Caritas Newsletter

February 12, 1997
by Fr. Lucian Pulvermacher, OFM Cap.

on Penance

      "Praised be Jesus Christ; now and forever. Amen."

The Penitential Season of Lent

It will be well for us to look at the religious phenomenon of penance as it appears in the Protestant world. On a former occasion I felt the need to write or preach about penance, and I went to a very detailed concordance on my book shelf. I had used it over and over to find scripture texts, and I expected to find many texts on that occasion. Not so! The name of the concordance is Walker�s Comprehensive Concordance. Unfortunately it is a Protestant concordance, and it does not list even one scriptural text dealing with penance. I have less extensive concordances that are Catholic, and I had to make due with those sources of information. 

Dear readers, that defect (non-existence) of the word penance in the entire Protestant Concordance just amazed me. It supplies one with the conclusion that Protestantism is lacking this most important means of obtaining forgiveness and graces (even in their private lives) from almighty God. The devil has taken an important ladder to heaven from each and every Protestant. What a pity! 


By the good fortune of Divine Providence I have a most valuable source for leading us in the study of penance. The book that I shall use most is The Divine of HOLY SCRIPTURE by Rev. Kenelm Vaughan, published by B. Herder (no longer in existence) 1904. It has an equivalent imprimatur (preface) by J. Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, MD. given in November 17, 1893. 

The chapter on Penance begins on page 781 and ends on page 790 - all very fine print. 

The titles for the various divisions of penance are as follows: 

  1. The Virtue of Penance; Its Necessity; Preached by the Prophets; By Our Lord and His Apostles. 
  2. Acknowledgment of Sin; Necessity for its forgiveness.
  3. The Love of God to Penitents.
  4. Public Penance Practiced in Calamitous Times to Appease God�s Anger.
  5. The Repentance of Ninive (footnote) Ninive, the capital of Assyria, was 20 miles long, 12 broad, and 60 in compass, and surrounded with walls 100 ft. high, and so broad that three chariots could drive abreast on them.
It should be noted that all the above pages (in fine print) are made up of texts from the Old and New Testaments, that is, the Bible. With the conclusion of this scriptural study, the concordance continues with the Sacrament of Penance. In this study in CARITAS we shall not deal with the Sacrament of Penance. We shall confine out studies to the many uses of the word penance. There are three main divisions. They are: 
  1. Prayer
  2. Fasting, and 
  3. Alms Giving
In a general way we shall consider the necessity of penance in order to avoid hell and get to heaven. Our Lord, Jesus Christ, does not mince words. He came to the point in the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke. We quote from verse one until verse five. 
    "(1) And there were present at the very time, some that told him of the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 
    (2) And he answering, said to them; Think you that these Galileans were sinners above all the men of Galilee, because they suffered such things? 
    (3) No. I say to you; but unless you shall do penance, you shall all likewise perish. 
    (4) Or those eighteen upon whom the tower fell in Siloe and slew them: think you that they also were debtors above all the men that dwelt in Jerusalem? 
    (5) No. I say to you: but except you do penance, you shall all likewise perish."
Our Lord stressed the absolute need for penance by repeating the third verse again in the fifth verse. 

Besides demanding penance, Our Lord also rebuked the beneficiaries of His gifts who neglected to do penance. In Matthew 11, 20 we read, 

    "Then began He to upbraid the cities wherein were done the most of His miracles, for that they had not done penance."
There is an interesting development in the above quotation. Those who receive more of God's gifts are bound to do more penance than those who have received less of His gifts. All you readers should recall all the gifts and graces you have received and still are receiving. For each and every gift received we shall have to render an account on judgment day. 

Next we move from gifts for which we must show gratitude, to sins for which we must do penance. In the Acts of the Apostles in the eighth chapter we have the account of a convert by the name Simon who marveled at the working of the Holy Ghost. After the Apostles confirmed the converts they worked miracles of all sorts. This Simon then wanted to buy that power from the Apostles with money. Peter rebuked him saying: 

    (verse 20) "Keep thy money to thyself, to perish with thee: because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. 
    (21) Thou hast no part nor lot in this matter. For thy heart is not right in the sight of God. 
    (22) Do penance therefore for this thy wickedness: and pray to God, that perhaps this thought of thy heart may be forgiven thee. 
    (23) For I see thou art in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity. 
    (24) Then Simon answering, said: Pray you for me to the Lord (Do penance - added.) that none of these things which you have spoken may come upon me."
Once again, when we are blessed by God we must do penance, and when we have offended God we must do penance. 

