Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 26: Catechesis, Part 3: Three Values of Penance

Pope John Paul II speaks of pastors offering catechesis, but he does it here for them, starting with metanoia:

The pastors of the church are also expected to provide catechesis on penance. Here too the richness of the biblical message must be its source. With regard to penance this message emphasizes particularly its value for conversion, which is the term that attempts to translate the word in the Greek text, metanoia, (Cf Mark 1:14; Matthew 3:2; 4:17; Luke 3:8) which literally means to allow the spirit to be overturned in order to make it turn toward God. These are also the two fundamental elements which emerge from the parable of the son who was lost and found: his “coming to himself” (Cf Luke 15:17) and his decision to return to his father. There can be no reconciliation unless these attitudes of conversion come first, and catechesis should explain them with concepts and terms adapted to people’s various ages and their differing cultural, moral and social backgrounds.

Saint Luke’s example in his 15th chapter is always illustrative of metanoia. It’s not just theology or a good story to be told. The key here is to find resonance in one’s life with what one sees in the Bible. This is the best catechesis. Not information alone, but connecting the lived experience of a human being with the urging of God to bring us to grace.

This is a first value of penance and it extends into a second: Penance also means repentance. The two meanings of metanoia appear in the significant instruction given by Jesus: “If your (sister or) brother repents (returns to you), forgive (them); and if (she or) he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive (them).” (Ibid., 17:3f) A good catechesis will show how repentance, just like conversion, is far from being a superficial feeling but a real overturning of the soul.

And as was true above, example is vital–making personal connections with the witness of the Scriptures, the saints, and the best catechists.

We have the matter of “doing” penance:

A third value is contained in penance, and this is the movement whereby the preceding attitudes of conversion and repentance are manifested externally: This is doing penance. This meaning is clearly perceptible in the term metanoia, as used by John the Baptist in the texts of the synoptics. (Cf Matthew 3:2; Mark 1:2-6; Luke 3:1-6) To do penance means above all to reestablish the balance and harmony broken by sin, to change direction even at the cost of sacrifice.

Sacrifice is a good element to keep in mind. All Christians, not just priests, do well to keep in mind the notion that they offer sacrifices. Doing something for others that we would prefer not to do on our own initiative, and not for our direct benefit.

This document is Copyright © 1984 – Libreria Editrice Vatican. The link on the Vatican site is here.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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