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Penance and Mortification… What is the difference?

Dear Father John, OK, now I have a better grasp of what we mean by “mortification,” but that has raised another question. Is there a difference between mortification and penance or penitence.

penance and mortificationThis is a very interesting question. The distinction between mortification (synonymous in most spiritual writers with self-denial, abnegation, self-renunciation, dying to self) and penance (synonymous with penitence, sacrifice or self-sacrifice, and “reparation”) has to do with the interior motive behind the action. In other words, the exterior action (fasting, for example, or taking a cold shower on a cold morning) can be exactly the same, but depending on the reason why I am doing the action (my intention), the spiritual nature of the act can be either mortification or penance.

The intentionality of an act of mortification is to “punish [i.e., discipline] my body [i.e., self-seeking tendencies] and bring it under control, to avoid any risk that, having acted as herald for others, I myself may be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). In other words, I freely deny the satisfaction of a normal and healthy desire in order to grow in my spiritual maturity, to learn to govern the self-seeking tendencies built into my fallen nature. For example, I purposefully mortify my perfectly legitimate desire for dessert on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent, so that I am better able to control an illegitimate desire to get drunk whenever that desire happens to surface. Mortification is spiritual training, tempering of the willpower in order to be able to better govern our passions and instincts, starving the bad plants in the garden (vices and selfish tendencies) so the good plants (virtues) can flourish.

The intentionality of an act of penance is to “make up in my own body what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (Colossians 1:24). I am doing penance for sin, making up for an evil, destructive deed, just as Christ did by dying on the cross. He offered his obedience as “payment” (or atonement) for our disobedience. This is how he repaired (made “reparation” for) the breach between God and man created by original sin. He sacrificed himself (made himself into an offering to God) on our behalf. Penance, therefore, is done as a way to tell God we are sorry for our sins, or for the sins of others, and to make up for them. Thus, my teenage son refused to go to Mass on Sunday, and so, to make up for this ungrateful offense against the majesty and goodness of God, I do penance on his behalf – perhaps making a Holy Hour on Monday evening instead of watching a favorite television show, or not listening to music during my morning commute this week, just to show God that someone (I) does indeed love the Giver more than the gifts. A good dad would do something similar if his son broke a neighbor’s window by throwing a rock; he would make up for it himself if his son refused to do so. When we do penance, we are repairing for sin, reversing the self-indulgent act of sin by replacing it with a self-giving act of mortification.

Two other points remain on this issue:

  • First, the only way that mortification and penance really help advance Christ’s Kingdom is if we are united to Christ. We must be living the life of grace – Christ must be alive in us – in order for us to unite our actions to his, so that they share in his merits. It’s like having a bank account with co-signers. The check only draws from the vault of merit if it is signed both by me (junior partner) and by Christ (senior partner). We cannot save ourselves by ourselves; we cannot grow in holiness apart from the source of holiness: “for cut off from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
  • Second, the concept of sacrifice also includes an element of intercession and petition. Offering God a sacrifice can be a way of intensifying a prayer of intercession. Thus, when St. Therese of the Child Jesus was interceding for the conversion of a criminal condemned to death, she and her sisters joined sacrifices (acts of self-denial) to their prayers. In the same way, we can offer sacrifices (acts of self-denial, obedience, patience…) to God in order to benefit other members of the Body of Christ who may be in need – those in temptation or sorrow, those in prison or suffering persecution. We are connected to them through our membership in Christ. It’s like a tug of war. We are all on the same team, pulling in the same direction. But sometimes someone on our team stumbles, loses their balance, or stops pulling as hard as they can. In those moments, we can pull harder, making up for their momentary lack, picking up the slack, so that they can have a quick breather and then get back into action.

We can draw a whole host of conclusions from these observations, but I will finish by pointing out just one. Since the distinction between mortification and penance is in the spiritual intention, not the physical action, the same physical action can serve simultaneously as both an act of mortification and of penance. We can do one action with multiple intentions. So don’t worry too much about whether your Lenten sacrifice is for mortification or for penance – make it for both!

Yours in Christ, Fr John Bartunek, LC, ThD

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Art for this post on the difference between penance and mortification: The Anchorite, Teodor Axentowicz, 1881, PD-US author's term of life plus 75 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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  • Guest

    Thank you, Fr. John. You have clarified the subject very, well. We shall no doubt all benefit from this Article. God bless you, Father

  • Cathy

    Fr. John,

    Thank you so much for explaining that. I understand now that there is a big difference, and that mortification is a very good thing, if done with guidance and the right intentions. I was confused after hearing Fr. Barron’s comments, and you have put it in a way I understand. Thank you!!

    Cathy

  • Janet

    Thank you! I understand this. Thank you!

    • I am glad it was helpful. Did it answer your previous question about Col 1:24?

  • Jesus is LORD

    Indulgences and Penance

    Catholics speak of “doing penance” for their sins. At the end of
    confession to a priest, the confessor is given certain things to do
    (such as certain prayers to pray) that are a part of “doing penance.”
    Part of the purpose of this penance is to bring about a returning of
    one’s disposition away from sin and back toward God. But another purpose
    mentioned repeatedly in Roman Catholic literature is that of paying or
    atoning for one’s sins. This is not the same as making restitution to
    those hurt by one’s sin, but rather involves making a payment toward the
    temporal punishment to satisfy God’s justice. This latter purpose is
    closely tied to the idea of indulgences and is not mentioned is
    Scripture. The Bible does speak of repentance, referring to a “change of
    mind about one’s sin that results in a change in behavior.” John the Baptist’s ministry and teaching is summarized in Luke 3:3-18.
    He told those that were baptized by him (their baptism being a sign of
    their repentance) to show by their deeds that their repentance was real.
    But never is there the message of “you must pay or atone for your sins
    by doing some good deed or by abstinence,” or by anything else. By this
    call to good works, John was essentially saying, “Show me your
    repentance is genuine by your works” (cf. James 2:18).
    But again, the idea of “doing penance” as an atoning for our sins or a
    repaying of a temporal debt to God’s justice is never mentioned in
    Scripture!

    • Dear Friend: This is not an apologetics site. However, I will say one thing as a former fervent and well educated Evangelical. Scripture is a subset of revelation, not the whole of revelation. So, the argument that XYZ doctrine is not in scripture and therefore it is invalid is itself an argument that doesn’t hold water. The premise, scripture is the whole of revelation, is not accepted by Catholics and it is impossible to come to key doctrines embraced by Evangelicals without outside interpretation – namely, the magisterial teaching authority of the Church (Tradition). Without this, you wouldn’t have a bible to quote, the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Christ would never have come to firm belief etc. Thanks for the effort nonetheless. I have no doubt that you are sincere in your attempts to free us poor Catholics from our bondage. Catholics are saved by grace and there is nothing we do can earn our way into heaven apart from what Christ has done for us – those of us who know our Tradition know this well. Your time would be better spent on those who don’t know anything of Christ. Pax

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