I shall comment on the three modes or kinds of penance. We do well to use all of them. 


In a former CARITAS I gave an explanation of prayer. For the present I shall make some remarks about making sure that we pray. In a monastery certain hours are set aside for prayer. We who do not enjoy that "luxury" must deliberately set time aside for prayer, and that should be in our daily program. 

Unless one is sick, one can order ones rising so that there is time for prayers before the duties of the day begin. St. Francis of Assisi used to call his body "brother ass." He made his body perform, even if it was hard for him. Be sure to make the saying of daily prayers at set times as well as you can. 

Beside having times for set prayers we should resolve to frequently during the day say short prayers, and generally those prayers should be hallowed with indulgences. 


By fasting we mean any deprivation that we make for ourselves or are made for us by others for whatever reason. We must distinguish two meanings of the word fasting. The Lenten fast means that those so obliged by the Church to fast may take one full meal a day and the other two meals united (in weight) may not exceed the weight of the whole meal. 

In this treatment we use the word fast in a generic sense, namely, the giving up of anything for the love of God and the salvation of souls. Hence, the giving up meat on Fridays is a fasting. The staying away from dancing (say, especially during Lent) is fasting. Not eating candy when it is available, not drinking pop when it is available and the like, is fasting. Strange but true, abstaining from sin is fasting. 

The above generic method of fasting applies to each and everyone of us. If we do not fast, that is, give up that what is entirely lawful from time to time we will not be able to give up sin when the occasion presents itself. 

I heard a mother tell her child at table, "If you do not like it do not eat it." Wrong! She should have said, "If it does not make you ill, and you do not like it, eat it as a penance." You will profit by the food, and you will learn how to live in society without being "a food snip" at other peoples' tables for all your life. 

Methodology -- The secret of fasting (giving up anything) boils down to this. One is attached to God and other spiritual objects to such an extent that he prefers to give up lesser things in order to have the greater good. It comes down to setting our values and priorities. Say it this way: "I prefer the love of God and sanctifying grace in my soul more than a delicious ham supper on Friday." Get even more basic: "I love heaven more than hell." That is why we give up any and all serious sins, no matter how pleasurable the evil acts may be. 

Our fasting (also called mortification) has grades of perfection. I remember a young Capuchin telling me, while I was in the U.S.A. on vacation from the Japanese mission, that he could never leave this country to be a foreign missionary. Without any big ado I spent nearly twenty eight years in foreign missionary service - including many of the sufferings that St. Paul tells us he suffered for the love of God and the salvation of souls. 

At times I see people who find it very difficult to give up such habits as smoking and excessive alcoholic drinking. Even though some bad and sinful habits entail withdrawal sufferings I have seen men and women who broke with those and worse habits by what is called "cold turkey." Only a good will and the special assistance of God (known as actual grace) can make that happen. 

In small imperfections one can advance on the way of perfection by steps. When it is a matter of mortal sin, fasting (giving it up) must always, in intention, be "cold turkey." With the help of God the drunkard, for example, can quit his mortally sinful habit and become a t-totter for the rest of his life. If any of you have never read the life St. Mary of Egypt you would do well to read it. There the worst prostitute in the land, left society to live a solitary life of penance in a forest for many years - to the point that every stitch of her clothing eventually fell from her body. 

We must marvel how men left all things to be habitually united to God. A Simon Stylite read in the Church Bible that Christ invited certain ones to give up all things and follow Him. Simon first had a black smith weld a chain around his waist and then weld the chain around a bolder which he could not move. A holy man saw Simon in that condition worshipping God in the open field. He told Simon that the chain was not necessary. He could remain there in prayer and penance if he determined to do so with the help of God. Then Simon had the black smith remove the chain. There after Simon remained in the field in prayer. People began to visit this marvel, so he built a small tower and prayed upon that. Again, worldly distractions by on-lookers bothered him. He eventually built a tower thirty feet high, and he prayed in solitary up there the year round. From time to time he rebuked the on-lookers for their sinful lives, and he urged holiness of life. Strange but true, even bishops, in secret, consulted with Simon on the things of the spiritual life. 

We are inclined to ask: "Just how could Simon give up all things to follow his contemplative life on top of a thirty foot tower in the heat of day and the cold of night all year around and for a life time?" The secret is that he valued the contemplation of God (what the angels and Saints do in heaven forever) more than anything else on earth. 

