franciscan - January 1999
© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 1998
Doing Penance: What did Francis mean?
by Margaret McGrath FMSJ
In the first three verses of his Testament, Francis of Assisi reveals to us that he had discovered anew the true meaning of penance. He expresses this by saying: ‘The Lord granted me to begin to do penance in this way: while I was in sin it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers.’ Note that, for Francis, the life of penance was a gift from God.
If we even begin to mention the word penance today the majority of people will start to close up inside themselves as negative words and feelings flow into their minds and senses. Penance, they think, that awful practice where I have to do something that is uncomfortable to me.
How often, when the season of Lent in particular is drawing near, have we heard the question, or been asked it
ourselves, ‘What are you doing for Lent?’ The next words you might then hear are ‘I know what I am going to do:
I’m giving up sweets and cakes – and I might even lose some weight while I am about it.’ Is that really what Lent
is all about, what penance is about, where the whole focus is on me with no mention of God and it’s all rather
negative? Is that what Pope Innocent III was commissioning Francis to do when in 1209, orally approving Francis’
proposed way of life, he instructed him and his followers: ‘Go with the Lord, brothers, and as the Lord will deign
to inspire you, preach penance to all.’ Is that really what Francis meant when he sent his eight brothers out telling
them ‘Go, my dearest brothers, two by two into the various parts of the world, announcing to men peace and repentance’?
The Church, in one of her Lenten Prefaces, calls Lent this joyful season. These two points do not seem to go together.
‘And the Lord himself led me among them and I had mercy upon them.’
Francis’ whole value system has been turned upside-down. I finally found what John the Baptist and Christ were really saying to us in Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation on Reconciliation and Penance. There he says: ‘The term and the very concept of penance are very complex. If we link penance with the metanoia which the synoptics refer to, it means the inmost change of heart under the influence of the Word of God and in the perspective of the kingdom. But penance also means changing one’s life in harmony with the change of heart and in this sense, doing penance is completed by bringing forth fruits worthy of penance. It is one’s whole existence that becomes penitential.’
John Paul has here recalled to us the true meaning of penance as found in the Scriptures, penance as metanoia.
This was the penance rediscovered by Francis in the thirteenth century. Over the centuries this meaning of penance
once again became lost as emphasis was placed more and more on the externals of penance, with the interior meaning
being either forgotten or overlooked.
Putting this another way we then see that penance consists of three key elements:
By way of conclusion . . . It is important that we realise from the above that for Francis the life of penance begins with God, the initial action comes from God, and then come the visible signs of penance: conversion, repentance, fruits of penance. This fact is crucial to a true understanding of Franciscan Penance.
This ties up completely with the biblical teaching of penance as metanoia in which conversion (turning from self to God) is the central dynamic of the life of penance. For Francis, and for us, the way of penance is the way of choosing God in response to his invitation, the way in which God, and not ourselves, becomes the very centre of our existence.
Penance affects the whole person and reflects itself in the life of all men and women who profess to live a life of penance – reflects itself in their relationship with God, with themselves and with others.
We can say that penance (penitence, repentance) is the total and continuous giving of self to God in a life of love. When we understand it in this sense then the Lenten Preface does indeed make sense. Lent is a joyful season: a season to be celebrated, not suffered, for it helps us once more to turn continuously from ourselves to our God. This in turn means that we are more able to turn in love towards our brothers and sisters.
The way of penance, the life of penance, is a call to a life of intimacy and union with God. The way of penance began for Francis, as we have seen, with an experience of God that radically changed his whole life. Because of this he was able to take up daily this life of penance, this daily turning away from himself to his God. It was through this way, the way of penance, that Francis found union with God.
We, as Franciscans, have been invited to join the way of penance. At times we will fail, for it is not always easy to turn away from ourselves, or to turn away from the values of the world which are, for the most part, so different from the values of God. When we do fail it is then, more than ever, that we need to turn to God and tell him we are sorry and carry on in our journey of penance – our journey of love, our soul’s journey into God. §
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