Penance . . .
is it out?
By Brian Moore, S.J.
"I'll do my Thing!"
"No more Fasting?"
"I follow my Conscience!"
A.C.T.S. No. 1617 / Do (1971)
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The practice of penance is at the root of the Christian life.
However it is not an "in word" in present day theological journalism.
So this pamphlet can have a double value. It may enlarge the vocabulary
of some of our readers; its practice will solidify their spirituality.
* * * * *
THE MEANING OF PENANCE
The request Tom's father made of him was simple, and perfectly
reasonable. The "Specials" were on - a unique opportunity. Tom yearned
(even more than he himself knew, though his father knew) to possess a
superb home-carpentry set. His father knew Tom's thought, and decided
Tom should have the set for his birthday.
He asked Tom, giving him the money to do so, to put a deposit on it.
Tom took the money but, although he passed the very shop, out of some
perversity he could hardly explain to himself, simply would not enter,
place the deposit and assure his possession of the set and the joy it
would give him.
Consider the situation: Tom wants it, his father alone can give it to
him and, in fact, gives Tom the means of acquiring it for himself. Tom,
for no other reason than perversity, will not do what his father wants,
and what is, really, his own desire. The loss is entirely Tom's; his
father is untouched himself, but grieves for Tom and his loss.
Tom comes to his senses. It is not his own loss so much as a sense that
he has wronged his father that hurts. What does he do? He says he is
sorry, and some money he was going to spend on himself he uses to buy
his father a small present. The time he was going to spend at the
football he puts into mowing the lawns. He is particularly obedient to
his mother, peaceable with the rest of the family: this, he knows,
pleases his father.
Tom is doing penance: giving, denying himself some pleasure, doing
something which pleases another. And as long as human beings are
capable of hurting each other and being sorry for it, they will do such
Love is not "never having to say you're sorry" as Love Story (the Movie) advertised
itself. Love is saying you're sorry, and saying it not only in words
but also in deeds. For love is realistic, and knows that the people it
lives in are imperfect and, despite their love for each other, capable
of hurting each other.
God our Father gives us the desire for happiness. He gives us the means
to possess it. We, to our loss not his, neglect to avail ourselves of
the means given us; and we do so out of the perversity of our fallen
nature. In short, we sin.
When we come to our senses, when we repent and say we are sorry, we
desire to make up to God for what we have done, not to him but to
ourselves, but against his best will for our best good. Flowing out of
a love which enables us to say we are sorry and to show that sorrow in
action, penance comes naturally into our relationship with God. And
generally it will take the same forms as in the parable above - giving,
self-denial, pleasing God by serving others with some cost to ourselves.
In imperfect beings, penance of this kind goes with love, with the
acknowledgement of guilt, with the desire to atone.
The Many Meanings of Penance
We use the word "penance" for a number of things. Sometimes by it we
mean repentance itself; at other times we mean the sacrament in which
that repentance is expressed and in which we are reconciled to God and
to the Church, [the Sacrament of Reconciliation]. We use it of the
prayers or good works enjoined on us in that sacrament as an expression
of our desire to make amends. We apply it to such ascetic practices as
giving alms, fasting and so on. And of a person who practices such
things we say he has a spirit of penance.
But the fact that there are many uses for the word does not breed
confusion; for we can see readily enough the connection between them
Fundamentally, "to do penance" is to repent of a past course of action
(that is, to be sorry for our faithlessness to God's covenant of love
with us) and, by a change of heart, to return to God, a return
expressed through renewed faithfulness to his covenant.
The Sacrament of Penance
To raise this "renouncing-returning" to a sacramental level of direct
sharing in the Passion of Christ, Christ has established in his Church
the Sacrament of Penance. We see, therefore, the connection between our
personal repentance and the sacrament which reconciles us to the God
and to the people of the Covenant.
Having done wrong, we desire to do right - to repair the damage, as it
were. To do so, we impose on ourselves, or accept imposed on us,
prayers or good works. Since by them we wish to express our repentance
(our penitence, our penance) we naturally call them our "penance". And
because we know we are constantly faithless to God (who is
ever-faithful) and to his covenant in love, we know the constant need
we have of penitence expressed in penance. We strive therefore for the
spirit of penance.
