In terms of what we today can discover in this message, attacks against the Pope or the Church do not only come from outside; rather the sufferings of the Church come from within, from the sins that exist in the Church. This too has always been known, but today we see it in a really terrifying way: the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from enemies on the outside, but is born from the sin within the church, the Church therefore has a deep need to re-learn penance, to accept purification, to learn on one hand forgiveness but also the need for justice. Forgiveness is not a substitute for justice. In one word we have to re-learn these essentials: conversion, prayer, penance, and the theological virtues. That is how we respond, and we need to be realistic in expecting that evil will always attack, from within and from outside, but the forces of good are also always present, and finally the Lord is stronger than evil and the Virgin Mary is for us the visible maternal guarantee that the will of God is always the last word in history. -- Pope Benedict XVI, May 12, 2010, on the plane on the way to Fatima.
I have been thinking quite a bit about this statement made by Pope Benedict the other day, made in reference to the famous third secret of Fatima. I have been thinking especially about what it means to re-learn penance. Sometimes when I hear the word, I think of one of the first Life Chain events I participated in as a Protestant. It was a freezing and blustery day, and one woman standing near me said "This is a good penance, isn't it?" I looked at her as if she had just said "I worship the Anti-Christ!" I know that it is not only non-Catholics who misunderstand penance as I did then, I suppose as some method of earning salvation or of making God less angry by making myself miserable.
I had an experience a few months ago that helped me learn the meaning of penance. There is a line in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which illuminated this experience very precisely: "The human heart is converted by looking upon him whom our sins have pierced." This experience was simply that of looking into the eyes of someone I realized I had sinned against, and feeling the impact of the fact of what I had done. My love for this person immediately caused me to feel deep pain, and the desire for the suffering I had caused to be alleviated. In a word, it was a desire for penance.
Penance is not about punishing myself or depriving myself or trying to pay with my pound of flesh for some abstract fault, either of my own or for the sin of the world. I've thought this in the past. But now I understand penance as simply what happens when we see what we have done, when we truly look and see. I had a dream many years ago when I taught in Japan about the Blessed Mother standing in my 6th grade class room, by far my most difficult students, where Jesus was hanging on the cross. The room was filled with people who were chatting with each other, reading, and doing everything but looking. She was going from person to person, asking them to just look at her Son. Just look at His suffering. That act alone, done by a human person, has the power to convert us, because we cannot truly look at suffering without our hearts being moved. Conversion is a long process, life-long for sure, understood this way. Conversion lasts our whole life long because it is possible for us to love for our whole life long. And because conversion and love are gifts from an infinite God, we can never exhaust them.
So, what of standing in the freezing rain. Why is that a "good penance?" Well, love dares to do generous, daring things for the beloved, like give up one's umbrella in a downpour, or stay up all night to make a special gift, or sacrifice one's time to do a favor. If suddenly a car splashes the umbrella-less one, or the gift requires a restart or the sacrifice of time becomes quite inconvenient, these can actually make the love of the giver more intense, the choice to do the task from love all the more conscious, calling forth a greater nobility from the act of love. That's why awful weather for Life Chain makes for a great penance, because it enables our act of love to be more noble. No brownie points. No returns owed for "all I'm doing for you." Just purer love. And if it's not about purer love, then it's likely to be nothing more than what the Catechism calls "sterile and false" penance.
Just this morning I hunted down a paper I'd written 12 years ago on Aquinas' Treatise on Law and the New Evangelization. I remembered that I was surprised while writing it to make the connection between evangelization and the need to practice and preach penance. I was really surprised to read many things today that I'd written over a decade ago! I guess that's a matter for a separate post. But it did tie in both with the Pope's statement, this meditation on penance and with a quotation I came across today from St. Teresa of Avila: "All the troubles of the Church, all the evils in the world, flow from this source: That men do not by clear and sound knowledge and serious consideration penetrate into the truths of Sacred Scripture!"