Continuing on the notion of Some Fundamental Convictions, we get to an aspect ill-named in Catholic parlance. The confessor “gives a penance.” What is that? A theologian refers to an “act of satisfaction,” and I’m still not enamored of that term. It is what it is:
Satisfaction is the final act which crowns the sacramental sign of penance. In some countries the act which the forgiven and absolved penitent agrees to perform after receiving absolution is called precisely the penance. What is the meaning of this satisfaction that one makes or the penance that one performs?
Not a justification, but a sign of something deeper:
Certainly it is not a price that one pays for the sin absolved and for the forgiveness obtained: No human price can match what is obtained, which is the fruit of Christ’s precious blood. Acts of satisfaction-which, while remaining simple and humble, should be made to express more clearly all that they signify-mean a number of valuable things: They are the sign of the personal commitment that the Christian has made to God in the sacrament to begin a new life (and therefore they should not be reduced to mere formulas to be recited, but should consist of acts of worship, charity, mercy or reparation).
In popular culture, acts of worship or spirituality seem to predominate. In my experience, acts of some sort are common. In 12-Step programs, the priority is making amends, but only if possible.
They include the idea that the pardoned sinner is able to join his own physical and spiritual mortification-which has been sought after or at least accepted-to the passion of Jesus, who has obtained the forgiveness for him. They remind us that even after absolution there remains in the Christian a dark area due to the wound of sin, to the imperfection of love in repentance, to the weakening of the spiritual faculties. It is an area in which there still operates an infectious source of sin which must always be fought with mortification and penance. This is the meaning of the humble but sincere act of satisfaction. (I dealt with this subject concisely at the general audience of March 7, 1984)
Logically, one would think the act would precede the absolution, but the Church’s tradition is clearly wise to minimize the factor of earning grace. I think a penitent does well to cultivate contrition–I know that is a struggle at times for me. Having the orientation of sorrow and regret is important. But rushing in to make amends can be a sign less of God’s grace, and more about our saving face and erasing a sin rather than admitting a breach in virtue and goodness. And we know that some sins cannot be repaired so simply.
This document is Copyright © 1984 – Libreria Editrice Vatican. The link on the Vatican site is here.