will, of carefully avoiding all sin for the time to come, and all the dangerous occasions of sin, arising from the same supernatural motives on which our sorrow for sin is grounded. In fact, this purpose and resolution is a necessary consequence of our sorrow, and an essential part of true repentance; for it is impossible sincerely to hate sin, as the greatest of all evils, and to be heartily sorry for having offended God, by being guilty of it, without being also firmly resolved to fly from that monster for the future, and to use every necessary means for avoiding it.

Return to Table of Contents


Q. What are the effects of this sincere purpose of amendment?

A. A total change of our whole behavior; "a putting off, according to our former conversation, the old man; and a being renewed," not only "in the spirit of our mind," but also "putting on the new man, who, according to God, is created in justice, and holiness, and truth," Ephes. iv. 22.; or as the same Apostle expresses it more particularly, "Now, put you also all away, anger, indignation, malice, blasphemy, filthy speech out of your mouth; lie not one to another, stripping yourselves of the old man with his deeds - Put ye on, therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, the bowels of mercy and benignity, humility, modesty, patience - but above all things have charity, which is the bond of perfection," Coloss. iii. 8. So that true repentance changes the whole man, his sentiments, his affections, his behavior; makes him love what he did not love before, to wit, God and his holy law; and makes him hate what he loved before, to wit, his sinful pleasures and employments. And this is the great favor, which Almighty God promises to bestow upon his people by the prophet Ezekiel, saying, "I will give them on heart, and will put a new spirit in their bowels; and I will take away the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my commandments, and keep my judgments, and do them; and that they may be my people, and I may be their God," Ezek. xi. 19.

Q. Is this conversion and change of life strictly required of true penitents?

A. Nothing is more strictly inculcated throughout the whole scripture, as a necessary condition of being reconciled with God. Thus, "As I live, saith the Lord God, I desire not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; and why will you die, O house of Israel?" Ezek. xxxiii. 11. And to show wherein this turning consists, he says, "Cast away from you all transgressions, by which you have transgressed and make to yourselves a new heart and a new spirit, and why will you die, I house of Israel?" Ezek. xviii. 31. "When you stretch forth your hands, I will turn away my eyes from you," says God to sinners, "and when you multiply prayer, I will not hear, for your hands are full of blood;" that is, you are hateful to me by reason of your sins.

Return to Table of Contents


But what must be done to find favor? He immediately adds, "Wash yourselves, be clean, take away the evil of your devices from my eyes; cease to do perversely, learn to do well, seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge for the fatherless, defend the widow, and then come and accuse me, saith the Lord. If your sins be as scarlet, they shall be made white as snow; and if they be red as crimson, they shall be white as wool," Is. i. 15. "Seek the Lord," says the same holy prophet, "while he may be found; call upon him while he is near. let the wicked man forsake his way, and the unjust man his thoughts, and let him return to the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he is bountiful to forgive," Is. lv. 6. And no wonder that this conversion should be so strictly enjoined; for how can we expect that God should be reconciled with us, if we still go on to offend him? That is what we would not do ourselves to one that injures us. Hence we find, that all true penitents were remarkable for the great change of their lives; David, St. Paul, St. Mary Magdalen, Zachaeus, and others.

Q. But, considering the weakness of human nature, the strength of evil habits, and the violence of temptation, how is it possible for one to be thus thoroughly changed all at once? Such a perfect change is the work of years?

A. This perfect conversion to God is no doubt the effect of the grace of God, more than the work of man; and Almighty God has not been wanting to give the world examples of the power of his grace, in giving some sinners all at once a perfect conversion of the whole man, as in those last mentioned. A change of the heart, a firm and determined resolution of the will never more to offend God, is absolutely and essentially required in true repentance. This resolution, though it greatly fortifies the superior will against all passions, evil habits and temptations, yet it does not entirely, and at once, destroy them, and, therefore, does not give the sinner an absolute security against all relapses into sin, which, indeed, we can never have in this life; but this resolution of amendment, if it be sinners, must work an effectual change, at least in the following particulars:

First, In avoiding, with the utmost care, all dangerous occasions of sin; for, if he expose himself to the danger, that clearly shows he has no sincere resolution to avoid the sin, seeing the word of God assures us, that "he that loves the danger shall perish in it."

Second, In being most attentive to resist all temptations, especially at the beginning; for, if he willingly entertain, and daily with the temptation, it is evident that his horror for the sin is not what it should be.

Third, In using the proper remedies, especially such as are prescribed by his spiritual director, for breaking his passions, and destroying his bad habits; because, if he be sincere in desiring the end, he must be assiduous in using the means.

Fourth, In being most earnest in the duties of prayer, spiritual reading, assisting at Mass, frequently worthily the sacraments, and the like; as there are the most assured help to avoid sin, and fortify the soul against it. Whereas a penitent sinner is assiduous in these particulars his conversion is real, and there is no fear, if he persevere, but he will avoid falling back to his sins, and, in time, get the perfect victory over them; but, if he be negligent in these things, and take little or no more care to avoid sin than he did before, his conversion is but a pretence, and by no means such as will find favor with God.

Return to Table of Contents


Q. What is meant by doing penance for sin?

A. Voluntarily punishing ourselves, in order to satisfy the justice of God for the offences committed against him.

Q. Does sin of its own nature require to be punished, or its punishment inflicted only as a warning to others, and for the correction of the guilty themselves?

A. Some people, of free-thinking principles, in these modern times, seem much inclined to suppose, that sin requires little or no punishment in itself, and that the principal, if not the only design of punishing, is to correct the guilty, and be a warning to others. But the whole conduct the Divine Providence, as well as the feelings of our own heart, manifestly show, that sin, of its own nature, essentially requires to be punished, and that wherever the guilt of sin is found, the justice of God acquires a full and perfect right to punish the offender.

First, When great numbers of the angels fell into sin, the justice of God pursued them with immediate punishment, and condemned them to hell-fire which was prepared for that purpose. This was not for their correction, but for their eternal destruction; neither was it a warning to others, for there were no others to be warned by it, the good angels, by their allegiance being then confirmed in eternal happiness. So severe a punishment, from a God of infinite goodness clearly shows that the guilt of their crime most justly and necessarily required it.

Second, The punishment inflicted on mankind for the sin of our first parents, in being deprived of original justice, shows the same truth beyond reply; this punishment was not for the correction, but for the destruction of the whole race of Adam, which would have effectually followed, if the goodness of God had not provided a remedy; neither was it for warning, for there were no others to be warned by it, all were already involved.

Third, The eternal torments of hell inflicted upon all impenitent sinners, no less clearly show the same thing.

Fourth, The holy scripture every where speaks of the punishment inflicted by God on sinners, as being what their sins necessarily deserve from God's justice, without the smallest hint of its being sent for correction or warning, though this no doubt, is also commonly intended in the punishments of this life. Nay, in some places, it is said, that certain more enormous sins cry to heaven for vengeance, and that justice absolutely demands they should be punished. Correction and warning, therefore are but necessary causes of punishment, but the essential source of punishment is the malignity and guilt of sin, which necessarily deserves and demands it; and justice absolutely requires this satisfaction by the punishment of the guilty.

