Father Hardon on Lent and his 7 Rules of Penance
In his book, The Catholic Catechism which was the de facto standard catechism for decades, and still, in my opinion, packs a powerful punch to understanding, in some ways far more effectively than the Catholic Catechism of the Catholic Church, Fr. Hardon would delve more deeply into history and meaning of modern issues. One of these issues is a misunderstanding of Paenitemini, Pope Paul VI‘s efforts to make the practice of penance more understood. Unfortunately, and a lot like Humanae Vitae, misunderstandings of this apostolic constitution abound.
One of the major points in Paenitemini, as quoted in Fr. Hardon’s catechism, is that penance has three components: “prayer, fasting, and charity”. Charity is synonymous with almsgiving, which your author has more than once punctuated on this very Forum, and here and again (see the story of St. Martin). Why? Because Fr. Hardon punctuated it to me, and he impressed that Pius VI punctuated it to the entire Church. Paul VI made it clear that fasting is only one of the three components of penance, and therefore, of Lent:
In the first place, Holy Mother Church, although it has always observed in a special way abstinence from meat and fasting, nevertheless wants to indicate in the traditional triad of “prayer—fasting—charity” the fundamental means of complying with the divine precepts of penitence.
(Paenitemini, cited in The Catholic Catechism, p 558). That isn’t always easy to figure out, however. To help, I dug out an old lecture by Fr. Hardon, and give my notes here.
“Unless you do penance, you shall all likewise perish”
Fr. Hardon cited these words of Our Lord to emphasize that the duty to penance is Divine Law. You cannot escape it. Look at the Cross, as it is the very example of Jesus in this regard: sin requires penance. All of us have sinned.
Why does God want it? That, we must say, because in His mysterious wisdom, His justice requires it. We may legitimately say, without really understanding it, that God has no choice. Having given us a free will, if we abuse liberty, we must use our freedom to repay to God the love we have stolen from Him (which is penance) and repair the damage we have done (which is reparation).
Is it any wonder that on Pentecost Sunday, after Peter preached his sermon, and rebuked the people for their sins, they asked him, “what must we do?” – his first word to the multitude was the imperative verb, “Repent!”
Is it any wonder that Our Lady of Fatima’s message to a sinful world in our day, may be summarized in the same imperative, “Do penance.”
Indeed, the calamities that we have so far seen in this present century: two world wars with more casualties than in all the previous wars of history, and the threat of a nuclear holocaust that hangs over us like a tornado cloud. All of this is God’s warning to do penance and reparation. Why? Because God is not mocked.
You do not offend God with impunity. You do not sin without retribution. You do not ignore the will of the Almighty and expect the Almighty to ignore what you do.
What bears emphasis, however, is that this retribution is either to be paid willingly, with our penance and reparation, or will be paid unwillingly within the divine punishment.
(!) Get that? That’s the rub here: you either do it now, when you can willingly do so, or suffer it later, when you have no choice but to undergo it. There is no escape, as Jesus Himself told us: “unless you do penance, you shall all perish.” Fr. Hardon continues:
The divine logic is simple, awfully simple, and all we have to do is learn what God is telling us. Either we do penance and reparation because we want to, or we shall suffer (against our will) the consequences of our sins in this life, and in the life to come.
But remember, this penance and reparation is to be done not only for what we have personally done wrong. It is for all the pride and lust, for all the cruelty and greed, for all the envy and laziness and gluttony of a sin-laden human family.
God is merciful and in fact as our Holy Father has told us, Jesus Christ is the Incarnation of divine mercy. But God’s mercy is conditional. It is conditional on our practice of penance and reparation.
If you are motivated, good. That’s the point: wake up! But have hope and be happy, because Lent is the easiest time of the year to clean up!
Fr. Hardon’s Seven Ways of Penance and Reparation
Here’s the practical list of Fr. Hardon, a list of seven things you can do to perform penance and please God. The first three things are for penance and the following four are reparation:
Now, Father would not be a good Jesuit, if he did not imitate St. Ignatius by exhorting us to “spend a moment on each of these seven rules, and ask Our Lord, to open our hearts to respond with generosity to His offended Sacred Heart.”
Really do that. Take that list to Our Lord and ask Him, “Lord, Lent is here to do penance, please give me ideas for each of these ways to do penance that will please you.”
Let’s take Father’s list one by one with his comments and explanations of each.
Prayer is conversation with invisible persons, that is, God, His Angels, and His Saints. God expects “more” of us because we have sinned. And the first more that all of us can put into practice, is more prayer. “More” conversation with Him! Such as:
- “More” time each day in prayer
- Attending Mass “more” often
- Reciting the Rosary “more” often
- Being “more” attentive when praying
- Having “more” fervor in our life of prayer
- Getting “more” people to join us in prayer
That is the gist here: more prayer. By choosing to be with God more, we do penance. This is perhaps the most enjoyable penance because although prayer requires focus and effort, it is time spent in the presence of those with whom we want to spend eternity!
On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus told us, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” If all sin is failure to love God, and we mainly show our love for God by loving one another, then we had better show our love for others by sharing with them what God has given to us.