In this way, all the meanings we attach to "penance" are
The Church Steps in
It is precisely to cultivate in us this spirit of penance that the
Church urges or commands regular acts of penance, and sets aside
seasons of penance such as Lent. For if we have the spirit of penance
then, clearly, we have a sense of God's faithfulness and our own
faithlessness to his covenant of love.
In short, a personal experience of love is the motive and purpose of
We usually connect penance primarily with our personal guilt; but the
long practice of the Church teaches us that there are other valid
motives for the practice of penance. We can use it to help us achieve
self-mastery, to make atonement for the sins of the world, to win from
God (how inadequate language is: but we know what we mean) grace, or
particular graces, or to imitate Christ our Lord.
Penance and Realism
Whatever the motive, penance, like love, is realistic. It revolves
around the great realities in the life of a man, in the history of
mankind. Penance, that is to say, revolves around God and sin and the
person of Christ our Lord, mediator between God and man who, by his
passion and death atoned for man's sin and was raised from the dead as
a sign to man that his sacrifice on man's behalf had been accepted.
OBJECTIONS TO PENANCE
Is it Morbid?
It should hardly be necessary, but it might be just as well to point
out, right from the start, that the practice of Christian penance
differs essentially from, say, masochism or any other psychological
It differs in motive in that, one way or another, all Christian penance
is motivated by the love of Christ. It differs, also, in that the
Christian who practices penance knows that the flesh profits nothing,
it is the spirit which gives life. In other words, he knows that his
bodily penance is intelligible only in the light of interior sorrow for
sin and the desire to realize one aspect of his being a Christian - his
being, with Christ, a victim for sin. It is intelligible only in view
of the "imperishable crown" for which, as St. Paul says, we strive,
bringing the body into subjection.
It differs, further, in that it is always under the moderating rule of
reason and of the Spirit. It differs in that the Christian has no
hatred for the body in which he practices penance, but reveres it as a
member of Christ, as a temple of the Spirit, and as destined for a
glorious resurrection and re-shaping in the image of Christ's own risen
Negative or Creative?
Even in Catholic writings it will be found said that voluntary penance
is "negative". Apart from the fact that a voluntary act which is
negative is a contradiction in terms, this view is sadly deficient.
For one thing, it entirely ignores the aim of all penance (active or
passive) which is, ultimately, that likeness to Christ which is the
positive goal of all striving.
Such critics, having declared active and voluntary penance to be
"negative" usually go on to contrast it unfavourably with the passive
acceptance of the trials of life. Undeniably, there is an active
element in such acceptance, but on several counts it is an inadequate
expression of the Christian spirit of penance.
It is not merely that, when all is said and done, in most people's
lives really shattering personal catastrophes are few. Life itself,
viewed in its most "merely natural" aspect demands that we take the
rough with the smooth, simply as a matter of being human. To regard
every minor irritation, difficulty, frustration and disappointment met
with in living as something of a martyrdom suggests a pretty low
opinion of the whole business of living, even as a "purely natural"
More important, here acceptance does not call into play Christian
creativity in this respect. Christ our Lord is the creator from all
eternity of the very conditions of his sacrifice, his passion and
death. In imitation of him, a Christian will actively create for
himself opportunities for sharing in and for imitating Christ in that
passion of his.
It is also suggested that a spirit of penance is incompatible with a
realization of the fact that we are a redeemed and restored humanity:
resurrection men whose song is Alleluia. It is suggested that, somehow,
actual penance is something grown out of by a Christianity which "has
come of age" in wisdom and maturity.
Such an objection, if pressed, would necessarily demand the
non-existence of all evil, physical and moral in a world redeemed and
restored. The fact that humanity, redeemed by the blood of Christ and
restored in his resurrection, is still capable of great evil means that
the on-going process of redemption and restoration is still, in
comparison with "the glory that will be revealed in us", imperfect; and
susceptible of perfection in the individual in the same way as St. Paul
writes, "I make up in my own self what is lacking to the sufferings of
As always, in Christ our Lord himself we find the readiest answer. The
eternal Son, found "in the likeness of sinful flesh" is even in that
condition, nevertheless "full of grace and truth", "and of his fullness
we have all received". That is to say, the Word was incarnate in human
nature precisely as it is under the domination of the powers of
darkness; and was nevertheless the fullness and source of grace. In
other words, the spirit of penance is quite compatible with the most
exalted holiness, as is verified in those true followers of Christ, the
Objection is further made on the grounds that penance is somehow
unfitting a human being as such. Discipline and self-denial in all
sorts of ways may laudably be practised for all sorts of ends (for
athletic, social, health, body-beautiful, money-making reasons) and a
generally spartan kind of life can still draw praise. But once a
religious motive enters in, the same things somehow become inhuman,
even slightly sinister.