Fifth, As God is a being of infinite justice, it is impossible He should always, and on every occasion, punish sin wherever he finds it, even with temporal punishments, and much more with eternal torments, if sin, of its own nature did not justly require it, because in numberless instances, especially in the eternal punishment, his doing so could neither serve for correction nor warning; and, as he is a being of infinite goodness, it is impossible he should take pleasure in the torments and sufferings of his creatures, if the order of justice did not absolutely require it. Yet we find it frequently declared in scripture, that it is the fixed rule of his justice to render to every one according to his works, reward for doing good, and punishment for sin; sin is every where held forth as the primary cause of all our sufferings, both in this life and in the next.

Return to Table of Contents


Q. Is it a rule of God's justice never to let sin go unpunished?

A. It is, as appears from the following declarations of holy writ: "I feared all my works," said Job, "knowing that thou didst not spare the offender," Job. ix. 28. And again, "Far from God be wickedness, and iniquity from the Almighty; for he will render to a man his work, and according to the ways of every one he will reward him," Job xxxiv. 10. "God hath spoken once; these two things have I heard, that power belongeth to God, and mercy to thee O Lord! for thou wilt render to every man according to works," Psal. lxi. 12. "I am the Lord," says the great God himself "that search the heart and prove the reins; who give to every one according to his way, and according to the fruit of his devices," Jer. xvii. 10. "For God is great in counsel, and incomprehensible in thought, whose eyes are open upon all the ways of the children of Adam, to render unto every one according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his devices," Jer. xxxii. 19.

Christ himself assures us, that the Son of Man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels and then he will render to every man according to his works," Matth. xvi. 27. "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that every one may receive the proper things of the body, according as he hath done, whether it be good or evil, 2 Cor. v. 10. And St. Paul, addressing himself, in particular to sinners, on this subject, says, "According to thy hardness, and impenitent heart, thou treasurest up to thyself wrath, against the day of wrath, and revelation of the just judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his works. To them, indeed, who according to patience in good works, seek glory and honors, and incorruption, (he will render) eternal life; but to them that are contentious, and who obey not the truth but give credit to iniquity, wrath and indignation. Tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that worketh evil - but glory, honor, and peace, to every one that worketh good," Rom. ii. 5.

Return to Table of Contents


Q. How does it appear that the suffering of this life are in punishment of sin?

A. This also is every where taught throughout the holy scripture; thus "justice exalteth a nation, but sin maketh nations miserable," Prov. xiv. 34; and when our Savior cured the sick man at the pool of Bethsaida, he said to him, "Behold thou are made whole; sin no more, lest some worse thing happen to thee," John v. 14. So also the wise man, speaking of the miseries of this life, says "Such things happen to all flesh, from man even to beast, and upon sinners are sevenfold more. Moreover, death and bloodshed, strife and sword, oppressions, famine, and affliction, and scourges, all these things are created for the wicked," Ecclus. xl. 8. Besides, we find that all the dreadful instances of God's justice in sending extraordinary sufferings upon men, are declared in scripture to be the just fruits of their sins: Such as the deluge, the destruction of Sodom, the plague, famine and war so often sent upon his people, untimely death of particulars, loss of children, and the like; and, lastly, that God often threatens sinners with all these, and other such temporal miseries, in punishment of their sins. Not that the punishing of sin is the only reason why God sends these temporal miseries upon his creatures; in this life, mercy is always mixed with justice; and, for the most part, has in view the correction, improvement and warning of our souls, along with the punishment of the sin; but that sin is the radical source from which all these miseries flow.

Q. What do we learn from these truths?

A. We learn,

First, That it is a fixed rule of God's justice, that every sin must be punished.

Second, That the final punishment of sin will be in the next world.

Third, That the punishments sent on sin in this life are always mixed with the views of mercy, either for a warning to others, or to move the sinner himself to repentance, that by means of true repentance he may be delivered from the eternal punishment due to his sins.

Q. When arises the obligation of our punishing ourselves for our sins? and how comes this to be a part of true repentance?

A. By the appointment and express command of God, who has laid down our doing penance for our sins, as a necessary part of true repentance, and requires at least the sincere will to do it, as a condition of obtaining pardon.

Q. How does this appear from holy scripture?

A. From the following testimonies:

First, "Gird yourselves with hair-cloth, lament and howl, for the fierce anger of the Lord is not turned away from us - wash thy heart from wickedness, O Jerusalem! that thou mayest be saved," Jer. iv. 8. 14. "Gird thyself with sackcloth, O daughter of my people! and sprinkle thee with ashes: make thee mourning as for an only son a bitter lamentation," Jer. vi. 26. "Be converted, and do penance for all your iniquities, and iniquity shall not be your ruin," Ezek. xviii. 30. "Now therefore, saith the Lord, be converted to me with all your heart, in fasting, and in weeping, and in mourning," Joel ii. 12. In all which texts, we see that the doing penitential works is joined with the other conditions of true repentance, as necessary to avert the anger of God, and find mercy with him.

Second, When all the people went out to St. John Baptist, to be baptised by him, he said, "Ye offspring of vipers who hath shown you to flee from the wrath to come?" And immediately teaching them the means to avoid the wrath, he adds, "Bring forth, therefore, fruits worthy of penance," Luke iii. 8. St. Paul also declares, that the great subject of his preaching to the Jews was, "that they should do penance, and turn to God, doing works worthy of penance," Acts xxvi. 20.

Return to Table of Contents


Now, by doing works worthy of penance, cannot be meant the "not committing sin;" for this is not doing any work at all, but only the abstinence from evil work; neither can it mean the doing "works of virtue and piety," as such; for to this we are obliged, whether we have even been sinners or not. By "works or fruits worthy of penance," then, can only be understood the doing works of virtue and piety out of a penitential spirit, and with a view of punishing ourselves for past sins; and the doing such good works, especially as are most contrary to our self-love, with the same intention. And hence, when the people asked the Baptist, "What then shall we do?" he recommended to them one of the principal penitential works, to wit, almsgiving, and mercy to others: "He that hath two coats (says he) let him give to him that hath none, and he that hath meat, let him do in like manner," Luke iii. 11.

Third, Our blessed Savior, when he entered upon his public life, began to "preach and to say, "Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," Matth. iv. 17. And to show the necessity of doing so, he says in another place, "Except ye do penance, you shall all likewise perish," Luke xiii. 5. in like manner, when the Jews, who were converted at St. Peter's first sermon, asked, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" Though the scripture expressly observes, that "they had compunction in their hearts;" yet St. Peter answered, "Do penance, and be baptized for the remission of your sins," Acts ii. 37, 38. Which shows that the compunction of sorrow of the heart alone, is not sufficient, and that doing penance is also required.

St. Paul, also, in his famous sermon at the great council of Athens, says, "God now declareth to men, that all should everywhere do penance," Acts xvii. 30. It is true, that in all these texts different translators, instead of do penance translate it repent, meaning by that, the sorrow of the heart alone, without any outward penitential works. But we must observe, that the Christian world, in all former ages, understood these passages as commanding the doing penance; so that this translation is a novelty; besides, it is manifest, from other parts of scripture, that the repentance which Christ requires, is a sorrow of the heart, accompanied with the penitential works painful to self- love.

