Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Penance Notes


This is an old sketch I drew, depicting Lent:
the hour glass, the sand, the cross, the
skull, the person praying, purple, etc.
Last post, I shared a calendar to help count the days of Lent. This post I hope to help you better understand the penance we do in Lent (and other times).


With the beginning of Lent, people often wonder: "What's all this penance stuff about?" and "What am I required to do for penance?" Here is a quick guide:



PENANCE is a sacrifice we perform, we unite to Christ’s sacrifice (Romans 8:17) & we offer to God--like St. Paul, who, in his “flesh, completed what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24). Penance is specifically observed in three ways: prayer, fasting & almsgiving. With all spiritual activity, we must always remember the ultimate goal: union with God. We offer these sacrifices to both express out love and esteem of God, and draw closer to Him.
  • When are we required to do Penance?
    • The days of penance are all of Lent and every Friday of the year.
    • If a solemnity occurs on a Friday, the penance is lifted.
  • What kind of penance should we perform during Lent?
    • The penance is designed to draw us closer to God, so we should try to perform a penance that will help us to stop a bad habit or increase our relationship with God in some other way.
    • You best know what you need to improve, so you impose your own penance for Lent.
  • Why do we do this?
    • We give up certain good things to help us recognize the greatest good thing, God Himself. Penance also manifests to God that we love Him above the things we are giving up. Penance also builds self-discipline and self-mastery, which we need to conquer sin and become holy.

For this post, I'd like to concentrate on fasting. Perhaps I'll make a future post on prayer and/or almsgiving.


FASTING means to refrain (partially or totally) from something. When the Church requires a day of fast, that means fasting from food.
  • What are the requirements of a day of fasting?
    • We can eat up to 1 full meal and 2 smaller meals (which don’t add up to a second full meal--no snacking, but liquids are fine). Basically, you should feel hungry for most of the day--that is your sacrifice.
  • Can I drink a smoothie or shake as a “liquid?”
    • Smoothies, shakes, etc. are generally not considered liquids in this context, so I would stay away from them.
  • When do we have to fast?
    • Roman Catholics are only required to fast on two days of the year: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
    • I don’t know the requirements for Eastern Rite Catholics.
  • Who has to fast?
    • Roman Catholics who are 18-58 (inclusively) have to fast, but it is commendable that others fast as well.
    • If you have a medical condition that requires you to eat, you are dispensed from fasting.
ABSTINENCE is a form of fasting; it means to totally refrain from something.
  • What are the requirements of a day of abstinence?
    • We don’t eat any carnis--meat from warm blooded animals [mammals and birds].
  • Why can we eat fish?
    • Fish are cold-blooded. They are not carnis. We may also eat reptiles and insects.
  • What about other animal products like eggs?
    • We may eat eggs, fat, gravy, broth, etc., but we may not eat the flesh of the warm-blooded animals.
  • When do we have to abstain?
    • We must abstain on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all the Fridays in Lent.
    • We are also required to abstain on all the other Fridays of the year.
      • US Catholics may substitute some other equal penance instead of abstaining from carnis.
      • They still must perform some penance on Fridays outside of Lent.
  • Who is required to abstain?
    • Roman Catholics 14 and older have to abstain, but younger Catholics are encouraged to abstain as well.
DISPENSATIONS are the only way in which someone might be able to licitly break a prescribed penance. They usually come from the bishop, but the bishop may give that power to priests. Obviously, with exceptions as the above medical condition, there are some automatic dispensations. Also, again, a solemnity overrides a penance, so if March 25th (The Solemnity of The Annunciation) occurs on a Lenten Friday (like last year), the requirement to abstain from meat is lifted.
  • Is it serious if I break a penance?
    • The Apostolic Constitution on Penance (Chapter III:C:II) states: “Their substantial observance binds gravely.” This means that it is very serious if one purposefully disobeys these penances.
See also:

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