Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005 and before that a regular correspondent for the paper. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, Catholic Exchange <i>, and <i>Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in major newspapers. He is the author of Fruits of Fatima — Century of Signs and Wonders. He holds a graduate degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
Twenty years ago, in March 1999, Mother Angelica devoted the greater part of one of her Mother Angelica Live shows to thoughts on Lent: “Do your penance now.”
It was advice, plain and simple, that Mother Angelica said in her loving yet forthright manner.
“Penance is to repair for what you’ve done to create scandal,” she added on the “Lenten Observations” episode.
Mother told her viewers that Jesus warned, “Woe to the man — he forgot the women (chuckle) — woe to the man by whom scandal comes. It is better for him, he said, for a stone be put around his neck and dropped into the sea.”
Looking at her audience, Mother posed a direct question: “Why don’t you ask yourself how much scandal you’ve given in your life?”
She then proceeded to discuss penances.
“The penance is not to be nasty anymore. Not to be angry anymore. Not to be rash judging anymore. To hold your temper. That’s a good one. You want to say something but you don’t … because it’s not nice.” One simple solution, she said: Every time you lose your temper, put 10 pennies in a jar — then give what adds up to the poor.
Opening her ever-present Bible, she turned to Mark 5 and recounted how Jesus was tired, went to the other side of the lake for some peace and quiet, and there found 5,000 people waiting for him.
“That’s a big penance,” she said, bringing the lesson home for her viewers by proposing an instance of unexpected visitors: “The bell rings, and there’s some company … what a penance.”
“To welcome them with great joy, that’s a penance,” she emphasized.
After a spot of silence to let that sink in, Mother brought the concept of penance to the sacraments.
“I think you look into the eyes of Jesus when you go to confession. And you hear Jesus say, ‘Thy sins are forgiven.’ That’s what it means to look into the eyes of Jesus, to absorb the mercy of God. It takes a penance, it takes a humiliation to kneel there and tell Father all your sins, and weaknesses, and imperfections. … The result is awesome.”
Another penance is humiliation, sometimes from unlikely sources, according to Mother Angelica, who retold the story of Jairus’ daughter and then, in the greatest of detail, of how Jesus arrived when everyone thought it was too late to save the daughter. Similarly, in the story for Lazarus, Mother painted a vivid scene of what Martha and Mary might have said, and thought, and how they reacted to the death and then miraculous raising of their brother.
“Our Lord had to suffer the disbelief of his dearest friends,” Mother said of what happened when Jesus first arrived.
“Don’t you feel humiliated when you get some good news, and you tell somebody, and they look at you like — ‘So what?’ That’s humiliating. We all have that.”
Or we meet people who are constantly negative and grumbling. She added: “We all meet people like that. But it’s a penance. You can offer it up.”
And Mother told her viewers how to do just that. “You can say, ‘Dear Jesus, I offer this penance just for you. I do it for you, like you did it for me.’”
These are practical ideas for penance, she said. “They’re constant. They’re everywhere.”
Sipping now and then from her tea mug in this classic Lenten episode, Mother next turned her discussion to graces that are available to the faithful during Lent.
“Lent is a special time during the year when you get special graces,” she said. “You get double the grace, double the mercy, double everything during Lent because it’s preparation for the holy days, Holy Week. And the reason the Church gives those special graces is because we have the privilege of thinking and meditating on the Passion.”
Mother reminded her audience of the importance of mortification, too.
She said, “Mortification is a wonderful time, not to just give up something, but to give it up for a reason, for Jesus.
“There are a lot of things you can give to Jesus,” she added. “I don’t like to say, ‘Give it up.’ Well, you’re going to take it back. But give it to Jesus for Lent.”
Then she stressed the proper Lenten attitude.
“And be sure that you are cheerful. I’d rather you eat three eggs and be cheerful than not eat any eggs and be a grouch. … Doing without food is not your penance — it gives everybody else a penance.” That witty turn of phrase brought a round of chuckles from the audience, as did other examples she went on to give.
“And nobody said we are to give other people a penance during Lent,” she said, repeating, “If you’re going to do penance, do it cheerfully — cheerfully. Our Lord said, ‘When you do penance, wipe your face, put oil on your head, and don’t let anybody know. Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing.’”
To drive the point home, she told the story of a man who visited her; within about 20 minutes, she recalled, he told her five times he was fasting. “Five times! The last time he said it, ‘You know, I’ve been fasting for 10 days.’ I said to him, ‘John, you’ve been fed.’ He said, ‘What do you mean? I haven’t eaten anything.’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah, you’ve told the whole world you’re fasting.’ I said, ‘You’ve been fed.’”
She again repeated, “You see, if you fast, be cheerful. If you haven’t done something nice for somebody, you’re grouchy or irritable, I would think about your penance because it’s not the purpose of a penance. Why don’t you just be nice to people the rest of Lent? Some of you have a hard time being nice, being kind, being loving, being compassionate; coming home tired and not letting everybody know it, giving something to some poor beggar and having to tell the whole world what you did. Those are real penances. And that’s how you can be holy for Lent.”
Near the end of the show, a call-in question about penance from a child prompted her to turn her attention to children and parents. After Mother painted a colorful scene about taking forbidden cookies, disobedience and lying, and how a mother handled such an incident, she gave some general advice that had a Lenten application.
“I think some of you parents need to give your children a little penance,” she said, “like going before the statue of Our Lady and say a Hail Mary and tell her your sorry. You see, sometimes our children have no concept of sin. They don’t even believe it exists. And in today’s world they do so pretty heavy stuff they shouldn’t do.”
“So you don’t live in the world we used to live in. Not to be suspicious, no, but to be prudent and careful — and that’s a penance for you parents.
“You can no longer relax and think your children are safe. They’re not. And sometimes the things they’re taught in school they shouldn’t be taught. And you say, ‘Well, I can’t do anything about it.’ You’re just chicken, that’s all. You can do something about it. You’re a parent. The Holy Father [St. John Paul II] told all parents, ‘It’s your responsibility to teach your children.’”
In her usual straightforward, un-sugarcoated way, Mother said, “You’ve got enough grace — one Eucharist is enough to give you grace to fight the good fight, define and defend the faith, and protect your children. That’s what you’re obligation is. If not and if you don’t take it in your hands, you’re going to be sorry.”
Then, with that assuring, loving way of hers, Mother Angelica concluded the show. “I love you, and God loves you. Never forget that. He loved you enough to suffer just for you, as if no one else existed. If you remember that, you’ll wake up cheerful.”