Thus Christ himself condemns the people of Corozaim and Bethsaida, for not "doing penance, sitting in sackcloth and ashes," after the works he had done among them, as the people of Tyre and Sidon would have done, if they had received the like favors, Luke x. 13. And he lays it down as an essential condition of our belonging to him, that we "deny ourselves, and take up our cross and follow him," Matth. xvi. 24. Finally, that the doing penance is the true sense of the above texts, appears beyond all contradiction, from the examples both of saints and sinners, who are recorded in the scripture to be most assiduous in performing that duty.

Return to Table of Contents


Q. What examples have we of this in scripture?

A. St. Paul, as we have just seen, affirmed, in his sermon at Athens, that "God now declareth to men, that all should everywhere do penance;" where, by saying all and everywhere, he shows, that none are excepted; the just as well as the sinners being obliged to it; sinners, as a necessary part of that repentance, by which they move God to mercy, and avert his just anger; and the just, as a satisfaction to God for their former sins, which his mercy has pardoned; those that have sinned, in punishment of their past sins; and those who have lived in innocence, as the best preservative of that treasure, and the most effectual means to obtain great favor from God.

Hence we find the most striking examples of each in scripture: and,

First, Of Sinners. Of Achab king of Israel it is said, "There was not such another as Achab, who was sold to do evil in the sight of the Lord," 3 Kings xxi. 25.; therefore God, at last, sent the prophet Elias to him, to denounce the most dreadful punishments which he had decreed to send upon him: "And when Achab had heard these words, he rent his garments, and put hair cloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and slept in sackcloth, and walked with his head cast down." See here the penitential life he led, which so moved the compassion and mercy of the Almighty, that he said to Elias with a kind of surprise and pleasure, "Hast thou not seen Achab humbled before me? therefore because he has humbled himself for my sake, I will not bring the evil in his days," 3 Kings xxi. 27.

Return to Table of Contents


King Manasses, in punishment of his sins, was overcome by the Babylonians, and they took him and carried him bound with fetters and chains to Babylon. "And after that he was in distress, he prayed to the Lord his God, and did penance exceedingly before the God of his Fathers; and he entreated him and besought him earnestly; and he heard his prayer, and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom," 2 Chron. xxxiii. 12. The wickedness of the people of Ninive was so great, that God was resolved to destroy it; and he sent his prophet Jonas to preach, "Yet forty days, and Ninive shall be destroyed."

"And the men of Ninive proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least and the king cast away his robe from him, and was clothed in sackcloth, and sat in ashes - and God saw their works, that they were turned from their evil way; and God had mercy with regard to the evil which he had said that he would do them, and he did it not," Jonas iii. 4. From this example of the Ninites our Savior takes occasion to inculcate the necessity of doing penance in the strongest terms, "The men of Ninive," says he, "shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it; because they did penance at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here," Matth. xii. 41.

Second, Of saints and holy people who had been sinners. David, after his repentance for his unhappy fall, even though he knew his sin was pardoned, yet led a most penitential life, which he thus describes, "I am poor and needy, and my heart is troubled within me. I am taken away like the shadow when it declineth; and I am shaken off as locusts: My knees, are weakened through fasting," Psal. cviii. 22. My bones are grown dry like fuel for the fire; I am smitten as grass, and my heart is withered, because I forgot to eat my bread; through the voice of my groaning, my bone hath cleaved to my flesh - I have watched and am become as a sparrow, all alone upon the house top - for I did eat ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping; because of thy anger and indignation," Psal. ci. 4

St. Paul had been a persecutor of the Church of Christ; but when he was perfectly reconciled to Christ, and made an Apostle, his constant preaching to the Jews was the necessity of doing penance; now, to understand that the penance he preached was not a mere sorrow of the heart alone, but such a sorrow as manifested itself by doing works worthy of penance, see his own example; though he was a chosen vessel, an Apostle, a friend of Christ, that had been taken up to the third heaven, yet he says, "I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection; lest, perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway," 1 Cor. ix. 27. St. Paul! the chosen vessel! is afraid of losing his soul! and, as a necessary means to prevent that, "chastises his body, and brings it into subjection!" Can any thing more incontestably show the necessity of doing penance? and that a repentance which brought forth such fruits of penance was the repentance so constantly inculcated by this apostle?

Third, Of those who had preserved their innocence, at least from mortal sin, Job, an upright man, and one who feared God, and avoided evil, yet says of himself to God, "I have spoken unwisely - therefore I reprehend myself, and do penance in dust and ashes," Job xlii. 3, 6.

Judith, a most holy woman who was "greatly renowned among all, because she feared the Lord very much, neither was there any one that spoke an ill word of her," Judith viii. 3.; yet, after her husband's death, led a most penitential life, for "she made herself a private chamber in the upper part of her house, in which she abode, shut up with her maids; and she wore hair-cloth upon her loins, and fasted all the days of her life, except the Sabbaths and new moons, and the feasts of the house of Israel," verse 5.

Daniel, a most holy young man, and a prophet, describes his penitential works thus: "I set my face to the Lord my God, to pray and make supplication, with fasting and sackcloth and ashes," Dan. ix. 3.; and again, "In those days I Daniel mourned the days of three weeks, I ate no pleasant bread, and neither flesh nor wine entered into my mouth, neither was I anointed with ointment till the days of three weeks were accomplished," Dan. x. 2. St. John Baptist, though sanctified in his mother's womb, led a most austere and penitential life in the wilderness. And anne, the prophetess, is praised in scripture, because she "departed not from the temple by fasting and prayers serving night and day," Luke ii. 37.

Finally, we frequently read in the Acts and Epistles of the Apostles, of their fastings and watchings. Now, what could induce so many, both saints and sinners, to employ themselves so much in doing a thing so contrary to flesh and blood, so disagreeable to our natural inclinations, so destructive to self-love, as all the penitential works here recited most certainly are, but the full conviction that all sins, great and small, must be punished, that the justice of God would let none go unpunished, and that he required of all, as a part of true repentance, that we should co- operate with his divine justice in punishing ourselves?

Return to Table of Contents


Q. But is it not injurious to the infinite satisfaction paid by Jesus Christ to the divine justice for our sins, to say that we are still obliged to do penance for them? Are not his sufferings more than sufficient to satisfy for the whole world?

A. The reply to this is,

First, That Jesus Christ and his holy Apostle St. Paul, did not think it injurious to the satisfaction paid by him for our sins, when they so strongly inculcated the necessity of our doing penance in their preachings, and when St. Paul confirmed it by his example.

Second, Jesus Christ not only suffered in the flesh for our sins, but he was also oppressed in the garden with the most dreadful sorrow that ever entered into the heart of man, on seeing the sins of the whole world laid upon himself, and from the clear knowledge he had of their enormity, and the greatness of the offence done to God by them: He also shed streams of tears on our account, and poured forth most fervent prayers to obtain mercy for us. Now, this sorrow, these tears, and these prayers of Jesus Christ, were of no less infinite value than his bodily sufferings, and sufficient to cancel the sins of ten thousand worlds. Shall we, therefore, say that no more sorrow, tears, nor prayers are required from us? or that it is injurious to the infinite merits of his sorrow and tears, and of the prayers which he offered up for our sins, to say that we are still obliged to be sorrowful, to weep, or to pray for them?

