Teach catechumens the real meaning of penance

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIAWhen I was a kid, confession was easy to understand. I did something wrong. I went to confession. End of story.

Today, it’s more complex than that. Pope John Paul II even said so. “The term and the very concept of penance are very complex,” he said. So if even the pope thinks it’s complex, how are you going to explain it in a way the catechumens can understand?

A profound change of heart

As with most things in the catechumenate, when in doubt, go to the Greek. The gospels, which were written in Greek, use the term metanoia. The concept of metanoia can be helpful for the catechumens. It means a profound change of heart, caused by the word of God or caused by realizing what God is offering us. (Check out Mt 4:17 and Mk 1:15.) Isn’t that what’s happening to the catechumens? They are in the midst of that profound change of heart.

So in my childhood, I wasn’t “metanoizing,” if that’s even a word. I wasn’t having a profound change of heart, because my heart was already centered on Christ. I was just being a kid who messed up a lot. Even though I believed in the gospel, I didn’t always act like it. The catechumens have two steps they have to make. First they have to come to believe in the gospel (metanoia or profound change of heart), and then they have to act like it (change of behavior).

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIACheck out this webinar recording: “How to teach reconciliation.” Click here for more information.


A penitential lifestyle

This changed behavior is what Pope John Paul II calls a penitential lifestyle:

It is one’s whole existence that becomes penitential, that is to say, directed toward a continuous striving for what is better.

So “penance” is not so much something you do after you slip up. Penance is a way of life. Does that sound a little harsh? “Penance” sounds like “penitentiary” or “penal system” doesn’t it? They are all from the same root word, but the meaning of “penance” isn’t about sack cloth and ashes. For a Christian, to be “penitential” is to always be “striving for what is better.”

What would you guess is involved in living a penitential lifestyle? We can turn to the penitential season of Lent for a clue. In Lent, we focus on three actions: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (charity). Lent is not the only time we do these things, of course. Lent reminds us these are the things we should be doing all the time as Christians.

How catechumens can make the world better

And we can turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for even more detail on how to live a penitential lifestyle. Remember, these are all ways of striving for what is better.

Conversion is accomplished in daily life by

  • gestures of reconciliation,
  • concern for the poor,
  • the exercise and defense of justice and right (cf. Am 5:24; Isa 1:17),
  • by the admission of faults to one’s brethren,
  • fraternal correction, revision of life,
  • examination of conscience,
  • spiritual direction,
  • acceptance of suffering,
  • endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness.

Taking up one’s cross each day and following Jesus is the surest way of penance. (cf. Lk 9:23; 1435)

Daily conversion and penance find their source and nourishment in the Eucharist, for in it is made present the sacrifice of Christ which has reconciled us with God. Through the Eucharist those who live from the life of Christ are fed and strengthened. “It is a remedy to free us from our daily faults and to preserve us from mortal sins” (Council Of Trent (1551): DS 1638).

Reading Sacred Scripture, praying the Liturgy of the Hours and the Our Father—every sincere act of worship or devotion revives the spirit of conversion and repentance within us and contributes to the forgiveness of our sins. (CCC, 1436-1437)

Teach these two things: metanoia and lifestyle

It may be true that the concept of penance is complex, as the pope said. But when we are teaching the catechumens, we only need to focus on two things. First, we want to focus on metanoia —a profound change of heart. And second we want to focus on living in a way that makes the world better—a penitential lifestyle.

Share your thoughts

What do you think? Do you strive to live a penitential lifestyle? How does your team and your parish set an example of striving for what it better?

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIACheck out this webinar recording: “How to teach reconciliation.” Click here for more information.

Photo: “A priest hears the confession of a boy ” by Lawrence OP (Flickr)

See also these related articles:

  1. What stealing from my cousin taught me about sin
  2. Teach catechumens the real meaning of penance
  3. A simple history of reconciliation for RCIA catechists

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