Simple Acts of Penance
One of the central features of the call of Our Lady of Fatima is to do penance. It is also one of the daily pious acts of being a member of the Confraternity. To understand what we should do for “our simple act of penance” each day, it is best to go back to the Apparitions, to Our Lady’s words directly.
In the First Apparition, Our Lady is speaking to Sr. Lucia.
Our Lady: Do you wish to offer yourselves to God to endure all the sufferings that He may be pleased to send you, as both an act of reparation for the sins with which He is offended and an act of supplication for the conversion of sinners?
Lucia: Yes, we do.
Our Lady: Well then, you will have much to suffer. But the grace of God will be your comfort.
Here we learn right away that the call of Fatima to do penance is an invitation, that our free will is being presented a choice to embrace “all” the penance and sufferings that Our Lord in His permissive will will send our way. That we can choose it or not choose it. And so as members of the Confraternity, we choose to write a “blank check” to God and be open to whatever He allows to happen to us. So as members we are really embracing a penitential way of life that is punctuated with little simple acts of penance each day.
We also see that when we do choose this, we can expect suffering, that God will indeed take us at our word and that He will allow us to experience suffering and pain so that He can perfect it and work out the salvation of many people according to His economy of salvation.
Finally, in this First Apparition, we see what we offer our penance and suffering for. We offer it as a reparation for those sins that offend God, and we offer it for the conversion of poor sinners. So as members, when we do our little acts of penance, we must, from time to time, try to remember to “attach” that offering for the conversion of poor sinners and to make amends for those sins before God.
Now we move to the Third Apparition. She brings up the topic of penance again right before She reveals to them the vision of hell. She even gives them an actual prayer to pray.
Our Lady: Then She went on: “Sacrifice yourselves for sinners and say many times, especially when you make a sacrifice, ‘O Jesus, this is for love of Thee, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for the sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.’”
As members of the Confraternity, I believe that this prayer can help us “attach” our act of penance to the intention of reparation or prayer for conversion. This prayer can be said under your breath even if you are busy or in a room full of people.
The Third Apparition continues with the vision of hell itself. As members of the Confraternity, it is instructive to read it because it increases our resolve to do the daily simple act of penance. We feel that sense of urgency that we should have to help poor sinners.
The Apparition continues:
The first part—The vision of hell
Lucia writes, “Our Lady showed us a great sea of fire which seemed to be under the earth. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke, now falling back on every side like sparks in a huge fire, without weight or equilibrium, and amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear. The demons could be distinguished by their terrifying and repulsive likeness to frightful and unknown animals, all black and transparent. This vision lasted but an instant. How can we ever be grateful enough to our kind heavenly Mother, who had already prepared us by promising, in the first Apparition, to take us to heaven. Otherwise, I think we would have died of fear and terror.”
We marvel at how a Mother could show the pit of hell to such little innocent children. And yet She showed it for a very important reason. She knew from their earlier assent that they would take Her words to heart, and She wanted them to be even stronger in their resolution to do penance in order to help as many people as possible not to go to hell.
The vision of hell had a real impact on them. They started to do many simple penances after it, things like not drinking water and offering their thirst, or giving up their lunch to the poorer children in order to be hungry, and wearing cords around the waist, which Our Lady later tells them to not wear at night.
For us as members of the Confraternity, we can imitate their resolve to do little acts of penance each day like them, offering up our sufferings that come our way and also to choose to do little, simple acts of penance as well. What is more we can do it as if it is an emergency because it is. That is what the vision of hell is all about. It is absolutely critical that we do our simple act of penance each day. Many souls are counting on us to do it.
So what we can do is to try to discern, in the larger penitential context that we discussed earlier, what the simple act of penance ought to be, and if we know a holy priest, then we can ask him if it is reasonable for our state in life.
Moving on to the Fourth Apparition, we can really see the maternal love of Our Lady for her children, especially sinners.
Our Lady was speaking about curing different people, and then changed the topic to the impending doom of those sinners that die unrepentant.
Our Lady: Yes, I will cure some during the year.
Becoming sadder, she recommended anew the practice of mortification, saying lastly, ‘Pray, pray much, and sacrifice for sinners, for many souls go to hell because there is no one to sacrifice and pray for them.’
Again, Our Lady is trying to communicate the absolute urgency of the situation for poor sinners. She is a sad Mother. As members of the Confraternity, we really ought to enter into Her sadness and Her maternal longing that we can help people, especially people in our own families, by offering our daily simple acts of penance for their conversion and for the atonement of their sins. It is all very real and the urgency and the need is very great. She is stressing the urgency but in a different way; this time She is trying to motivate through Her own sadness.
Finally, the last words of Our Lady on the subject of penance in the Apparitions occurs in the Fifth Apparition. It is a great message that Our Lord does receive our offering of penance. In this part of the Apparition, Our Lady asks the children to pray for the end of World War I, and then She sets up what the last Apparition in October would be like.
But then She moves to the discussion about the penance that the children are doing.
She goes on:
Our Lady: Continue to pray the Rosary to obtain the end of the war. In October, Our Lord will also come, as well as Our Lady of Sorrows and Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and Saint Joseph with the Child Jesus, to bless the world. God is pleased with your sacrifices, but He does not want you to sleep with the ropes; wear them only during the day. (The children were wearing ropes around their waists as a sacrifice for sinners.)
There are two points that we can take from these last words on the subject of penance in the Apparitions. First, as members of the Confraternity, we can see that our simple acts of penance must be reasonable and in conformity with our state in life. Our Lady was concerned that the children were not getting enough sleep at night. So She modified their practice and dialed it down to wear the ropes just during the day. Again we can see that we truly must discern what that simple act of penance must be. It really is an individual thing, where if we have the spirit of sacrifice and have really chosen the call of Fatima, we will know what that simple act of penance ought to be for us. Once we have decided what we are going to offer, we should still consult a holy priest and we may have to adjust it, even cut it back to keep it true to our state in life and true to the overall spirit of penance.
Second and closing out this reflection, we see how pleased God is with their little sacrifices. So as members of the Confraternity, when we go about our days and we offer our penances in silence, we must remember that God really is pleased with them. He really does take them up to Himself and then responds according to His economy of grace by giving the grace of conversion to poor sinners. God is really pleased with our simple acts of penance.