The whole Christian life ought to be a perpetual Penance

The Council of Trent uses this expression: “the whole Christian life — which ought to be a perpetual Penance” [Trent, Extreme Unction, preface]. The Council also taught that we make satisfaction for sin…

“…not only by punishments voluntarily taken up by us for the retribution of sin, or by those imposed at the discretion of the priest according to the measure of our offense, but also (which is a very great proof of love) by the temporal scourges inflicted by God and patiently endured by us.” [Trent, Penance, Chapter IX].

So when we suffer in this life, and the providence of God arranges or allows that suffering, it is a type of penance for our sins, if only we endure patiently, in cooperation with grace.

Of course, the whole of Christian life is not intended or desired by God to be filled mainly with suffering. The expression does not mean that your life should be primarily a life of suffering. However, penances include not only bearing suffering patiently, but also prayer, self-denial, and works of mercy.

In addition, the word “penance” has changed somewhat in meaning over the years. Today, it seems to refer narrowly to those acts which the penitent does, after a good confession, to atone for sin. But in the documents of Trent the word clearly has a broader meaning, encompassing not only acts of penance, but also repentance from sin and confession of sins to a priest (with absolution). Thus, the Sacrament of Confession is called the Sacrament of Penance. The older meaning of the word Penance, and its meaning in Latin, is quite broad, including both repentance from sin and the deeds (or fruit) resulting from that repentance.

{3:8} Therefore, produce fruit worthy of repentance.

So when we consider that Penance includes repentance from sin, sorrow for sin, and works of prayer, self-denial, and mercy, as well as cooperation with the providence of God, through the trials and sufferings of this life, it is clearly true that “the whole Christian life … ought to be a perpetual Penance.”

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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