In all humility we view the lives of many of our Catholic young people. They give up their Catholic faith to live with a divorced man or woman as the case may be. With a firm determination, as souls in hell, they embrace a total life of sin, and when death comes they obstinately refused to see the priest. 

The bend in the road to heaven is fasting, and the bend in the road to hell is not fasting. The bend in the road to heaven is doing the will of God, and bend in the road to hell is doing ones' own will - against the will of God. 


Of ourselves we are nothing, and of ourselves we have nothing. God created us out of nothing, and anything that we happen to possess is also created by God. In Australia a charming old Catholic gentleman used to claim, in jest, that he still had his own teeth. Then he remarked, "I paid for them!" He has passed away, but his humor is still with us. May he rest in peace. 

Consider an alms as some treasure on a platter. You take it to God to give it (to return it) to Him. He accepts it in the persons of the poor. The wealthy (those in possession of the things of this world) need the poor, and the poor need the alms of those more blessed by God. The poor you have always with you. 

Almsgiving presents itself in a very broad spectrum. Any time we give of what we are and have: that can be an alms before the throne of God. The greatest alms that one can make to God is to put oneself on the platter before God, by giving oneself to God in the religious life. Even that has degrees, for some Orders are stricter than others, and all that, is in the order of divine providence. 

When giving we must observe right order. Prodigality means that one neglects his duties and gives of what he has to the detriment of society. For example, a father gives away his salaries and leaves his wife and children in cold and hunger. 

We must always look for some way to give of our strength or means to better our society. Being helpful around the house is a form of alms giving. Giving a thirsty man a drink of cold water is alms giving. We merely have to look at the spiritual and corporal works of mercy to know if we are in the right ball park. We do works of charity for the love of God, for God has promised to reward our good works with a heavenly reward. He promises to reward us for kindness to our neighbor just as if we did it to Him. The beggar is not Christ, as some of the nuts in the Novus Ordo used to claim. However, Christ lets the poor stand in His place, so we have needy persons to assist by our alms giving. 

I shall make an observation. When a child gets to the age when he or she can baby-sit he gets his first bit of money. Some of them come freely and give some of that to the priest. They turn out well. However, I have observed with sadness that others use their first bit of money on themselves in a selfish way. They grow up, go to college, and leave the Church to the great sadness of their parents and the Catholic community. Why! It is because they never considered giving to the Church or to those less blessed than themselves. 

We are in the holy season of Lent. Let us consider the words of the Breviary, taken from the first Epistle of St. Peter, for Compline each day. In chapter 5, 8-9 he says, "Be sober and watch; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour. Whom resist ye, strong in faith; knowing that the same affliction befalls your brethren who are in the world." 

English � the Third Official Language of the Church

I bring this topic before you as something to think about and pray about. If the English language is ruined (by such things as "Ebonics"), then all the wonderful expression in the English language will be lost to posterity. Let me explain. 

When I went to the Ryukyu Islands as a missionary in 1948 there were practically no Catholic books in existence. Gradually, paper back books were produced, and the Catholics loved them. That honeymoon ended in about sixteen years. The young people came to me and asked for new books on the same topics. Why? Because they could not read the Japanese characters in them. The younger generation asked me to give the older books to the older generation who can read them. The younger people knew only the simplified characters. The younger people were cut off from nearly all of the learning of former generations, and they were not happy about it. 

The Japanese characters change so much that all ecclesiastical document and records must be kept in the ABCs. Standardization in language is most important. The Church saw that Latin became the almost perfect avenue of learning. By taking Latin, as it was, for its official language, the Church used Latin in all Her doctrines and other liturgy so that it can forever be understood. If the Catholic Church now takes perfect English in the written word and in the spoken word, it will do a great service in preserving learning as it is in books all over the world. Furthermore, even if the crack-pot educators ruin the English language the learning in billions of books will still be understood by means of the English language as it is preserved in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. We will have the key to all learning both in the Church and in the civil order. 

English is the world language today. Every airplane pilot and every airport tower on earth is mandated to use only English. We are leaving the tower of Babel behind, but the storm clouds of destruction are looming over-head. Our opportunity to be the greatest benefactor in the service of communicating truth to the world is before us. Our Lord told us that He is the way, the truth and the life. Pray that God may enlighten and strengthen those in charge of this momentous decision - so extremely important for harmony on earth and for the salvation of immortal souls. 

May the grace and peace of our Lord, Jesus Christ be with each one of you. You are in my prayers and Masses. Please pray for me. 

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