Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Major Penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary. Credit: PersiGianluigi (public domain).
The penance called for in the Christian life, and accentuated during Lent, can help us make sense of the sacrifices we have been called on to make during the coronavirus pandemic, a Vatican cardinal has said.
In a letter for Lent 2021, published in L’Osservatore Romano on 18February, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza reflected on “penance in the time of emergency.”
Piacenza is major penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary, a tribunal of the Apostolic See which has jurisdiction over indulgences and the absolution of the gravest sins.
He wrote that the 40 days of Lent and Christ’s victory over evil have “an incomparable importance for the life of man, because they concern not only the temporal good of bodily health but the much more radical one of eternal salvation.”
He said that, unlike what has been emphasized during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lent is about “not only healing or immunity from contagion, but the victory over sin, which makes man a slave, and over death, which puts an end to any aspiration that is only human.”
With Lent, we can see beyond the periods of lockdown and pandemic to “time as a whole,” with a perspective “illuminated by the light of the resurrection,” the cardinal said.
He noted that the health emergency appeared “just when renunciation, sacrifice, and penance seemed banned from the lexicon of a West that has become deaf to all forms of mortification.”
Now, he explained, people around the world have been asked “to renounce, at least in part, the exercise of personal freedoms” to follow health safety protocols and obey the indications of established authorities.
According to the cardinal, during the pandemic, the mass media have been sending a threefold message: denouncing an imminent danger and emphasizing one’s responsibility for oneself and others; indicating a future point at which everything will be resolved for the best, and setting a deadline for the required waiting and sacrifice.
“In part, these have also always been the coordinates of Christian penance…” Piacenza said, “which, in holy Lent, is proposed and offered to all.”
He added that in the world, there is always “an imminent danger,” the spirit of evil, in front of which Christians are called to “arm” themselves with penance.
The positive horizon is “the victory won by the Cross of Christ and shared by those who welcome him into their own existence,” he explained. And there is an end to the battle, “represented by the ‘sacred number’ of the 40 days, a time of true conversion and salvation.”
The major penitentiary emphasized that Christian penance is not a “tiring and uncertain attempt to obtain, with one’s own strength, some divine favour.”
“On the contrary,” he said, “it consists in the irrepressible need, which arises in every authentically Christian heart, to respond with all of oneself to that Love, all divine and all human, which in Christ took on the evil of the world and, with his own cross and resurrection, renewed the universe shaken by sin.”
The Church has always considered penance to be a “true and proper virtue, given and animated by the Holy Spirit,” and through which “man opens himself to the great victory of Christ,” Piacenza wrote.
Through penance, the human person learns to abandon his whole life to Christ and accepts to suffer with him, assuming the consequences of his own sin, and “offering just reparation.”
“But above all,” the cardinal said, with penance, the Christian learns “to know the mysteries of the Heart of Christ and to have a part, now and evermore, in the new life of the One who, ‘in exchange for the joy that was placed before him, submitted to the cross, despising ignominy, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Hebrews 12:2).”
Piacenza closed his letter by imploring the Virgin Mary to help Catholics to develop “true Christian penance, which alone is capable of embracing and seeing transfigured on the occasion of salvation the current pandemic emergency, making grow in the heart of man the joy and freedom of those who know they belong to no power in this world, but only to Christ and His saving power.”