Friends in Christ,
A concern of the Church during and after the Second Vatican Council was the renewal of her penitential life. People often wrongly think of penance as a punishment or strict self-denial but it is better understood as conversion of the innermost of the person to Christ. This involves dying to the old self, but also putting on Christ. It involves transformation from evil to good, from darkness to light, from lost to found in Christ. After the Second Vatican Council, as the Church attempted to renew her penitential life, making it more meaningful and oriented toward Christian conversion, the penitential life of the Church was somewhat eclipsed by modern culture, particularly in the West.
There were many cultural factors that influenced this and it isn’t fair to blame it on the good work of the Council Fathers, however, some have also wondered if there shouldn’t have been a more clear and intentional path to preserving corporate practices of penance throughout the liturgical year. And perhaps we are still on that road, journeying together.
Often times penance is now confused with mortification but it is actually much broader than that. Mortification is intrinsic to penance but penance can’t be reduced to that. Understood that way, if fasting were perceived as an end, in and of itself, or apart from faith in the the saving Gospel of Christ, it would easily become about building up the old self, and not about Jesus.
Many people are surprised when they read the Post-Conciliar documents most directly related to fasting & abstinence in the Church that not only was it not the intention of the Council Fathers and Bishops to mitigate the penitential life of the Church, but that indeed through their work they had intended to make it more effective for the Christian conversion of modern men and women.
Perhaps the two most important documents for understanding the intentions with the changes in fasting & abstinence, and their direction toward more transformative penance are:
1) Paenitemini – A Post-conciliar document by Paul VI on Fasting & Abstinence (available here: https://goo.gl/6HVfp3)
2) Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence – USCCB document (available here: https://goo.gl/2YFoTj)
I encourage anyone, but especially those who are entrusted with the sacred task of catechesis, to study and meditate upon those documents, perhaps even as a Lenten penance (i.e. a means of deeper conversion to Christ).
May the Holy Spirit inspire us to forgo that which obscures the saving Christ in our midst!
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