Third, The sorrow, tears, prayers and sufferings of Christ are, doubtless, of infinite merit before his eternal Father, and the most super-abundant satisfaction to the divine justice for the sins of men; but, to operate their effect in us, they must be applied to our souls, and this is only done efficaciously when we perform the conditions Christ demands for this end; for Christ "is become the cause of eternal salvation to all that obey him," Heb. v. 9, and to none else; for those "who obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, shall suffer eternal punishment in destruction," 2 Thess. i. 8. As all agree that notwithstanding the sorrow, tears, and prayers of Christ, we are strictly obliged to be sorrowful, and to pray for our sins, as a condition required for applying the merits of the sorrow and prayers of Christ to ours souls, and that we do so, without the least injury to his sorrow and prayers; so all the above testimonies and examples of holy writ clearly prove, that notwithstanding all his sufferings for our sins, we are still strictly obliged, by his command, to suffer for them, by punishing ourselves, as a condition required for getting the merits of his sufferings applied to us, and that without the least prejudice to the infinite satisfaction paid by his sufferings.

Fourth, If we consider the matter properly, we shall see that, instead of injuring the satisfaction of Christ, we highly honor it by doing penance for our sins. For, suppose a man to be owing a sum of money which he was utterly unable to pay, and that, therefore, his surety being pursued by the creditor, was obliged to pay the whole, would it not be most ungrateful, if the debtor should leave his surety in the lurch entirely, and refuse to pay him, at least as far as he could? And would it not be highly becoming, as well as strict justice in the debtor, and, at the same time, show the grateful sense he had of his obligation to his surety, that he be careful to repay him, at least, as far as he is able?

This is just our case, and the application is obvious; especially as we have seen, that our Divine Surety expressly requires this of us. If Jesus Christ, the innocent, the holy Lamb of God, suffered so much for the sins of others, does not every motive of decency, gratitude, and justice demand that the guilty sinners should suffer something themselves? Hence we find, that eternal life is promised only on condition that we suffer with our innocent Surety; we are "heirs, indeed, of God, and joint heirs with Christ; yet so if we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him," Rom. viii. 17: " a faithful saying: for, if we be dead with him that we shall live also with him; if we suffer we shall also reign with him," 2 Tim. 11. And St. Peter assures us, that "Christ also suffered for us, leaving an example that we should follow his steps," 1 Pet. ii. 21.; which manifestly shows, that among the many other views Christ had in suffering, one expressly was, to encourage us, by his example, to follow his steps, by voluntary sufferings for our sins. So that by doing penance for our sins, we truly honor the sufferings of Christ in the way in which he requires we should honor them; and hence the scripture says, "The dead that are in hell, whose spirit is taken away from their bowels, shall not give glory and justice to the Lord; but the soul which is sorrowful, for the greatness of the evil she hath done, and goeth bowed down and feeble; and the eyes that fail, and the hungry soul, giveth glory and justice to thee, O Lord," Baruch ii. 17.

Return to Table of Contents


Q. If it be so absolutely necessary to do penance for our sins, and to imitate the sufferings of Jesus Christ, who shall be saved? for do we not see wickedness and vice everywhere reign, and penitential works in a manner banished from among us? Does not self-love every where prevail, and every one study nothing but their own interest, ease, pleasure, and convenience? Nay, have not the generality of mankind even a settled aversion to penance? And do not even those who acknowledge and believe the obligation of it in theory, commonly strive all they can to avoid it in practice?

A. In answer to all this, it can only be said, that these too true observations are the most convincing proof of that dreadful sentence of Jesus Christ, that "many are called but few are chosen;" and that "many walk in the broad road that leads to destruction, and few in the narrow path that leads to eternal life."

Q. What advantage, then, have we from the infinite satisfaction paid by Jesus Christ for our sins, if we be still obliged to do penance for them?

A. Immense and admirable are the advantages we receive from the satisfaction of Christ: for,

First, It is through the merits of his sufferings alone that any penitential works we do can be acceptable to God; for if our penitential works were separated from the merits of Christ, they would be good for nothing, neither of value before God, nor of any profit to our souls; but being united to the merits of Christ, they acquire a supernatural value and dignity, which makes them available to our salvation; so that the satisfaction paid by Christ, sanctifies our sufferings, gives them a supernatural lustre, and raises them to a great value before God, through which they are accepted by the Divine justice as a satisfaction on our part for our sins; just as the sorrow, tears, and prayers of Christ sanctify these actions in us, and make them agreeable to God; but, without his sufferings, this could never possibly have been the case, nor could we have found any acceptance with God, though we had suffered all the torments of hell for all eternity.

Second, It is the satisfaction of Christ alone that delivers us from the eternal punishment due to our sins, changing it into the small temporal punishment which he demands from us; for, without him, nothing we ever could do, or suffer, could possibly have delivered us from these never-ending torments.

Third, In the sacrament of baptism, Almighty God, with the most unbounded mercy, applies the merits of Christ to our souls without all restriction, and accepts of his satisfaction in its full extent so as to deliver us at once from all our sins, both original and actual, and from all the punishment due to them; makes us his adopted children, and gives us a full right and title to his eternal kingdom. So that, though a person has been guilty of every so many sins before baptism, yet if, after receiving this sacrament worthily, he should immediately die, nothing could hinder him from the immediate possession of eternal bliss. Here the divine justice gives up all its claim against the offender himself; being perfectly satisfied with the satisfaction of Christ, so fully applied for that purpose; here the infinite merits of Christ have their full effect; and here the mercy of God appears in all its lustre.

Q. Why does not God treat sinners in the same manner when they repent of the sins committed after baptism?

A. It does not belong to us to inquire into the reasons of the divine conduct; our great care should be to be satisfied with, and above what he has done; and all the testimonies which we have seen above prove, beyond reply, that it is his will to trust us in a different manner for the sins we commit after baptism, than for those before it. Yet a little reflection will show us, that his conduct in this is most reasonable, and that both justice and mercy concur to require it. With regard to justice, we must observe, that, when we are first received into his favor by baptism, for the sake and in honor of the infinite merits of Jesus Christ, he treats us with unlimited mercy. Justice with regard to the offender, seems to forget its own rights entirely; for all that he requires of us, to entitle us to such amazing mercy, is to believe in Jesus Christ, and be sorry for having offended him, with a solemn promise of being faithful to him for the future; and even this faith, repentance, and promise, he does not actually require from us when we are baptized in our infancy, but is constant with the promise made in our name.

If, notwithstanding all this goodness, we should afterwards return to sin, and break this solemn vow we made, this contains such a contempt of God, after having experienced so much favor, such a horrid malice, after having full knowledge of the evil and such unparalleled ingratitude, after having received such inestimable benefits from his bounteous mercy, that in all justice, the sinner deserves the most rigorous punishment; and it would be unreasonable, and, in some degree, even unjust, to receive him again into the possession of the same glorious privileges, upon the same easy terms as before; and, therefore, the divine justice here resumes all its rights against the sinner, and absolutely requires he should now suffer in his own person. Even among ourselves, we see this is what common sense dictates to us.

If, on receiving any great injury, we should cheerfully forgive our enemy, be heartily reconciled to him, and do him good offices, without requiring any other satisfaction than his asking pardon, and promising amendment; yet, if this person should repeat the same, or other greater injuries, would we receive him into our friendship on the same easy terms? Hence the Council of Trent says, "The fruits of the sacrament of penance are different from those of baptism; for by baptism we put on Christ, and become in him altogether a new creature, receiving the full and entire remission of all our sins; but (if we lose this happy state by sin) we can by no means acquire the same newness and integrity by the sacrament of penance, without great weeping and labors upon our part, the divine justice so requiring it." Sess.xiv. cap. 2.

