Franciscan Penance

Question: What is penance for you?
I’d like to offer several ideas of what penance is.

1. Penance is a sacrament
In a sacramental understanding of the term, “penance” applies to the whole activity from confession to absolution. The sacrament of penance (also called reconciliation or confession is one of the two sacraments of healing: “Jesus Christ has willed that by this means the Church should continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit, his work of healing and salvation.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1421] Through the priest who is the minister of the sacrament and who acts not in his own name but on behalf of God, confession of sins is made to God and absolution is received from God.

2. Penance is repentance, which is a conversion, a metanoia, or a new beginning
After Francis’s return to Assisi from the dream in Spoleto, he began performing the following actions:

  • Ascetic practices: Francis began wearing a hair-shirt, fasting, and engaging in other corporal disciplines.
  • Solitary prayer: Francis began withdrawing to caves and isolated places outside of Assisi with a companion for prayer and reflection.
  • Giving alms: Francis gave money, clothes, and food to the poor, and he bought furnishings for churches. According to the sources, Francis had always been generous, but now his largesse took on religious meaning.
  • Pilgrimage: On a pilgrimage to Rome, Francis took a large handful of coins and threw them over the tomb of St. Peter; before returning to Assisi, he traded clothes with a beggar, now not only giving to the poor, but identifying with them and becoming one of them.
  • Re-building churches: After selling his father’s horse and cloth in Foligno, Francis begins re-building the church of San Damiano; he later re-built San Pietro della Spina near Rivotorto in the valley, and the Portiuncula/St. Mary of the Angels. (This will be taken up in the next lesson.)
  • Serving lepers.In these actions, Francis was doing things differently; he was converting. He was moving away from one way of life and embracing another. This was his life of penance.

    The origins of this practice of penance are found in the Bible. In the original Greek language of the New Testament, John the Baptist and then Jesus insist that their listeners have a metanoia. The Greek translation says, “Metanoeite!” which translated literally means to change one’s mind or heart. This phrase was translated into the Latin Vulgate Bible as “Paenitentiam agite!” (literally, “do penance”). Then, the words were translated into English as repent.

    In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’ (Matthew 3: 1-2).
    From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ (Matthew 4:17)

    So we see that the biblical meaning of the word “repent”, which has the same root as the word “penance” means metanoia, change of heart, conversion.

    And this biblical meaning of penance is the same as Francis’s understanding of penance; i.e., the turning away from sin and having a conversion of heart. In fact, Francis wrote in the first line of his Testament, written just two years before he died, that he began to do penance by serving lepers. “The Lord granted me, Brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way: While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I had mercy upon them. And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body; and afterward I lingered a little and left the world.” Thus, in Francis’s experience with the lepers, we clearly see not just an external action or a corporal discipline, but a change of heart – a metanoia. His heart was changed through his actions. Through his embrace of the leper, Francis says that his bitterness was changed into sweetness, and he was transformed. Thus, for him penance was not merely an external act, but it was an act accompanied by an internal change of heart. Penance changed him and brought him closer to God. It should also be said that his heart was not changed without the action; rather, the change of heart followed, and was consequential of, the action.

    So after returning to Assisi from Spoleto, and later separating from his father, Francis thoroughly dedicated himself to penance. And after Francis’s first followers joined him, they, too, took up this penitential life. When asked who they were, Francis and his followers referred to themselves as penitents from Assisi.1 It was not until they went to Rome and were granted oral approval of their way of life by Pope Innocent III in 1209 that they began calling themselves Fratres Minores (Friars Minors). Soon after this important meeting, Francis’s fledgling group of penitents would emerge from the penitential movement, and become established as a distinct Order within the Church: the Order of Friars Minor.

    Question: Why did Francis embrace the leper? And later dedicate his life to serving lepers?
    At table:
    1. Who is the leper in your life? Can you find the courage to “embrace” that person?

3. Penance is a corporal discipline, also known as asceticism:
Let’s look a little more closely at the specific ways in which Francis practiced penance. In addition to his work with the lepers, Francis (and Clare) practiced corporal penances, which were often quite harsh: Francis often mixed his food with ashes or bitter herbs to kill the taste, while Clare ate very little; Francis commonly wore a hair-shirt (a rough garment worn on the skin underneath the habit), while Clare wore a small rectangle of horsehair under her tunic; they deprived their bodies of sleep; Francis sometimes slept on stones while Clare slept on a bed of vine-branches or the bare floor using rocks for pillows; Francis frequently responded to temptation by rolling around naked in thorn bushes or snow. Thomas of Celano said that Francis subjected himself to severe disciplines and called his body “Brother Ass” (i.e. donkey). (2 Celano, 97). Francis wrote in his Letter to the Faithful: “All those who love the Lord with their whole heart … and hate their bodies with their vices and sins … produce worthy fruits of penance.” In the 10th Admonition, he wrote, “Many people, when they sin or receive an injury, often blame the Enemy or a neighbor, but this is not right, for each one has the real enemy in his own power; that is, the body through which he sins.”

