One of my favorite scriptural readings of the liturgical year is the Old Testament reading from the prophet Joel on Ash Wednesday. Joel is warning the people of Jerusalem that God is preparing to send a terrible calamity to afflict his wayward people, but that it can be averted through communal prayer and fasting:
Blow the trumpet in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly. Gather the people, notify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children and the infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom quit his room and the bride her chamber. . . . Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep, and say, “Spare, O Lord, your people!” (Joel 2:15–17).
At least some of those called to take part in the fast undertaken to plead with God to spare Jerusalem couldn’t have been personally responsible for Jerusalem’s sins against God, especially the babies and young children. But all were called to assemble with the community, to be counted as part of the effort even if they couldn’t personally participate in the fasting, to underscore the gravity of the situation and the need for the whole community to be present and accounted for.
When the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on Priests was released earlier this month, detailing the history of clerical abuse cases in six dioceses in that state, it left many American Catholics reeling from shock and disgust perhaps not experienced since the Boston scandal in 2002. In response, one group of Catholics active in social media chose to launch an initiative, which they named Sackcloth and Ashes, calling on Catholics to engage in prayer and fasting as a community of believers, in much the same way Joel made his request of the Israelites.
The initiative’s purpose is to engage in “prayer and fasting as an act of reparation to God for these sins. From the feast of the Queenship of Mary . . . through the month of September, we will . . . make daily sacrifices appropriate to our own circumstances.” There have been many positive responses, but some Catholics have been asking why members of laity, who didn’t perpetrate these crimes and who in many cases have been the innocent victims, should pray and fast for those clergy who did commit the crimes. Shouldn’t the bishops and priests who have abused victims and engaged in cover-up do penance for their own sins, they wonder—and not without some justice on a purely human level.
It should be noted that those promoting the Sackcloth and Ashes initiative aren’t necessarily urging Catholics to pray and offer penance for those who committed wrongdoing. The organizers state, “We make acts of reparation as a gift to God not as a service to particular sinners.” Rather, they hope to help the victims and the Church with their personal sacrifices:
If your grandma got attacked by a mugger, you would rush to her side and spend time with her. You’d go out and buy things to replace what was in her purse. You wouldn’t do that for the mugger’s benefit. Doing it wouldn’t lessen his culpability. Hopefully you could also one day bring yourself to pray for him and wish for his conversion. But doing something to lessen the hurt of your grandma is something different than that entirely.
Nonetheless, the idea of the innocent voluntarily accepting suffering for the sake of the guilty is as old as Christianity, and is in fact the very basis of Christianity. As we read in the Gospel of John:
For God so loved the world that he . . . sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. . . . And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil (John 3:16–19).
Christ, incapable of sin because he’s God, could as man suffer for our sins. As God, his sacrifice healed the breach between God and man opened by original sin. As man, he could act on behalf of the whole human race. Only Christ could offer perfect atonement for the sins of mankind and win salvation for the world. But, in union with his perfect work, we can participate in Christ’s salvific work. St. Paul noted:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings 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 (Col. 1:24).
Our prayers and penances cannot directly win forgiveness of mortal sin for fellow sinners. Mortal sin ordinarily must be forgiven by Christ through the ministry of the priest in sacramental confession. But we, by our sacrifices, can obtain for souls actual grace, by which God moves souls to receive or remain in sanctifying grace. And the prayers of those who are innocent of wrongdoing are all the more powerful precisely because they are innocent:
Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects (James 5:16).
A monk friend pointed out to me recently that it is not just laity who should be doing prayer and penance right now. He often counsels diocesan priests that they ought to be praying for and doing penance for their parishioners, and told me that bishops and priests ought to be doing penance for each other, too.
For example, my friend noted, in an apostolic constitution on fasting and abstinence Pope Paul VI wrote, “The precept of penitence must be satisfied in a more perfect way by priests, who are more closely linked to Christ through sacred character.” And in the Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests, bishops are reminded to pray and do penance for priests who have left ministry.
The ultimate goal of penance, though, is not the performance of external duties such as prayer and fasting in themselves. As the Catechism observes, what we’re seeking first and foremost is an internal transformation:
Jesus’ call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, “sackcloth and ashes,” fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures, and works of penance (1430).
All true reform of the Church begins with repentance and personal conversion. If we want to heed the perennial call of Christ to “rebuild my Church” in this time of crisis, then the work must begin first in our own hearts, and prayer and penance for the victims and for the Church is one way to get started.