ASK FATHER: Substituting a “sufficient” penance

From a reader…


As you know we are required to do penance on Fridays of the year unless a Solemnity take precedence. On Fridays during Lent we are required to abstain from meat, however on other Fridays of the year we are allowed to substitute another penance. I try to abstain from meat on Fridays but sometimes this isn’t possible. Do you have any suggestions for alternate penances? Would praying an extra Rosary for the Holy Souls be considered sufficient?

Saying the Rosary can be a penitential practice.  Praying it can also be a work of mercy and a joy.   Is it “sufficient”?  Sure, I guess so.  Why not?

Some people find eschewing the chewing of meat pretty easy, and no penance at all to give up on every day of the week.   For some, I suppose giving up a PBJ would be really hard.  For others a PBR.  Maybe for others … I think I’ll stop with the three letter thing right here.

“Sufficient”.   This is a tricky word when it involves penance.  For example, when we sin, we open up a chasm between ourselves and God that only God can mend.  Hence, even were we to undertake the most brutal penances possible for the rest of our lives, they would not be “sufficient” in light of damage done by sin.  So, all penances are rather arbitrary.  We have to acknowledge that they are sufficiently insufficient. Or rather insufficiently sufficient.

The same goes for our chosen, not imposed, penances. “Sufficient” for what?   This is why the Church gives us guidance through explanations about how indulgences can be gained.  What works are sufficient (with the proper attitude and state of grace) to obtain the desired effect?

It seems to me that taking on a voluntary penance ought to involve a measure of sacrifice or discomfort that one doesn’t just brush off.   For some people, skipping a meal could be really hard.  For others, self-denial of pleasurable and regular activity such as a game or stroll could “suffice”.   Of course in all instances, health of self and those in your charge is to be remembered.

Also, note that self-denial of something pleasurable is one thing, but taking on something that is not so is also an option.  Going out of your way to do something for a needy person, perhaps someone unpleasant, might be a good penance (along with being a good thing to do).

Take stock of yourself, maybe with a pencil and paper (remember those?) and list some things that you really like and are regular features of life.  In another column, think up a few concrete applications of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

Work through the lists.

That might “suffice”.


The performance of penances or good works are good things to do in themselves, but if you are not in the state of grace they lack any merit they might otherwise have.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Lurker 59 says:

    Might I suggest that another way to look at voluntary penances is through the vantage point of vicarious atonement — taking on the temporal punishments and making some small restitution for the offense. You can do penance for your sins, but you can also do penance for the sins of others. This is the basis for the traditional prayers for the poor souls in purgatory. You can also do penance for those still living — the basis for the oft overlook “ransoming a captive”.

    Sufficient here then is just to work on the debt incurred by the vice — for example, undertaking penances for blasphemies would be to undertake acts of devotion such as the divine praises.

    The key is not just voluntarily suffering, but suffering for the salvation of others.

  2. Elizabeth D says:

    How would it ever not be possible to avoid eating meat? I never eat meat. It’s possible. Just explain it’s Friday and this is what you do to remember Jesus’ love for us on Calvary.

  3. Danteewoo says:

    The Friday abstinence law is not in effect on solemnities. But it was not that way before the Council. When was the rule changed?

  4. robtbrown says:

    I think you have it backwards. Prayer for the poor souls in purgatory is the basis for penance, not the other way around

  5. redneckpride4ever says:

    PBR…three of my favorite letters.

    I get the feeling my house would not be the first place Fr. Z would stop for a beer. But hey, it beats Old Milwaukee.

  6. TonyO says:

    How would it ever not be possible to avoid eating meat? I never eat meat. It’s possible.

    If we were under a strict and definitive moral obligation to never eat meat – e.g. if it were intrinsically disordered to eat meat – then it would indeed be ALWAYS possible to not eat meat.

    But given that the hypothetical posed is not actual so, what is usually meant by “not possible” is something looser, such as (to give one example) that it is significantly (or even gravely) imprudent to not eat meat in a given situation. For example, if you are in a situation where you are not free to choose what food is available (maybe you are in prison, in the military, in a cloister, lost in the wilderness, etc) and the ONLY food you have to hand is meat, it might be more prudent to eat the meat and make some other penance for Friday. There are other circumstances that can also make it more prudent, sometimes MUCH more prudent.

  7. Imrahil says:

    Dear Elizabeth D,

    it’s allowed to make use of the Church’s generosity, as long as she is generous.

    There is a lot to be said for making rather little use of this specific generosity (even if we don’t accept, and we generally don’t, that eating meat would be bad in itself). But still, “rather little” is not “none”, as long as the Church does allow it; and in any case that wasn’t the question.

    My standard choice is the Litany of the Sorrows of Christ (which is something from the German prayerbook.)

    Also, it’s a good choice to do a substitute penance on the occasions where in a world without substitute penance, you’d be able to meat anyway – such as those the dear TonyO seems to have in mind. I don’t know if that’s obligatory, though (I guess not).

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