Charism of Penance
The Charism of
a religious institute may be defined as a quality or virtue of the Church which is
exemplified in a special way by that religious community. The charism is not the exclusive
property of the congregation but it is illustrative of that Community.
The charism shapes
an Order's life and personality. So, for example, the charism of a Missionary Institute
will center on being sent to proclaim Christ and its ideals, themes of prayer,
training will reflect this note. The charism of a Contemplative Institute will be
reflected in all that goes to foster the life of prayer and recollection: the strict
cloister, silence, the horarium and the daily work. Looking at a particular Institute, the
Dominicans or, more correctly the Order of Friars Preachers, we see that all centers
around this note of preaching: preparation by study, the necessity of a convent to have a
lector, the emphasis on a clerical liturgy and the limited number of lay-friars .... all
serve to facilitate tile preaching mission. Even, the power of dispensation from the
Constitutions is provided for if this fosters studv and preaching.
Our own charism is
asserted in the very titles of the Order: the ancient one Ordo Penitentiae Claustralis
(whose initials are still preserved on the Coat of Arms) and the later title Third
Order Regular of St. Francis of Penance. The emphasis was not on being
"Tertiaries" but on being Penitents following the guidance of St.
Francis. Under the influence of Francis and his first friars the previous Order of Penance
was renewed and recalled from its exterior formalism, so much so that it seemed a new
Order. It is recognized now that the Letter to the Faithful was really addressed to
them as is indicated in the modern subtitle. In the first century the brothers and sisters
preferred the title Order of Penance of St. Francis. Only with reluctance, due to
increasing use in papal and first order documents, did the term Third Order come to be
accepted. The color of the habit of the friars and sisters was ash gray, the common
medieval sign of penance. The friars of the French Province and Sweden still preserve this
traditional usage. For centuries there was a strong current of eremitical life in small,
rather isolated friaries along with the gradually more numerous
"conventual" communities near the cities.
Now the austere life
and the penitential habit were only the effects or means to facilitate an environment of
penance and not the essence of penance. When these become the ends then this is a
distortion lending itself to a formalistic, pharisaic, legalistic type of life. We still
have friars reacting against this type of training received as young religious and often
they tend to "throw out the baby with the bath water".
In the Old Testament
the word for penance (shub) is to be found over a thousand times meaning: to turn, to
return, to restore. It always involves a turning from evil to the Lord. Conversion meant
to turn away from idols and to come home to God. It meant to be again what you really were
and to remember to WHOM you really belonged! The New Testament usually uses the word
"metanoia" meaning: to turn around..... with the idea of stopping and going in a
new direction. The idea expresses a fundamental change in direction, a new way of life.
The assumption in the preaching of John the Baptist through Jesus to the first apostolic
sermons is that we are on the wrong path, moving away from God. To do penance, to convert
is to make an about face and take a new path. Conversion isfrom sin, injustice, lies,
selfishness, guilt, etc. to salvation, justice, truth, pardon, others. Our thoughts are
changed to be in harmony with God's thoughts and our ways are changed to His ways.
In both Old and New
Testaments, penance involved a change of Lords. A constant biblical theme is repentance of
idolatry. False gods (idols) had entered the household of the faith, alien gods demanded a
service due only to the Lord God. These idols were not the little or large gold, silver or
wooden statues but what these represented or promised. Our contemporary idols are not much
different: wealth, power, a haughty pride, sex, military might. Conversion meant a turning
away from the reigning idolatries back to the living God. So, in the New Testament,
"to do penance" or "to be converted" can only be understood from the
perspective of the Kingdom of God. To be converted to Christ meant to join Him, to follow
Him, to transfer allegiance to Him and so become a member of the Kingdom, actively
cooperating with Him to realize the prayer "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on
earth as it is in heaven." Jesus calls His disciples together to explain in the
Sermon on the Mount what this Kingdom is all about (Mt.5-7, Lk. 6). It is a clear and
practical vision of what it means to follow Jesus. He teaches about very concrete
realities: money, possessions, power, violence, anxiety, sexuality, faith and the law,
security, true and false religion, the treatment of our neighbor and our enemy. How we
respond to these issues is the test of whether we have, in fact, transferred our
allegiance to Jesus.
Every part of our
lives belongs to the One God who created and redeemed us. To do penance is to surrender
oneself to God in every aspect of our human existence. Penance is the decision to allow
ourselves to be remade. It is a continuing attitude and not a once and finished event. It
is a moment and yet, at the same time, a process of transformation which deepens and
extends through the whole of our lives. Usually, for most, in the early stages of
conversion there is only a confused idea of our sins and complicity in a lifestyle which
is alien to God ... but knowledge and repentance grows. The warmth of God's grace melts
the soul bringing a clarity of perception so that one is truly able to recognize oneself
as sinner. This is not a crushing sensation however but a liberating one whose impulse is
to move towards God. We see by God's grace that our lives have left the path of virtue
which is a reflection of the eternal holiness of God. We see just where and how we have
sinned and we want to turn towards the Good, the Beautiful .... towards God. We see that
great sensitiveness in St. Francis.