The key here is to do “more” — what more can I share?
- Give “more” time to others
- Share “more” knowledge with others
- Share “more” of my knowledge with others
- Share “more” of my skill with others
- Share “more” money with others
- Share “more” of my Catholic faith with others
Only by looking at the circumstances that God has put in our lives can we see opportunities to share more. It is penance to share, and share more.
We must forgive others who offend us. Jesus gave us whole parables on the subject of forgiveness and He warned us that God will be as merciful to us as we are forgiving to others. Right in the middle of The Lord’s Prayer did Jesus place a frightening invocation: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Once again, it behooves us to look to our practice of forgiveness, and to find a way to be “more” forgiving in the future than we have been in the past”
- “more” forgiving by forgetting what others have done to me
- “more” forgiving by ignoring the unkindness, thoughtlessness and even meanness that others commit against me
No two of us are living the same lives. Each of us have different people saying or doing or failing to say or do things that hurt us and, perhaps, crush the very heart of our souls. The third rule of penance is to be more forgiving.
Work is the first rule for reparation. The previous three were penance. Work is reparation because our fallen human nature dislikes to exert itself.
Suggests Fr. Hardon:
“By nature we are prone to first do what we like, then what is useful, and finally, what is necessary. I cannot think of a more effective kind of reparation than to set our minds to reversing that order.
“We should first do what is necessary, then what is useful, and only then what is pleasant or what we like.”
Work is a form of mortification that all of us can look to see whether we could not work harder (“more” work) than we are doing – in performance of tasks that are part of our state in life, and in those things we ought to do.
Patiently enduring the sufferings and trials that God sends us is keystone of reparation. Jesus tells us that we must take up the Cross if we are to follow Him. It is therefore here that we find our ability to imitate Jesus, Who patiently endured the spitting, the mockery, the Cross.
God, in His mercy, sends us the Cross in order to try our patience that we might save our souls and the souls of many others besides. The variety of these trials sent to us by God defies classification and their intensity depends on a thousand factors that differ with different people at different times. If we are to expiate sin we must resign ourselves to endure pain. But, as we know, there are degrees and degrees to this resignation. For our part, we should try for more:
- Can we accept misunderstanding from others with greater (more) peace of mind?
- Can we be more generous in doing what we know God wants us to do, although doing it is painful?
- Can we suffer more without pitying ourselves?
- Can we put up with more discomfort, more distaste, or more disability, without becoming bitter (even though we may be tempted to consider these slights as injustice from God)?
God’s violations are blessings, and the crosses He sends us are tokens of His love. But how we need the light of faith to see this, and the strength of His grace to do this. In reparation for sin, the Cross, and our enduring it, is the price we must pay to reach Heaven. Only in Heaven will every tear will be wiped away and all the past, which is now the present, will have passed away. It is worth enduring more that we might get there!
The sixth rule to reparation is practiced by depriving ourselves of something we now have that we could, if we wanted to, do without. “Doing without” gives us an opportunity to do without more, such as depriving ourselves of:
- some luxury in the home
- some delicacy at meals
- some comfort in our way of living,
- some trinket, toy, or pleasure that we could just as well do without.
It can also be called mortification or self-denial. But, whatever the name, the basic idea is to expiate for sins of self-indulgence by giving up something we could otherwise rightfully enjoy.
When we sin we offend God by choosing some creature to which we have no right. When we practice mortification, we make reparation by choosing to deprive ourselves of some creature we have a right to.
Why? We do this mortification in order to undo the harm caused by sin and thus propitiate the offended justice of God.
Sacrifice is last because it synthesizes everything in all the other rules of penance. What is sacrifice? Sacrifice is the surrender of something to God.
Sacrifice is the heart of penance and reparation. When we sacrifice, we let go with our wills of whatever we could legitimately possess and enjoy because we want to make up to God for having stupidly chosen some creature in preference to the Creator.
We return to where we began by stressing that when we sacrifice, we do more than we would have done; we give up more than we would have given up; we surrender more of what we like in order to – in plain English – prove to God that we love Him.
The Gospels give us the essence of reparation. After the Resurrection, Jesus asked Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than the others do?” Why the question? Because Peter had sinned; sinned more than the others who had remained faithful to the Master. Peter was expected to love Christ more. Why more? Because he had more to sacrifice in order to expiate more because he had so deeply sinned in denying the Saviour.
Each of us has sinned, too. But God is good and He gives us the privilege of not only expiating what we have done wrong, but actually becoming more pleasing to Him by our penance and reparation.
It was no mere pious sentiment that St. Paul gave us when he said, “Where sin abounded, grace has even more abounded.” In other words, in God’s providence, He allows us to sin so we might repent and become saints.
Now the time of penance is here, and Lent is upon you. This is your time to make great strides towards more holiness, more love of God.
What more are you going to do for God this Lent?
Want More Fr. Hardon?
The Latest issue of our Magazine features the future of Life and Building a Culture of Life, featuring Father Hardon’s thoughts and advice on what we must do.
This article, Father Hardon on Lent and his 7 Rules of Penance is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.