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May 24, 2011
It’s not about the rules
By Rebecca Ryskind Teti *

By Rebecca Ryskind Teti *

The Catholic bishops of England and Wales are the latest to join the trend of returning to mandatory Friday abstinence from meat in their dioceses.

Their reasoning is lovely: they hope a common penance will allow Catholics to strengthen each other and in turn offer a stronger witness in the world.

Friday penance is only one of a number of Catholic practices which seem to be enjoying a resurgence. Younger Catholics and converts appear to be rediscovering the value of some old customs — leaving behind some of the baggage that an older generation perhaps associated with those practices.

Pope Benedict XVI has been promoting recovery of the practice of voluntary penance for some time, but how do we recover it in the spirit with which the Church offers it, and not as one more item on a check-list of things to do?

We do have an unfortunate tendency, we Christians, of sometimes losing the essence of the thing for the rule.

For this reason I dread Catholic periodicals at Advent (It’s summer now, so I assume it’s safe for me to say this).

The instant there’s even a whiff of Advent in the air, the whole Catholic world seems to go nuts worrying that the world is doing Christmas wrong. We get jeremiads lamenting commercialization and materialism and informative pieces about the precise right moment to begin singing carols or lighting trees.

All of this is perfectly right, but sometimes the tone is just so…schoolmarmish. It takes the incredibly happy news of the birth of a baby whose coming puts heaven within our grasp and turns it into the message that God is mad at you because you put your Christmas decorations up too early.

There are good reasons for living the Advent season, but they are for the sake of inviting others to the feast and entering into it more richly ourselves. The customs are made for man, not man for the customs.

So it is with voluntary penance and Friday abstinence. Pope Benedict XVI has been urging contemporary Christians to rediscover these practices, not from the perspective of the joyless persecutor from Song of Bernadette who self-righteously proclaimed:

“I know what it is to suffer. Look at my eyes. They burn, and they need rest and sleep, but I do not give them the rest. My throat is parched from constant prayer. My body wrecked in pain from stone floors. Yes, I have suffered because it is the true road to heaven.”

Meanwhile, the genuinely holy Bernadette was racked with pain from cancer and had a beatific smile on her face because she understood that the doctrine of penance is a cause for rejoicing.

St. Paul wrote to the Colossians: “I rejoice in my suffering for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the Church..."

It’s not that Christ’s death & resurrection were somehow insufficient or that we can save ourselves.

What is meant is that by grace, Christ is in us and we are in him, and so he allows every aspect of our lives to have merit.

Amazing and merciful doctrine! A priest friend of mine describes us as little lamps. A lamp has no power to plug itself in. Once plugged in, however, it gives real light.

Christ chooses each person in a state of grace as his friend and collaborator. God does not collect us like trophies on a shelf to gather dust (“Look who I saved!”). Rather, he puts us to work in the world, uniting himself to every action of our lives, imbuing each moment with real significance.

This means that each of us, no matter how lowly or hidden our lives, matters. Our prayers, our daily duties accomplished faithfully, our acts of charity, our crosses and voluntary penances offered up: these have genuine spiritual power.

When we see so much suffering in the world — sometimes truly unimaginable evils that we have no hope to affect directly — it is a joy to know that our prayer and sacrifice can and do bring grace into those situations.

Rebecca Teti is a wife and mother who writes for Catholic Digest and other publications.
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