A man can sacrifice sleep for the purpose of prolonging his day's
money-making activity, and be praised for it. If he foregoes sleep as a
penitential practice, "there's something odd there". A man can diet to
lose weight, or give up smoking for his health's sake, and be highly
commended. If he eats frugally or gives up pleasurable pastimes out of
a spirit of penance he will most likely be regarded as some kind of nut.
Christ our Lord warns us in advance, "The flesh avails nothing; it is
only the spirit gives life". Penance is an activity which transpires in
the realm of faith; and, as with all activities of the spirit, the
flesh (the merely natural man) looks on with complete incomprehension,
unable to see even the inconsistency of allowing as good something done
from the most natural of motives but decrying it as unnatural when it
is done for religious motives.
So St. Paul points out how athletes subdue themselves: "and they,
indeed, strive for a perishable crown, we for an imperishable."
PENANCE AND THE PASSION OF CHRIST
The Passion of Christ
Any consideration of penance needs to commence with the Passion of Our
Lord; for, in that passion of Christ, are exemplified the aims we have
in view when we practice penance: the mastery of self, atonement for
sin, the winning of God's grace. Moreover, it is in the blood of Christ
shed in his passion that the new Covenant is established; and just as
sin is faithlessness to that covenant, so penance is tied up with a
return to faithfulness to it.
And finally, it is Christ in his passion to whom we must unite
ourselves through imitation of him in order to share in his
resurrection: and the object of all penance is resurrection.
For man, resurrection is the total redemption of the whole man. Man is,
as it were, "born doubly dead": metaphorically "dead" in soul because
lacking the divine life God willed him to possess, and possessing which
he created him; and destined to death in body because of sin.
Redemption consists essentially in man's being given a double
resurrection corresponding to this double death: resurrection in soul
when through grace we recover the divine life in us; resurrection in
body when Christ will raise our mortal bodies and make them like his
own in glory.
The loss of the divine life is the essence of sin; being destined to
death in body is the consequence of sin. For bodily death is, as it
were, the sacrament of sin - the sign and seal of sin. Bodily death
manifests the fact that sin has entered the world; and it would seal
for ever, by making it irretrievably permanent, our separation from God.
Bodily resurrection is the sacrament, as it were, of grace - the sign
and seal of grace. It is a sign that "where sin has abounded grace has
more abounded". It manifests the fact that grace has been restored to
man; it makes permanent the re-union with God which, through grace, is
given to the whole man.
In us, death is the sign of our sin. In Christ, death is the sign of
others' sin. Himself sinless, Christ freely takes upon himself the
death which he is not liable to, and in his blameless death our death
is put to death. Dying, he destroyed our death; rising, he restored our
But, although in principle we are already fully redeemed, already
"seated with Christ in glory", yet, for the attainment of the full
effects of redemption within us we must wait until he comes in glory.
The essential of Christ's sacrifice is the total submission of himself
in mind and will to the will of the Father, for sin is a rebellion
against God's will by the will of man. The completeness of this
submission of Christ is manifested by the extremity of his death. The
passion and death of Christ are the exterior sacrifice he offers
manifesting the interior sacrifice he makes of his own will.
Christ's Passion in us
The saving power of Christ's sacrifice is made effective in us when,
through the gift of God, we submit ourselves in mind and will to God
through faith and charity. Doing this, we die to sin and come alive
once more to God.
Sorrow for sin, then, may be regarded as penance of the spirit. Without
such sorrow, penance of the body is nothing; with such sorrow, penance
of the body becomes the sign of our penitence of spirit. And because of
the body-spirit nature of man, our bodily penance helps us to
ever-greater penance of spirit, sorrow for sin.