Return to Table of Contents


Q. But does not this seem to exclude mercy entirely?

A. By no means; the mercy of God, even here, appears in the strongest light. For, considering the dreadful evil of sin, when committed after baptism, a sinner, by committing it, forfeits all title to mercy, and God could, without the least injustice, condemn him to the eternal punishment his sins deserve, treating him with the same rigor of justice with which he treated the fallen angels. It is therefore the effect of infinite mercy in God to be willing to receive us again into favor on any terms; and it is through the infinite merits of Christ alone that he is moved to do so.

In baptism he forgets his justice with respect to the sinner, and applies to us the infinite effects of mercy alone; but when, after so much goodness from Him, we return to our sin, and by so doing render ourselves altogether unworthy of any mercy, he alters his conduct towards us; He is still willing, through the merits of Christ, to receive us into mercy, but it is upon condition that we endeavor to satisfy his justice also. He treated the fallen angels with the most rigorous justice, without mercy, without regard to the interests of his justice; but, in being reconciled to us for sins committed after baptism, he positively requires that justice and mercy should go together, and be no more separated.

Through the merits of Christ, on our sincere repentance, he grants us mercy, he forgives us our sins, and the eternal punishment due to them; but he absolutely demands, that, by penitential works, we punish ourselves for our shocking ingratitude, and satisfy the divine justice for the abuse of her mercy. So that the effect of mercy here is not to free us entirely from the punishment, as in baptism, but to change the eternal punishment which we deserve, and which we cannot undergo but to our utter destruction, into a temporal punishment which we can perform, and the performance of which is attended with the greatest advantages to the soul.

What still further shows how much it is the effect of the greatest mercy itself to require the doing penance from us, is this, that, "it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God," Heb. x. 31, even in regard to temporal punishments; as appears from the many examples of scripture of the severity with which his justice punishes sinners in this life, even for sins which to us would seme but small. Almighty God, in commanding us to do penance, remits, in a manner, his own right to punish us, and puts it in our own hands, accepting of small things done willingly of ourselves, in place of much more severe chastisements which we would have to suffer, if afflicted by his divine justice.

What were all the penances done by Achab and the Ninivites in comparison to what God had decreed to inflict upon them himself? and yet, because they punished themselves by these small afflictions, he remitted the greater. Besides all this, the great design of the divine mercy, in pardoning sinners, is doubtless to procure their salvation. Pardoning past sins would not effectually procure this, if proper care were not taken to prevent the sinner from falling back to sin again.

Seeing, therefore, that all the unmerited mercies bestowed on him in baptism were not sufficient for this purpose, there is a necessity of taking a more severe method after this, in order to secure his perseverance; and this is done by laying him under the necessity of doing penance for his past sins, which, on many accounts, is the most powerful means to fortify him against relapsing!

Return to Table of Contents


Q. What are the advantages that doing penance brings to the soul?

A. It makes us sensible of the grievousness of ours sins. Our great misfortune is, that we have not a just notion of sin; we all think too lightly of it; and, if we had nothing to suffer for it in this world, we would be apt to lose all horror of it entirely, and consequently would take no care to avoid it; but, when we see that Almighty God absolutely requires that we should do penance for sin, and that there is no remission of the guilt of sin without a sincere and efficacious resolution to do penance for it, this opens our eyes, lets us see there is something more dreadful in sin that we imagined, puts us in mind experimentally of what we have to expect in the next life, since a good and just God requires sin to be strictly punished here, and consequently makes us more cautious and careful to avoid it.

The very pain of doing penitential works is a great check to our proneness to sin, and experience teaches, that those who diligently punish themselves for the faults they commit, find in this a great and powerful help to amendment.

A great number of the penitential works strike directly at the very roots of our sins, and weaken and extirpate those inordinate affections, and vicious inclinations from which our sins chiefly proceed.

Many of them also tend to destroy the bad habits of sin which we have contracted, by obliging us to the practice of the contrary virtues.

They powerfully oppose the wrath of God enkindled by ours sins and by showing the fervor and sincerity of our repentance, more perhaps than any other thing we can do; they move him to be liberal in his graces to us, to enable us effectually to preserve our innocence, and make progress in solid virtue.

Q. What is the conclusion to be drawl from all these truths?

A. It is comprehended in these following particulars:

First, That the doing penance for our sins is a necessary part of true repentance.

Second, That by sin we contract a heavy debt of punishment due to the divine justice, both temporal and eternal.

Third, That our repentance for our sins is not sincere, neither will it obtain the remission of the guilt of sin, nor of the eternal punishment due to it, unless it be accompanied with a sincere will and resolution to discharge the debt of temporal punishment by doing penance.

Fourth, That, therefore, this debt of temporal punishment remains due, even though the guilt of sin and its eternal punishment, be remitted.

Fifth, That, as justice absolutely demands this debt from sinners, it must be paid, either by voluntary penance inflicted on ourselves, or by more severe sufferings sent by God, and received by us in a penitential spirit.

Sixth, That, if a person should die in the grace of God, but before his debt be discharged, he will be sentenced to purgatory, where he shall remain till he has paid the full penalty.

Seventh, That, as no man can known the full amount of this debt, and is perhaps daily increasing it by his daily venial sins and imperfections, it is therefore the greatest Christian wisdom to endeavor constantly to discharge some part of it, by leading a daily penitential life of self-denial and mortification, according to what our Savior enjoins us, saying, "Be at agreement with thy adversary quickly, whilst thou art in the way with him, lest, perhaps, the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge, deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Amen, I say to thee, thou shalt not go from thence till thou pay the last farthing," Matt. v. 25. The present life is the way, the divine justice our adversary, God the judge, purgatory the prison. And to the same purpose the Church of Christ, in one of her greatest and most important general councils, declares, that, "The whole life of a Christian ought to be a perpetual penance.' Council of Trent, Sess. xiv.

Return to Table of Contents


Q. What is meant by the spirit of penance?

A. The spirit of penance is nothing else but that sincere sorrow and contrition for our sins, the necessity of which we have seen above; it is that "sorrow, according to God, which worketh penance, steadfast unto salvation," 2 Cor. vii. 10. The effects which this sorrow worketh in the soul, arise from the various lights which it brings to the soul, in the view of which it excites the sinner to the exercise of those penitential works which contribute most powerfully to secure his eternal salvation.

First, The true spirit of penance shows the sinner, in their true colors, the multitude and grievousness of his sins, excites a horror and detestation of them, and makes him willing to undergo any sufferings as a just punishment for them. In this view the spirit of penance is a spirit of justice, condemning the criminal to condign punishment.

Second, It shows the sinner the greatness of the injury done to the great God of heaven by sin, fills him with grief and sorrow for having so often and so grievously offended and dishonored so good a God, excites in him a sincere desire of repairing the honor of God to the best of his power, and for this purpose makes him cheerfully condemn himself to works of humiliation and penance. in this light, the spirit of penance is a spirit of restitution and satisfaction, by which the honor of God injured by sin is repaired.

