Why Do We Do Penance?
In Confession, the priest gave me a penance of the Stations of the Cross, which I did. What is the purpose of the penance when I know that, because I am truly sorry for my sin, God forgives me absolutely? “If we acknowledge our sins, then God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and purify us from everything that is wrong” (1 Jn 1:9). How do the Stations of the Cross or other penance make a difference? Solomon
Sin is not only an offence against God’s great love for us, it is also an offence against the community of the Church which, as the Body of Christ, is infused with the Spirit of God.
When we are really sorry for disobeying God’s will, we have the sacrament of reconciliation. This sacrament has its basis in Christ’s giving his apostles his own authority to either forgive sin or not: “For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained” (Jn 20:23).
The apostles could decide whether to reconcile repentant sinners with the Church or exclude them for a time from the community. This is where the discipline of doing penance for sin began.
As numbers expanded, some of the faithful fell into various serious sins. The community required them to repent before God and the Church. Penances were imposed on public sinners, such as to wear penitential clothing or exclusion from the Eucharist for a fixed period. The offender would receive sacramental absolution from the priest only after the penance was suitably done. This is totally different from today’s practice where the priest imposes the penance and then gives absolution.
Historians have noted that some of the ancient penances went on for a long time (that’s why they are called temporal punishment), and it could happen that the sinner would fall ill or die before the required penance could be completed.
With the further expansion of the Church, the practice of public temporal punishment stopped and was replaced by private confession to a priest rather than to the community as a whole.
The priest, acting in the name of the Church and with Christ’s authority, now judges the severity of the sin and gives an appropriate penance as a way of atoning for it.
This penance may not be as hard and embarrassing as in the past, but it allows the penitent to make up to God and the community for the harm done, including to oneself.
When you have done the Stations of the Cross as your penance and made satisfaction for your sin, you can be sure that there will be rejoicing in heaven, as Christ told us (Lk 15:7).