In today’s society, we are constantly regaled with a chorus of My Way — of acceptance of who we are, amid all our faults and eccentricities, and in whatever state. But Jesus cites a different way in Luke 9:23-25: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?”
“Unless you crucify your ego, you cannot be my follower, Jesus says,” explained Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in an early Lent 2017 reflection. “This move — this terrible move — has to be the foundation of the spiritual life.”
“Abstaining from many of the easy and comfortable things of our society … aids a person in becoming free of these attachments,” Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa, EWTN host and founder and president of Ignatius Productions, told the Register of the time-honored Church discipline of penance.
“We learn that life goes on without them, and it may even improve.”
Penance, according to the dictionary at CatholicCulture.org, is the “disposition of heart by which one repents of one’s own sins and is converted to God.” The sacrament of penance or reconciliation, after baptism, reconciles the penitent to God and the Church. But conversion continues through works of penance in daily life.
James Baxter, executive director of Those Catholic Men, an online resource for Catholic men, has seen the fruits of this firsthand. “We can be better ‘mes,’” he said — and the Church is here to help, during Lent and beyond.
“We do penance as the work to improve ourselves,” Baxter said. “Through self-denial, we are freed from things of this world and open to things of the next. It’s about saying ‘No’ [to ourselves] so we can say ‘Yes’ to God.” He added, “To gain life by losing it is perfectly expressed in the cross.”
Baxter’s nonprofit runs a 90-day program for men called “Exodus 90” developed by Father Brian Doerr of the Lafayette Diocese in Indiana. Father Doerr developed the program while serving as vice rector of human formation at Mount St. Mary’s Theological Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, to help seminarians who were suffering from various worldly attachments prepare to become priests.
Exodus 90 is a strict daily regimen of prayer, fraternity and a long list of penitential practices, with the aim of freeing men to be the holy people God is calling them to be.
It is not an easy ask for men to give up sports of any kind, non-work related media, hot showers and all sugar and alcohol, yet the program is growing rapidly, with 1,700 men registering for the program in the last year.
“Men know they can be better,” explained Baxter. “Someone is asking them to be better; we are offering them their higher calling.”
“It’s what men are so hungry for,” said Scott Willy, 56, of Indianapolis, who has completed Exodus 90. “Men have not experienced the success they want to experience in faith, marriage and family. I have tried innumerable programs and ministries, and I just was praying that something was going to stick and be truly life-changing — and that’s what this program is.”
Penance in Daily Life
“We practice penance and self-denial because it removes us from the different attachments we have formed and been enslaved” by, said Baxter. While it is not an addiction-recovery program, many men have experienced relief from the sins of pornography and masturbation after completing the program.
Father Christopher Roberts, pastor of St. Mary Church in Union City, Indiana, and St. Joseph Church in Winchester, Indiana, said, “Penance tries to reorder our attachments, stretching our souls back into shape. You can’t seek to meet the ‘God need’ in something that is less than God.”
“The pleasures of this world are not fulfilling — period,” explained Jonathan Conrad, 31, of Indianapolis, who has completed Exodus 90 multiple times.
“They are all short-lived and leave us longing for something more. Something as simple as a cold shower teaches you the discipline of control over your most primal sensual urges. If you can’t control those, you have no hope for anything greater.”
Those who want to add penitential practices into their routine, not just during Lent, but throughout the year, can join a formal program like Exodus 90, offering fraternity and accountability as an added component, which Baxter says is crucial to completing the regimen.
Alternately, they may choose to begin more slowly on their own in day-to-day life.
Father Roberts said any penance must begin with confession. “The first step is turning away from sin,” he explained. “If there is an unconfessed, consistent mortal sin, that’s the first thing that’s got to go.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the three main forms of penance are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Father Roberts said a consistent prayer life and having contact with the Word of God daily is key. Exodus 90 requires its participants to set aside a Holy Hour daily, for example.
Fasting is the self-denial or aestheticism portion of penance. This “fasting,” or self-denial, can take many forms and is a practice that comes directly out of the Gospels and was done by early Christians, who fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays, according to the Didache.
Prior to Vatican II, which subsequently asked each person to take responsibility to find the most personally meaningful forms of penance, a Church-wide penance included abstaining from meat each Friday. But Father Roberts asks, is that really the greatest attachment that is disrupting our relationship with God today?
“The nature of those things that can take us away from turning to God has changed,” he said.
Other penitential practices might range from leaving a meal unsatisfied to choosing water instead of a craved-for soda or engaging in regular, intense exercise as a way to take care for our God-given bodies and temples of the Holy Spirit.
We must be careful not to let pride and ego enter into our penitential activities, advised Father Roberts. “Holiness is the perfection of charity, not just the accumulation of pious acts,” he explained.
Fruits of Penance
The Catechism says that conversion and penance do not aim first at outward works, but at the “conversion of the heart, interior conversion.” We must ensure that is the true aim of our outward works, because without this “our penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance” (1430).
The fruits of penance can be many and varied. Conrad says he found a sense of peace about many issues that had caused worry.
It also forced him to re-evaluate many of his daily activities, from work to social media to hobbies — and even how he views fatherhood.
“I spent a lot of time doing things that I found pleasure in,” he said. “It wasn’t until I started giving these things up that I realized they weren’t for anyone else but me. It forced me to ask the question: ‘What am I doing these things for?’”
He now spends more time with his children because he has taken his role as a father more seriously.
Father Pacwa says penance can reap fruits for others, as well.
“Giving up fast food and other conveniences can become an opportunity to spend the money saved on the truly hungry and needy,” said Father Pacwa. “As the Maronite Liturgy of the Hours teaches: ‘You feed two mouths: the one that fasts and the poor who are fed.’”
Failure in our penances can even reap fruit. “Failures give us an accurate vision of how weak we are, and it’s better to realize your weakness that way than falling into mortal sin,” said Father Roberts.
“You are fighting the spiritual battle on favorable terrain.”
Lyn Mettler is a Catholic convert who joined the Church in 2013.
She is a freelance writer who writes about travel and