These corporal penances practiced by Francis, Clare and their followers should more precisely be called asceticism. In this, we should distinguish between penance (the biblical metanoia described above), and asceticism (self-mortification). It is true that Francis and the early Franciscans regularly practiced asceticism as a form of penance, but penance was not limited to asceticism; for Francis, penance meant conversion.

Question: Why did Francis and Clare practice asceticism?

At table: What forms of corporal penance have you ever engaged in? What were the results?

4.Penance is a detachment from worldly things by seeking to avoid vice by practicing virtues

Francis and the early Franciscans practiced penance and asceticism because they believed that sin was the result of an inordinate attachment to worldly things. While fervently believing that the world was good, they believed that too strong an attachment to the things of the world could lead to sin. In fact, the seven deadly sins (pride, greed, lust, gluttony, ire, sloth, and envy) are natural God-given instincts taken to the extreme. By disciplining the body, or flesh, which they recognized as housing sin, they were seeking to free themselves of vices in order to live in the Spirit. They were not punishing their bodies because they believed them to be evil; rather, through self-mortifications, they were seeking to detach themselves from the things of the world, avoid vices, and be free to practice virtues.

Francis’s primary form of penance was working with the lepers. We might judge that he struggled with pride before his conversion. The sources say that he often sought to look good in fine clothes, he wanted to impress people by becoming a knight, he enjoyed feasts and parties, etc. (cf. Legend Three Companions, Chap. 1). However, these vices kept him rooted to worldly things. They prevented him from being able to freely experience, enjoy, and love God. Thus, once he discovered the humility that was required for him to work with lepers, his pride was leveled and he was forced to become humble. Through working with lepers, Francis was freed of his vices, and he could love and more freely enjoy God. And so great was the spirituality he experienced through that humble service, he continued to work with lepers all his life, and he established leprosaria throughout all of Italy. He even required that new friars work with lepers as fundamental to their formation.

Penance, sacrifices, and ascetic practices help us to avoid vice and grow in virtue. They reform the human condition that is naturally inclined towards selfishness and self-centeredness, and they create the interior freedom that allows the soul to re-orient itself towards others. We can be inspired by the experience of Francis, Clare, and the early Franciscans who experienced a radical and full metanoia. Without falling into Phariseeism – showing off external mortifications in order to receive praises from the people – (cf. Matthew 6:2), or without engaging in extremism, we can discover in them what true penance is: metanoia, another way of saying conversion.

Francis’s main form of penance was working with the lepers. His vices kept him rooted to worldly things and prevented him from being able to truly experience, enjoy, and love God. Thus, once he discovered the humility that was necessary to work with lepers, his pride was leveled. In working with lepers, Francis was freed of his vices.

The Seven Deadly Sins (also known as the Capital Vices or Cardinal Sins), is a list or classification of vices that have been used since early Christian times to educate and instruct the faithful concerning humanity’s tendency to sin. However, there are seven virtues to directly counteract each of the vices that can be practiced in its place.


pride    Humility
greed   Charity
sloth    Diligence
wrath   Patience
lust      Chastity
envy Kindness
gluttony Temperance

Question for table: Which of the vices are you inordinately attached to? Can you practice its corresponding virtue to offset the vice?

5. Penance is atonement for one’s sins or those of another
6. Penance is a form of intercession

Make sure I note the difference between voluntary penance and involuntary penance; we can choose penances; i.e. fasting, corporal works of mercy, prayer, etc. or let sufferings we do not choose become a form of penance; i.e. sickness, job/financial loss, etc.

Paragraph 1435 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Conversion is accomplished in daily life by gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right, by the admission of faults to one’s brethren, fraternal correction, revision of life, examination of conscience, spiritual direction, acceptance of suffering, endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness. Taking up one’s cross each day and following Jesus is the surest way of penance.” (cf. Luke 9:23). In this list, there are numerous ways of practicing acts of penance leading to a conversion.
Final Homework Assignment:

Do penance! Find the penance that God wants for you to do and embrace it! Do it daily, weekly, monthly! But do it.

Take five minutes and write down your penance.

Are you going to do penance this month?

Do not be hearers of the word, but be do-ers!

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