This is the second to the last of the precepts of the Church. Sounds like a bit of a downer. There is no asking if you did anything that deserves a penance. It doesn’t inquire about your self-esteem. It doesn’t even ask you if you think it is fair. It says, “Do penance.”
Are Catholics Debbie Downers just assuming the worst? Scripture does say after all, “He who says that he is without sin calls God a liar.” That’s pretty heavy stuff.
Not to sound like the Ministry of Double Speak, I think it quite the opposite. In that directive to do penance is an indication that doing penance does some good, that there is something toward which it is pointing.
Also is the thought that we don’t have to sweep things under the rug – DEAL with them! The problem can be fixed! The relationship can be repaired. What is the best type of penance after all? One in which a rift has been identified and something is done either to fix that rift or try to accomplish something that will prevent that rift from occurring again in the future (or both!) When combined with an honest examination of conscience, penance is not a punishment but a pathway to the best version of yourself. Catholics are constantly called toward the ideal, to achieve a little bit more, the grow in bravery with idea of sacrifice, to know oneself a little more deeply, all of which is obtained far more easily through trial. And as each person grows in grace, the Church receives grace upon grace as each individual grows in holiness. This is because we don’t save communities, or parishes, or countries, but a soul at a time.
WARNING: YOU MAY WANT TO STOP READING NOW.
And because it is one soul at a time affecting the whole body, we have communal times of penance, which we are obliged to observe. This includes days of fasting and abstinence. Every Friday of the year is a day of some form of penance. Before Vatican II, every Friday was a day to abstain from meat. Many mistakenly believe that this practice has been abrogated. It has not. What has changed is that the bishops of the United States have said that in place of not eating meat on Friday, we may substitute another penance. For example, since I often do not have control over my diet, I might substitute fasting from breakfast on Fridays (a meal I dearly love.) If you do not choose something different, then you may fall back on not eating meat. (Unfortunately now you know. That is why I suggested that you might want to stop reading.)