The Sacrament of
Penance/Reconciliation becomes the privileged place of encounter with the Loving Savior
who loved us first even "when we in sin." Frequent and "non-automatic"
use of this sacrament helps us to grow in sensitivity and a desire to progress in penance.
In a practical way we return God's love by hating sin, by recognizing it in our lives,
confessing it and turning from it.
The Penitent has
been called a Man Turned Towards God. He has turned from a life organized around his own
desires or the dictates and fads of society so as to belong to God alone and to give His
service to God. The "fruits of penance" are clearly evident in his life and are
the signs that a conversion has truly taken place. There is a change in all his
relationships: to God, to this world, to possessions, to the poor and marginal, to war or
violence, to friends and enemies, to the false gods of his society. Remember the amazement
of the people of Assisi at the change, the conversion of values seen in the actions of
Francis and his group of Penitents of Assisi.
To do penance means
to commit our lives unreservedly to Jesus, to share His life with others. Our sins are
forgiven, we are reconciled with the Father and our neighbor and we are sent to be
instruments of God's plan for our world. In this spirit, Francis, sent his first brothers
out from Assisi to simply preach penance ... i.e. to ask people whether they will follow
Christ and live under the banner of His Cross. As in the primitive Church, the unity and
harmony between their words and actions gave power and force to their message. The message
was not only proclaimed but demonstrated!
IX of our Rule tells us that our Order with its special charism of Penance is most
relevant to the Church today. Our personal response to conversion, publicly promised at
our profession, answers the plea of Mary at Fatima and Medjogurie. In our apostolates we
are to preach penance to the non-believer, the lukewarm and indifferent, those especially
in need of God's compassion. But the call to do penance if it is to be effective now as in
the past must come from men and women like John the Baptist, Francis, Angeline and all the
modern founders of Franciscan congregations whose lives give witness to their own
experience of conversion.
The fundamental truth about this simple and fascinating man, Francis, is that at the very
core of his being and at the center of his life, HE WAS FILLED WITH GOD." Duane
is every person's call
following is a suggestion for prayer that might be of interest. We might parallel our own
experience of God that brough us to follow the way of Francis with that of Francis'
experience of his call. This can be used personally as well as with the community.
|Worn down by a long
illness, Francis began to think of things other than he was used to thinking about. lcel 3
begining of conversion is always a felt need for God.
|Francis, King of the
Feast, followed his friends as Master of the revels. But little by little he
withdrew himself from them, for he was already deaf to all these things and
was singing in his heart to the Lord. LTC # 7
person changes fundamental values, e.g. from accumulating goods and weilding power to a
simple way of life.
|Suddenly, the Lord
touched his heart filling it with such surpassing sweetness that he could neither speak
nor move. LTC # 7 Filled with a new and singular spirit, he would pray to his
Father in secret. I Cel 6.
personal experience of the mercy and pardon of God is fundamental in the conversion event.
|Francis strove to bend
his will to the Will of God, Accordingly, he withdrew for a while from the bustle
and the business of the world and tried to establish Jesus Christ dwelling within himself.
biblical expression of the penitential life: prayer, fasting and almsgiving with alms as
the witness of good deeds.
|Francis was always a
benefactor of the poor, but from this time onwards he resolved never to refuse an
alms to anyone' begging in God's Name. Now, His whole being was entirely bent on seeing,
hearing, and attending to the poor. LTC #9
to God must be shown by turning to one's neighbor in love, compassion and pardon.
|Then Francis went to the
lepers and lived among them, as he states in his Testament: "When I was in sin, it
seemed extremely bitter to me to look at lepers, and the Lord Himself led me among
them and I practiced mercy with them. " lcel 17
penitent experiences concretely his/her dependence on God. This poverty is appreciated as
the safeguard of the security of God in one's life.
|A few days after this,
while walking near the church of San Damiano, an inner voice bids him to go and pray. A
tender, compassionate voice from the Crucifix there spoke to him: "Francis, do you
not see that my house is falling into ruin? Go, repair it for me." LTC 13
ecclesial dimension of Francis' conversion event was effected by his sincere reflection of
the word of God. The Penitent becomes faithful and stead fast when rooted in prayer.
denounces his son before the Bishop. There Francis made no delay. He immediately took off
his clothes and gave all back to his father, saying: "From now on I can say without
reserve, 'Our Fattier who art in heaven'. He is all my wealth and I put all my confidence
in him. " LM 2:4. And the Bishop understood that what he had witnessed
contained a mystery. lcel 15.
climax of conversion expressed externally what had already happened in Francis' heart.
on a certain day, after rebuilding the Portiuncula, the Gospel was read in that Church how
the Lord sent His disciples to preach. Francis immiediately cried out: "This is what
I wish, this is what I seek, this is what I long to do with all my heart." LM #3: 1.
with brothers and the Gospel mandate, Francis begins to PREACH PENANCE!
|Francis' Prayer: 0 Great
and Glorious God, illuminate my heart. Give me steadfast faith, firm hope, perfect charity
and knowledge and understanding so that I may keep Your Commandments.