By their union with the passion of Christ, the afflictions of this
life, whether voluntary or involuntary but accepted in a spirit of
atonement, are the passion of Christ in us. Hence the Church in
administering the Sacrament of Penance prays that whatever good we do,
whatever evil we suffer may gain for us the forgiveness of sin, an
increase of grace and the reward of eternal life.
PENANCE AND THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
Interior and Exterior
Interior penance (penance of the spirit, sorrow for sin) is the supreme
necessity. Exterior penance, bodily penance that is, is its sign: it is
a sign to ourselves that our sorrow is genuine, since it is willing to
overflow into deeds; it is a sign to the Christian community that we
are actively sharing in the Church's on-going process of
self-purification and Christ's continuing redemptive activity among men.
Interior penance is the supreme necessity. Exterior, bodily penance is
its promoter, helping us to achieve an ever-greater sense of reality in
our sorrow for sin.
"In" for Ever
If we regard penance, therefore, primarily as atonement for our sin,
and see penance as something which goes hand in hand with sorrow for
sin, then there can be no question of penances ever being "out". For
there can never be an end to our need to enter into the passion of
Christ in order to share his resurrection.
The Sins of the World
As individuals, we are guilty, sinful men. But we belong, also, to a
guilty, sinful race. Even the Church herself (the spotless Bride of
Christ and his own Body) must be forever purifying herself; for she,
too, will attain her full perfection only in the glory of heaven.
As he is the example we follow in our atonement for our own sins, so is
Christ the model we follow in our atonement for the sins of the world.
Lamb of God
Christ is the true paschal lamb, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin
of the world. The shedding of his blood enables us to accomplish our
passover, our passing over from death to life, from the slavery of sin
to the liberty of the sons of God, from the kingdom of darkness into
the kingdom of the light of Christ. The shedding of his blood cleanses
our conscience from evil deeds to serve the living God. His blood is
the more precious than gold and silver which purchased the redemption
of all mankind.
Together with Christ
Everything that a Christian is and has, he is and possesses because of
Christ; and not only because of Christ but actually in Christ and with
If a Christian is a son of God it is because he is one with Christ, the
Son of God. If he has the sure hope of everlasting life it is because
of Christ who, taking the nature of man, with that nature penetrated
the heavens and sits at the Father's right hand. If he has been freed
from sin it is because Christ has conquered sin; and if death has no
more the victory over him it is because Christ died and rose from the
dead and rising dies no more.
Everything Christ has, even his godhead, he gives to share in to those
who become one with him. He is the eternal high priest of God; and
Christians are a royal priesthood, able to offer to God the same
acceptable sacrifice which Christ offered - himself.
Christ is the Lamb of God, the victim for the sins of the world. The
Christian, too, is a lamb of God, sharing in the victim-hood of Christ.
All that the Christian suffers, therefore, can become, in union with
Christ's own, a sacrifice making atonement for the sins of the world.
In the Likeness of Christ
When a Christian, therefore, practices penance he perfects the image of
the Lamb of God that is in him; and he acts out his role as lamb of God
and victim for sin on behalf of the world. He makes up in his own body
what is wanting to the sufferings of Christ on behalf of the Church.
It is a sort of dishonesty to want to be priest with Christ, offering
to God the same sacrifice as that of the Cross, and to wish, at the
same time, to escape being victim with Christ in that same sacrifice.
The thing about Christ our Lord's sacrifice is its complete
voluntariness; and, inasmuch as, being God, he is the creator of all
things, he is creator from all eternity of the very conditions of his
sacrifice, his passion and his death.
For a Christian, then, it will not be (generally speaking) sufficient
only to accept the trials of life and any load of pain or
disappointment with which it may burden him. He will, in imitation of
Christ, voluntarily create for himself, according to his capacity, the
means of perfecting his likeness to Christ the victim for sin by the
practice of some voluntary penance.
PENANCE AND THE CHURCH TODAY
The Council Speaks
Vatican II reaffirmed all the traditional aspects of the practice of
Christian penance. In the decree on
the Liturgy we read in. paragraphs 109, and 110:
The Lenten season has a two-fold
(1) it recalls baptism and prepares for it;
(2) it stresses a penitential spirit.
By these means especially, Lent gets ready the faithful for celebrating
the paschal mystery after a period of closer attention to the Word of
God and more ardent prayer. In the Liturgy itself, and in
liturgy-centred instructions, these baptismal and penitential themes
should be emphasized. Hence:
wider use is to be made of the baptismal features . . .
