“I Don’t Feel Forgiven, So I Guess I’m Not”
Occasionally a person will want to re-confess a serious sin such as abortion many years after having confessed it the first time, saying “I don’t feel forgiven.” The truth is that if it was confessed with true contrition, it was forgiven. What the person may be feeling is that they haven’t made up for the sin. The penances given in Confession are not designed to totally make up for the confessed sins.
In the fourth and fifth centuries they were. The penance for one of the three major sins of murder, adultery/fornication, or denying the faith was truly severe. You might have to spend ten or fifteen years in penance for one instance of these, and if you were married, you could never again have relations with your spouse. If you were not married, you could never get married.
Needless to say, people guilty of these things were not coming in great numbers to go to Confession. They would put off going to Confession as long as possible, usually until their deathbed.
It appears that the Church noted this, and began to ease up on the penances. It seems it was deemed best to get people forgiven as soon as possible, to prevent them from losing their souls, even if the penances had to be reduced considerably. The penances became more symbolic, representing rather than actually matching all that might be needed to make up for the sins confessed.
This is why we are encouraged to do penance on every Friday and throughout the season of Lent. At those times, we share in the redemptive mission of Christ by doing penance for our sins and the sins of the world.
Methods of Penance
Perhaps the most common way of doing penance is to fast from food on Fridays (and perhaps Wednesdays as well) until sundown. When I fast, it usually involves skipping breakfast and taking something small for lunch, such as bread and water or an apple. Then I eat a normal dinner. This is not hard-core fasting, but it is worth something.
Fasting applies not only to food but to other enjoyable things such as listening to music or watching television. I fast from all sports news on Wednesdays and Fridays. That is harder for me than giving up food. Watching television can be an addictive drug for some. When I got ordained, I resolved to abstain from TV every day except Sundays and feast days. That’s one of the best decisions I ever made.
Fasting or doing penance is primarily about denying the will, not just the body. The Lord said to St. Catherine of Siena, “He who desires for My sake to mortify his body with many penances, and not his own will, did not give Me much pleasure.” Is fasting an option for Christians, or is it an obligation? Well, what did Our Blessed Lord say about it? We read in Mark:
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.” (Mark 2:18–20)
Notice Our Lord did not say that His disciples might fast after he had gone; he said that they will fast. Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that “fasting is useful as atoning for and preventing sin, and as raising the mind to spiritual things; and everyone is bound by the natural dictate of reason to practice fasting as far as it is necessary for these purposes, ” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 147, a. 3.).
So, St. Thomas believed that fasting is required by our human nature. According to canon law, all Christians are obliged to fast:
All members of the Christian faithful in their own way are bound to do penance in virtue of divine law; in order that all may be joined in a common observance of penance, penitential days are prescribed in which the Christian faithful in a special way pray, exercise works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their responsibilities more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence according to the norm of the following canons.— Code of Canon Law, no. 1249.
The following canons, 1250–1253, specify the laws of fasting and abstinence. The Church prescribes two days for fasting: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On those days, people over eighteen and under fifty-nine have an obligation to eat only one full meal. Two other meals may be eaten, but taken together they must be equivalent to less than the one normal-sized meal.
What if you are sick on a fast day, and you need to eat? Then you should eat. Prudence should govern fasting.
In addition to the two fast days, the Church prescribes Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent as days of abstinence from meat for those fourteen and older. Is that all the fasting we should do? It depends on the person, but most of us should do other fasting as well.
How do you know when your fasting is reasonable? It should make you uncomfortable but should not interfere with the carrying out of your duties. Incidentally, this question as to how to be sure your fasting is reasonable is precisely why the spiritual greats of the Church have always recommended that you fast under the direction of a spiritual director.
Your fasting should not make others uncomfortable. If someone invites you out to dinner on a Friday when you’ve been fasting all day, do not just sit there with two pieces of bread and some water at your place; eat a small portion of the normal meal with everyone else. Remember, fasting is the denial of the will, not just of the body.
Because penance helps atone for sin, it can make us feel more strongly that our sins are forgiven. But the key point is that forgiveness is not dependent on our feelings. If we have asked forgiveness—normally expressed through the sacrament of Confession—then we can have assurance that God has forgiven us. Wallowing in the guilt of past sins is itself a sinful thought. We are called instead to rejoice in God’s mercy.
This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Morrow’s Overcoming Sinful Thoughts: How to Realign Your Thinking and Defeat Harmful Ideas.
It is available as an ebook or paperback from your favorite bookstore or online through Sophia Institute Press. Also check out Fr. Morrow’s previous books, Christian Dating in a Godless World and Overcoming Sinful Anger.