Third, It convinces the sinner that his own flesh, that is, his unmortified passions and affections, are his greatest enemies, as well as the declared enemies of God having so often dragged him into sin, and put him in danger of eternal damnation; it therefore excites in his soul a just hatred against these his mortal enemies, by which he rigorously chastises his body, and brings it into subjection, both as a just punishment for past offenses, and to prevent its betraying him again, lest he should at last become a cast-away. So the spirit of penance is a spirit of hatred and revenge against our self-love in all its branches.

Fourth, It gives the sinner a just sense of all the sufferings of Jesus Christ, and of the infinite obligations we have toward him; shows him the horrid ingratitude of renewing these sufferings by sin, and excites in his soul a tender compassion and ardent love of Jesus Christ, a sincere sorrow for having been the guilty cause of so much torment to him, and an earnest desire of resembling him and bearing the cross along with him; in consequence of this, it makes him cheerfully condemn himself to works of penance, that he may honor the sufferings and follow the example of his beloved Master. In this view the spirit of penance is a spirit of compassion and love of Jesus Christ, and of conformity to his holy example.

Return to Table of Contents


Q. What are the signs by which we may know if we have the true spirit of penance?

A. "By their fruits ye shall know them." The surest signs that this holy spirit resides in the soul, are the effects it produces, but they are minutely enumerated by St. Paul, in these words: "Behold this self-same thing, that you were made sorrowful according to God, how great carefulness doth it work in you; yea defence, yea indignation, yea fear, yea desire, yea zeal, yea revenge," 2 Cor. vii. 11.

First, Carefulness; to wit, about the great concerns of salvation, convincing the sinner of the supreme importance of that great affair, and of the vanity of all other pursuits; and, therefore, makes him careful and diligent to secure it.

Second, Defence; this carefulness is not an idle anxiety of mind, but an active principle, which makes us use all necessary means for defending our soul against all its enemies, by prayer, spiritual reading, frequently the holy sacraments, and other such helps to salvation.

Third, Indignation, and hatred against sin, and all the dangerous occasions of sin, which the spirit of penance makes us fly from and avoid, though otherwise as useful or dear to us as a hand or an eye.

Fourth, Fear of the judgment of God, and of hell fire, and especially the fear of ever offending again so good a God, which is the beginning of true wisdom, and makes us "work out our salvation with fear and trembling.:

Fifth, Desire, to wit, of flying as far from sin as possible, and of daily advancing our soul in the union and love of God, giving "us a hunger and thirst after justice."

Sixth, Zeal for the glory of God, and for destroying all his and our real enemies, to wit, our own unmortified passions, by self-denial and mortification; and for promoting his honor to the utmost of our power, considering the infinite obligations we have to his goodness.

Seventh, Revenge, vindicating the rights of the divine justice, by cheerfully punishing ourselves for our past sins. Happy those in whom all these blessed fruits of the true spirit of penance are found!

Return to Table of Contents


Q. What are the means by which we may obtain the spirit of penance?

A. First, The spirit of penance is the gift of God, as our holy faith teaches; for when St. Peter gave an account to the brethren of the conversion of the Gentiles, in the person of Cornelius and his friends, "they glorified God, saying, God then hath also to the Gentiles given repentance unto life," Acts xi. 18. And St. Paul exhorts Timothy, "with modesty to admonish them that resist the truth, if peradventure God may give them repentance to know the truth," 2 Tim. ii. 25. It is one of the most necessary gifts we can receive from God, for without it there is no salvation for sinners. The scripture assures us, that "our heavenly Father will readily give his holy spirit to them that ask it," Luke xi. 13. Hence the first and principal means to obtain the holy spirit of penance, is humble and fervent prayer. This the holy servants of God well knowing, were assiduous in their prayers for this purpose, "Convert me, O Lord, and I shall be converted," saith Jeremiah, "for thou art my God," Jer. xxxi. 18; and David, "Convert us, O Lord! and we shall be converted, show thy face, and we shall be saved," Ps. lxxix where this prayer is frequently repeated.

Second, We must avoid and fly from all those things which would hinder the spirit of penance from coming to our souls; such as idle company, dissipating diversions, plays, dancing, jesting, profane reading, and vain apparel, &c. All these things dissipate the heart, fill the mind with a world of idle ideas, carry off the thoughts from every thing serious, and are quite opposite to, and destructive of, the spirit of penance; and, therefore, are particularly unbecoming, and unworthy to be thought of in penitential times.

Third, We must apply ourselves seriously to the consideration and practices of those things which promote and excite the true penitential dispositions in the soul; such as serious meditation on the last things, and the great truths of eternity, the practice of self-denial and mortification, with works of charity and mercy; for experience shows, that as those who live pleasant lives, and pamper the body, never acquire the true spirit of penance whilst they live in that manner; so those who practise the works of penance, soon obtain the true spirit of it.

Fourth, Serious and frequent meditation on the great evils of sin, which contribute in a particular manner to excite the true spirit of penance in the soul, by giving us a just sense of the heinous evil of sin, of the greatness of the injury done by it to God, and of the dreadful consequences it has with regard to ourselves, and the want of this knowledge, or the not reflecting upon it, is one of the principal causes why we fall so easily into the misery of sin.

Return to Table of Contents


Q. What is understood by works of penance?

A. By works of penance is understood any kind of punishment which the sinner willingly undergoes in order to satisfy for his sins, and, as the nature of punishment requires that it be painful and afflicting to self-love; so any thing whatsoever that is naturally painful and afflicting to us, and which we willingly undergo with the view of doing penance for our sins is a penitential work.

Q. Why do you say that is naturally painful and afflicting to us?

A. Penance or punishment is what naturally gives pain; if it gave no pain it would be no punishment. Now, it may sometimes happen, that a penitential work which naturally gives pain, yet in certain circumstances may give a person no pain at the time he uses it; but it does not cease on that account to be a penitential work even to that person. Thus some find no difficulty in abstaining from flesh; others find little or no pain in fasting; yet, if these people, when obedience requires it, perform these works out of a penitential spirit, they are truly penitential works to them. In like manner, a person may be so far advanced in the love of God, and in the virtue of holy mortification, as to have, in a great measure, conquered the natural inclinations of flesh and blood, and even to find pleasure in those things which are naturally painful to us; yet this is so far from lessening the value of the penitential works of that person, that is greatly increases it, and shows the ardor of his love to God, from which they proceed.

Q. Why do you say, with a view of doing penance?

A. Because, thought he work be ever so painful, yet, if we undergo it without the view and intention of doing penance, it will be no penance at all; and, if done with any bad view, will even be displeasing to God: as our Savior expressly declares, of all the three great penitential works of fasting, alms-giving, and prayer, if they be done with the view of gaining "praise from men," Matth. vi. The reason is, because, in ordre to be a penitential work, it must proceed from the spirit of penance. This is the root, this is the principal part of penance, without which the exterior works signify nothing. And God Almighty puts such a value upon this internal disposition, that though the external work be but very small, yet, if it proceed from, and be accompanied with, a true penitential spirit, it becomes of great value before him.