The same approach holds for the penitential elements. As regards
instruction, it is important to impress on the minds of the faithful
not only the social consequences of sin but also the fact that the real
essence of the virtue of penance is hatred for sin as an offence
against God; the role of the Church in penitential practices is not to
be passed over; and the people must be exhorted to pray for sinners.
During Lent, penance should be not only internal and individual but
also external and social. The practice of penance should be fostered
according to the possibilities of the present day . . . Such practice
should be encouraged.
Coming from the decree on the Liturgy,
this quotation naturally emphasizes the practice of penance during
Lent, for Lent is a liturgical Season. Note how the Council reaffirms
all the traditional elements of penance: that it is primarily interior
and consists in sorrow for sin; that this interior sorrow overflows
into external penance, offered in reparation for sin as an offence
against God, whether the sin be our own or that of others.
The Council does not, however, confine the practice of penance to the
Season of Lent; it mentions penance in other contexts, also. And it is
in these other contexts that we find the Council reaffirming the
Christian tradition of the use of penance for the winning of grace or
graces from God.
For example, speaking of the Church's
missionary activity, the Council notes that all the faithful
hold the commission for the spread of the faith and the growth of the
Body of Christ. This obligation and privilege of their membership of
Christ's Body is fulfilled, firstly, "by
leading a profoundly Christian life". And, then:
from this renewed spirit, prayer and
works of penance will be spontaneously offered to God that he may make
the work of missionaries fruitful by his grace. Then missionary
vocations will be generated, and the resources which missions need will
Again, in its writing on the formation
of priests, the Council notes that "the task of fostering vocations devolves
on the whole Christian community"; and in the implementation of
This holy Synod gives primary
commendation to the traditional means of joint effort, such as
persevering prayer and Christian mortification.
The Church's Law
The performance of regular penance is still commanded by Church law. It
is true that the Church's laws regarding penance have changed in the
sense that the law no longer (except in rare cases such as Good Friday)
specifies what penance is to be performed. But the Church's attitude
towards and her teaching regarding penance have not changed.
Nor in fact has her law itself changed all that much. We are still
bound, if we do not observe the Friday abstinence, to perform some
other act of penance of our own choosing on that day. And a constant
and deliberate neglect of this law is regarded as a grave matter.
You may see it lamented that the Church, in this matter of her laws
regarding penance, treats us as mature Christians on the one hand by
abolishing the specific commands, but on the other still treats us as
children inasmuch as she still commands penance to be done.
The objection is rather unreal. The Church would fail in her duty to us
if, considering the importance of penance, she failed to urge it, or
if, considering human weakness, she failed to command the practice of
Curiously, you will find this objection to community penance maintained
side by side with an insistence that the whole people of God, the
pilgrim Church as a whole, is in constant need of communal, not merely
individual purification. If, then, penance has validity for the
individual, it certainly has communal validity; and we notice that in
both the Old and New Testaments the penitential practice of fasting was
very much a community activity.
The sign of a universally imposed penance must not be overlooked if
this traditional religious practice is to achieve its full significance.
PENANCE IN THE SCRIPTURES
The Old Testament
Throughout the Old Testament, we find frequent mention of the use of
penance to signify repentance or to win God's favour for some specific
end, and days of fasting were often proclaimed for the whole people in
the name of God himself. To fast, to lie in ashes, to dress in
sackcloth were common accompaniments to private and, even, communal
penance; and repeatedly the praises of almsgiving are sung.
When David's child by the wife of Uriah
fell ill, David pleaded with the Lord for the life of the child. He
kept a strict fast, and went home and spent the night on the bare
ground, covered with sacking . . . I fasted and wept (he said) because
I kept thinking, Who knows? Perhaps the Lord will take pity on me and
the child will live.
In times of national calamity or on more solemn occasions the
proclamation of a fast, "a summons to fast in the presence of the
Lord", was commonly imposed on the whole population of a city. So we
find that in the face of the threatened destruction of Nineveh
the people of Nineveh believed in God;
they proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the
And if God frequently threatens to refuse to accept their fasting (as
he does also their sacrifices) it is because on occasion their action
was only an empty gesture, unaccompanied by that change of heart which
gives penance its value and which penance itself both signifies and
In the Gospels
So in the New Testament, Christ Our Lord warns us against the same
thing. Mere ritualism, formalism, the outward shell of religious acts
is not enough; the heart must be in them. Moreover, the performance of
religious actions must be guarded against their being corrupted by
hypocrisy or vainglory and pride.
