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Faith/Spirituality Forum: outdated forms of penance?

by Catherine Frakas 17 Jun 2001

outdated forms of penance? QUESTION from Gary on October 26, 2002 Brother, firstly I have to put on record my very sincere thanks for your helpful reply to my previous question, some time back. And it was helpful!
One seldom hears, even among orthodox Catholics, and certainly not from the hierarchy, of those forms of penance, practiced earnestly by many saints and holy souls, and approved at the time by the Church; such as self-flagellation, hair-shirts, knotted ropes worn tightly around the torso, etc. The children of Fatima, surely, witness how such forms of penance can indeed be a means of sanctification and charity towards souls, especially sinners, as well as a true means of offering reparation to the Divine Goodness (even more offended today than at the time of the Fatima apparitions, I'm certain). Needless to say such penances could become an end in themself and an occasion for spiritual pride, or become a threat to ones health and a hinderance to carrying out ones duties effectively, if not practiced with prudence, and with love.
My question, Brother, is how does one read the silence on this matter. Are we to consider them somehow forbidden in the post-concilliar Church? Surely, such penances have not suddenly become morally illicit since the Council.(Or if so, how so?) In other words, I'm asking if this can still be a geniune spiritual path? It is a bit difficult for one who does not have accses to spiritual direction, and who, reflecting on the message of Fatima and on the example of the saints, feels called to a penitential form of life; and so I would be grateful for any insight you could offer, Brother.
Thank you!
ANSWER by John-Paul Ignatius, OLSM on October 29, 2002 Dear Gary:
Thanks for your kind remarks. I am glad our Q & A Forum was of some help to you.
As for extreme penances, there are some parts of the world where this practice is still very much in popularity.
In Mexico and other areas of Latin America, in Spain, I think, and some other parts of Europe, there are many people involved in such penances in a very public way.
For example, in Mexico, I believe it is, there are people who have themselves literally nailed to a cross. They stay on the cross all day. There are penitents who walk on their knees until bleeding and with serious injury, etc.
But the wisdom of the Saints and of the Church that no severe penance should be attempted without Spiritual Direction.
It is too easy for such practices to cause spiritual pride, or conversely, it is too easy for such practices to be desired because of a disordered sense of unworthiness or other disordered spiritual or psyhological reasons.
Thus, one should NEVER practice the severe penances unless one is SPECIFICALLY called to that practice AND that is confirmed and evaluated by a Spiritual Director knowledgeable about such things.
If you feel called to a penitential form of life you can do this WITHOUT the severe and often dangerous practices.
There are many communities that can help you with this including our own, the Order of the Legion of St. Michael.
Another community is the Brothers and Sisters of Penance
In addition, I would recommend you read the book by Father duBay called, Seeking Spiritual Direction: How to Grow the Divine Life Within
This book will instruct you on what to look for in a Spiritual Director and what to do if you cannot find a Director.
Bottom line: DO NOT practice the severe forms without Spiritual Direction and try to live a life of penance in other ways, perhaps under the direction of communities like ours, or the Brothers and Sisters of Penance.
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