What can be of less value than to give a cup of cold water to a thirsty person? yet Christ himself declares, that, if done for his sake, it shall not want its reward. In like manner, what can be a smaller penitential work, than to deprive one's self of a drink of water? Yet it is recorded in sacred writ, as a very great action of David, that when three of his valiant men, at the risk of their lives, brought him water out of a cistern, which he had taken a longing for, "he would not drink, but offered it to the Lord," 2 Kings (Sam.) xxiii. 16. This ought to be a great comfort to those who are not able to do great things: let them do the little they can, with a true penitential spirit, and it will be accepted.

Return to Table of Contents


Q. Into how many classes are penitential works divided?

A. Into three classes:

First, Those which we are commanded to undergo, under pain of sin.

Second, Those which are left to our own free choice, according to our particular wants, without any other command but the general one of doing penance for our sins.

Third, Those which we are forced to undergo by the order of Providence, but it is left to ourselves to make the proper penitential use of them.

Q. What are the penitential works which we are commanded to undergo, under pain of sin?

A. The following:

First, The confession of our sins in the sacrament of penance. This is a great penance and humiliation to our corrupt nature, and to self-love; but it is imposed upon us by Almighty God, in place of that shame and confusion which will begin with sinners of the last day, and last for all eternity, and which is one of the greatest punishments of sin in the next life. As the penitential works of this life are laid upon us by the justice and mercy of God, in exchange for those of eternity. He has been pleased to appoint the momentary shame and confusion of confessing our sins here to one man like ourselves, in exchange for that eternal confusion which we must otherwise undergo in the next life. Hence, this is a penance laid by God himself upon all, without exception of persons, who have offended God by mortal sin; and it is commanded with such strictness, that the guilt itself of the sin will not be washed away from our souls, unless it be properly complied with.

Second, All those penitential works which our confessor enjoins us in the sacrament of penance: This also is a penance which we are obliged to perform, by the express command of God; and it is, without doubt, one of the most profitable for our souls; because, being a part of the sacrament, it is sanctified by the grace annexed to the sacrament; raised up to a much higher value in the sight of God, than other penitential works, though perhaps more painful, which we might do of our own choice; and it has also the merit of obedience annexed to it, which gives it still a greater value before God. The obligation we lie under of performing this sacramental penance, is shown from the words of our Savior, to the pastors of his Church, in the persons of the Apostles, when he said, "Whatsoever you shall bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven," Matth. xviii. 18. For as by the latter words, he assures us, that when our confessor looses us from our sins here on earth, we are loosed from them in heaven; so by the former part of this text, he equally declares, that when we are bound on earth by them to do our penance, this obligation is ratified in heaven; for the general term whatsoever, includes all.

But we must not imagine, that, when we have faithfully performed our sacramental penance, we have by it discharged all we owe to the divine justice. Alas! what proportion is there between the penances commonly enjoined in the sacrament, and the sins by which we have offended God? In ancient times, the penances imposed on sinners were exceedingly severe, and often continued for years together; but, as charity waxed cold among Christians, the Church was obliged to moderate this discipline, lest the weakness and tepidity of Christians should neglect to perform them at all. At present, then, the penances imposed in the Sacrament are but small; the rest is left to the penitent's own devotion, and, if they are deficient, it must be made up by God himself, either here or hereafter, to their cost.

Third, The public fasts commanded by the Church: These also we are obliged, by the command of God, faithfully to observe; and, if we do it with a true penitential spirit, they will prove exceedingly useful to discharge what we owe to Divine Justice; especially as by them we also partake of what the whole Church is doing at the same time.

Return to Table of Contents


Q. What are those works of penance which are left to our own choice?

A. They are divided into three classes, and consist in punishing ourselves either in our external senses, or in the passions and affections of the mind and heart, or in the flesh. The two first are seldom attended with any danger from excess, and in them consists the exercise of that self-denial and mortification of the will, so much recommended in the gospel, and so strictly required by Jesus Christ from his followers; and, therefore, in practicing them, we are sure of doing what is most agreeable to God. The third class contains bodily mortifications, by which with St. Paul, we "chastise the body and bring it into subjection; "but, as the indiscreet use of these may be attended with consequences dangerous to the health, proper caution and advice ought to be taken in practicing them.

The practice of each class is as follows:

First, As to the external senses of seeing, hearing, tasting, etc., by them we offend God many ways; and the doing penance in them consists in depriving them of what is agreeable to them, even though the object be innocent, but especially if it be sinful or dangerous. Thus, Job "made a covenant with his eyes, that he should not so much as think upon a virgin," Job xxxi. 1. And David would not hear another speak ill of his neighbour in his presence. "The man that in private detracted his neighbour, him did I persecute," Psal. c. 5. Daniel also says of himself, "Desirable bread I did not eat, and wine and flesh did not enter my mouth." It also consists in forcing the senses to undergo what is disagreeable to them, but not hurtful; as David did when "he mingled ashes with his bread." Tot his class also belongs the doing penance in the tongue, by silence, speaking ill of none, defending the absent, and the like.

Second, As to the passions and affections of the soul, as they are the principal springs of all our sins, the doing penance in them is of a very wide extent, and of the greatest necessity for the amendment of our life, as well as for the punishment of past offences. The chief way of doing penance here, is to force ourselves to the practice of these virtues which are contrary to our vicious affections; to mortify avarice by alms-deeds; hatred by speaking well of, doing good to, and praying for our enemies; pride by acts of humility and obedience; gluttony by eating things disagreeable to the taste, drunkenness by a total abstinence from strong drinks, and the like. Under this class comes also the mortifying all idle curiosity of seeing or hearing new things which do not belong to, nor concern us; and all vanity in dress, and the like.

Third, As to bodily penances, they are all included under the three general heads of prayer, fasting, and alms-deeds, which are all most profitable, in many respects, to those who properly practice them. Under this head are included some particular kinds of bodily penances taken notice of in scripture; such as hair- cloth, of which it is recorded, that Judith "wore a hair-cloth next her loins all the days of her life," Judith viii. 6. And David says of himself, "I was clothed with hair-cloth, I humbled my soul with fasting," Psal. xxxiv. 13. "I covered my soul with fasting - I made hair-cloth my garment," Psal. lxviii. 11, 12.; and when he saw the destroying angel causing the plague among his people, in punishment of his sins, "both he and the ancients, clothed in hair-cloth, fell down flat on the ground," 1 Chron. xxi. 16. So also, in the famous siege of Samaria, the king "rent his garments and passed by upon the wall, and all the people saw the hair-cloth, which he wore next his flesh," 4 Kings vi. 30. This was the way these holy people took to do penance for their sins, and appease the wrath of God. St. John the Baptist, also, though a most innocent soul, is a great model of this kind of penance, being clothed with a garment made of hair. Watching is another work of penance much recommended by examples in scripture: "Oh God, my God," says David, "to thee I watch by break of day," Psalm. lxii.; and, "I rose at midnight to give praise to God," Psal. cxviii. 62. Of the truly wise man, also, it is said, "He will give his heart to resort, by day-break, to the Lord, and will pray in the sight of the Most High," Ecclus. xxxix. 6.; and the manna, "which could not be destroyed by fire, being warmed with a little sun-beam, presently melted away, that it might be known to all that we must prevent the sun to bless thee, and adore thee as the dawning of the light," Wisd. xvi. 27. Our Savior himself watched whole nights in prayer; St. Paul exhorts us to approve ourselves as servants of Christ, "in fasting, in watching;" 2 Cor. vi. 5., and tells us that it was his own practice to chastise his body "in labour, in toil, in many watchings," 2 Cor. xi. 27. In all which we see that this holy penitential work of watching consists in moderating the quantity of our sleep, in interrupting it, and getting up early in the morning to praise God and pray to him. Another penitential work is pointed out to us strongly in the word of God. When David's child was sick, he "fasted and lay upon the ground," seven days to move God to mercy, and to obtain the life of the child. Among the penitential works by which Achab found mercy with God, one was, that he "slept in sackcloth;" and Joel exhorts the people to have recourse to the same means of finding mercy, "Gird yourselves and lament, O ye priests - go in and lie in sackcloth, ye servants of my God," Joel i. 13.