Our Lord instructs us:
When you fast, do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they
pull long faces to let men know they are fasting. I tell you solemnly,
they have had their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and
wash your face so that no one will know that you are fasting except
your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who
sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
So, too, he speaks of giving alms in secret and of praying in secret.
Note that Our Lord does not suggest we cease from performing these
traditional kinds of penance. Indeed, he implies that we will continue
these practices: when you
fast, when you pray, when you give alms; and on the
occasion of the disciples' failure to exorcise the possessed child he
draws attention to the necessity of prayer and fasting.
The Acts of the Apostles
In the Acts of the Apostles we
read of the apostles fasting, as in the early chapters of St. Luke's
Gospel we read the praise of the venerable Simeon and Anna who allied
fasting with assiduity in prayer.
This ideal of combining the personal and communal practice of fasting
with prayer and ministry was continued by the apostles and the early
We read in the Acts:
One day while they were offering
worship to the Lord and keeping a fast, the Holy Spirit said, "I want
Barnabas and Saul set apart for the work to which I have called them".
So it was that after prayer and fasting they laid hands on them and
sent them off.
The practice of penance, therefore, is a religious tradition honourably
enshrined in our Christian Scriptures.
PENANCE IN OUR LIVES
The Example of the Saints
The example of the saints teaches us, and the saints have traditionally
been much given to the practice of penance. We learn from them not what
kind of penances we should practice (these things are greatly
conditioned by historical circumstances) or the degree to which we
should practise them (for this is the work of the Holy Spirit); what we
learn from them is that penance must have a place in our lives. It is
up to us to decide how great a place, and with what kind of penance
that place will be filled.
Not in a Vacuum
But penance is not something practised in a vacuum. Together with
prayer and service it is woven into the ordinary fabric of our daily
lives. As each man has for himself to harmonize (as it were) his
"spiritual life" with his "ordinary life", so each man has to determine
for himself the part a spirit of penance will have in his life and what
particular penances will express that spirit.
In saying this much, it was found to use an "as it were" and, twice,
inverted commas; for language never really expresses the wholeness of
living. A Christian lives always and in every respect precisely as a
Christian. But he still needs to attend to the various dimensions of
this his life; and in doing so can only treat them as if they were
separable entities. In reality, of course, a Christian life is not so
much one in which is found joy, worship, penance, service, concern
etc.; it is, rather, a joyful, penitential, committed, etc., style of
Aims and Means
Initially, a person's penance is generally directed towards reparation
for his own sins and to helping overcome particular faults. In this
latter business, good resolutions are all very well; but human nature
being what it is, not much progress is made unless one penalizes
oneself for failure to carry out one's resolve.
That is to say, if one is aiming seriously at curbing a fault, say, of
the tongue, one will not get far unless the good resolution is
accompanied by a careful examination of motives, by prayer and by a
self-imposed penance for failures.
Other aims, of course, enter in: reparation for the sins of the world,
the achieving of a likeness to Christ (of which the correction of
faults is a specification), the achieving of a generalized Christian
simplicity of life.
Making a Start
The direction that penance will take, its expression, that is to say,
will depend largely on personal taste; but the saints generally direct
our attention to two or three areas in which penance is easily and
usefully practised: the matter of eating and drinking, the question of
sleep, the use of recreation and other pleasures.
In these matters the saints point out two things: first, that mere
moderation is not penance; and, secondly, that duty to one's health and
the ability to serve others must be safeguarded. If a particular kind
of penance makes a person difficult to live with it is, clearly, to be
Saint Paul urges his Christians to work so that they will be able to
give alms. For our day, this would seem to be a most suitable kind of
penance, also: gratuitous work for others, the foregoing of some
pleasure or recreation, devoting the money saved to some charitable
purpose, additional work undertaken and its payment given as alms, and
So is charity united with penance or, rather, penance with charity; and
charity is the supreme Christian virtue.
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