Return to Table of Contents


Q. What are the penitential works we must undergo whether we will or not?

A. All the miseries and troubles to which we are daily exposed in this life, and which we cannot avoid. were we diligent in performing the penitential works contained in the two former classes, we might easily discharge a great part of the debt we owe to the Divine Justice; but, alas! our backwardness in that is most deplorable, and therefore Almighty God, out of his infinite goodness sends us many trials, and afflictions of different kinds, to force us to become good. What sufferings he sends are surely the most proper for us; and, as we must unavoidably undergo whatever he sends us, it is an easy matter to discharge our debt by their means; all that is required, is to bear them with a penitential spirit, receiving them with patience and submission from the hand of God, and taking them as a penance sent by him for our sins.

Penitential works of this class are innumerable.

First, The toils and labors of our state of life, are a penance laid upon us by God from the very fall of Adam, in punishment of which, God said to Adam, "cursed is the earth in thy work; with labor and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life; in the sweat of thy brow thou shalt ear thy bread," Gen. iii. What a field of penitential works does this give to all Christians?

Second, The inclemencies of the weather, heat, and cold, rain, frost, snow, &c. afford to all an abundant matter for the same purpose.

Third, Distractions, aridites, and desolations in time of prayer, are a just punishment for the many times we have been deaf to the calls of God, resisted his graces, and filled our heads with idle, unprofitable or sinful thoughts; but, if borne with a penitential spirit, will be an effectual discharge of the debt we have contracted by these faults.

Fourth, Your children are obstinate, and a torment to you; remember how you behaved towards your parents, and your negligence in bringing up your own children well, and take the pain they give you as a penance sent from God for these sins.

Fifth, Servants, yours masters and mistresses are harsh and ill-natured: Masters, your servants are disobedient and careless; what noble opportunities doth this give to each, of offering up a daily penance most acceptable to God? Sickness and pain attack you; here also is a large and excellent field for making up your accounts with God to your great advantage. And so of all the other crosses, which God sends upon us in this life, and which there is no avoiding, but which may easily be turned to the best account in the way of doing penance for our sins. But, how contrary is our conduct in all these cases to what it ought to be? How often do we abuse these occasions which God sends us of making up our peace with Him; and turn them into occasions of increasing our guilt and our debt, by our impatience and murmuring under them! How unreasonable is our conduct in this respect! How great our folly!

Return to Table of Contents


Q. Does true repentance remit sin, or wash it away from the soul?

A. By no means; the remission of sin is solely the work of God, and nothing but his grace can wash away the stains of sin from the soul.

Q. What part then has repentance in the pardon of sin?

A. First, It disposes the soul for receiving from God the pardon of our sins; for without repentance the soul is utterly incapable of being restored to the favor and mercy of God, seeing that, as long as the soul loves sin, God will infallibly hate her.

Second, It efficaciously moves God to grant us pardon, because, as Jesus Christ has merited for us that pardon of our sins, on condition of a sincere repentance on our part, and, as God has repeatedly promised pardon to the repenting sinner, consequently, true repentance can never fail to obtain from God the pardon of sin; he is bound in justice to Jesus Christ, and in fidelity to his own promises, to grant it. Besides, true repentance is itself a gift of God; it is his holy grace that first moves the sinner to it, it is his holy grace which enables the sinner to complete it, insomuch that, without the grace of God, it is impossible for us to have true repentance; consequently, when God gives to a sinner the grace of true repentance; undoubtedly he will also give the pardon of his sins, with a view to which the grace of repentance was given him.

Return to Table of Contents


Q. What is meant by the pardon or remission of sin; in what does it consist?

A. We have seen above, that sin defiles, pollutes, and stains the soul in a most miserable manner, and renders her ugly and hateful in the sight of God, like to the very devils themselves; and loathsome to him and his holy angels, as a dead carcase is in the eyes of man. As long as these pollutions and defilements of sin remain in the soul, it is impossible God should be reconciled with her. When, upon the sinner's sincere repentance, Almighty God, through the merits of Christ, pardons his sins, he washes away, and cleanses the soul from all these pollutions of sin by his justifying grace; this renders her beautiful and agreeable to God, and restores her to his friendship and favor. So that the pardon or remission of sin, properly speaking, consists in being delivered from the guilt of sin, adorned with the grace of God, and restored to his favor.

Q. How does it appear that Almighty God takes away and destroys all the stains and guilt of sin from the soul when he pardons sin?

A. From many clear testimonies of scripture.

First, From those which expressly affirm it: thus God promises by his prophet, "I will pour upon you clean water, and you shall be cleansed from all your filthiness," Ezek. xxxvi. 25. God "will turn again and have mercy on us; he will put away our iniquities, and he will cast all our sins into the bottom of the sea," Mich. vii. 19. Before David fell, he said to God, "Thou hast tried me by fire, and iniquity hath not been found in me," Psal. xvi. 3. But after his unhappy fall he prayed, "Wash me, yet more from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sins - and blot out all mine iniquities," Psal. 1. 4, 11. Describing the pardon he had got, he said, "As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our iniquities from us," Psal. cii. 12. The angel also touched Isaiah's lips with a coal, and said, "Behold this hath touched thy lips, and they iniquity shall be taken away, and thy sin shall be cleansed," Is. vi. 7. St. Peter also, in his sermon to the Jews, says, "Repent ye, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out," Acts iii. 19.

Second, From those texts where this is expressly declared to be the benefit ordained for us by Jesus Christ; thus, he is "the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world," John i. 19. "The blood of Jesus Christ his son cleanseth us from all sin," 1 John i. 7.; for "he hath loved us, and washed us from our sins in his blood," Rev. i. 4.; "for if the blood of goats and of oxen, &c sanctify such as are defiled, to the cleansing of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ cleanse our conscience from dead works?" Heb. ix. 14.

Third, From those texts which declare this to be done by the sacrament of baptism; thus, "Arise and be baptised, and wash away your sins," Acts xxii. 16.; and St. Paul, speaking of different grievous sins, says, "And such some of you were, but you are washed, but you are sanctified, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God," 1 Cor. vi. 11.

Q. By what means does Almighty God wash our souls from the guilt of sins, when he grants us pardon for them?

A. By his holy grace, or divine charity, which he pours down into the soul, by his Holy Spirit, and which both washes away all the stains and pollutions of sin, and also beautifies the soul, and makes her just and holy in her sight; "Because the charity of God is poured abroad in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost, who is given to us," Rom. v.

Return to Table of Contents

To submit your question, please send it to our:
(On the subject line: Indicate "FAQ" for "Frequently Asked Questions.")

Copyright © Catholic Doors Ministry