Septuagesima is the beginning of the penitential season. We change to the violet vestments and the joyous Alleluia is not heard again until Easter. The Gloria in Excelsis Deo is no longer sung on Sundays, but only on the feasts of the saints. The fast does not begin until Ash Wednesday. But Holy Mother Church wants us to prepare for the fast by considering why we need to do penance.
Penance is required because of sin. First there is Original Sin. This is the sin of nature. All of us who have received human nature from Adam share in the guilt of this sin. The sole exception being the Blessed Virgin Mary who by a unique privilege was exempted from this sin. This we call her Immaculate Conception. She was conceived without sin. Whereas we read of ourselves “For behold I was conceived in iniquities; and in sins did my mother conceive me” [Ps 50:7]. My mother did not sin but my soul when created was in the state of Original Sin. Original sin is the cause of all the evils in the world. Both the natural evils, storms, fires, floods, etc., and the supernatural evils, sins.
Baptism takes away the guilt of Original Sin but it does not restore the gifts that Adam lost by sin and leaves its wounds. Adam fell from the supernatural level on which God created him. We are conceived with fallen nature. The baptised remain subject to death and suffering. We are inclined to evil and wickedness. We suffer from ignorance which makes it easy for us to be wrong; difficult for us to learn many necessary truths; and inclines us to consider the things of this world rather than the eternal things. Human nature is fallen. This is why our life is a warfare. Thus Our Lord tells us “And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away [Mt 11:12]. We must do violence upon ourselves by penance and mortification to conquer our wicked inclinations. Original Sin is a reason to do penance during Lent.
Then there are Social Sins. God made us to be social. That is we live in society. Firstly we are born into a family. We have relatives. Secondly our baptism made us members of the Church. We are part of the Mystical Body of Christ and intimately united to all other Catholics. They are our brethren as we are all children of the one Heavenly Father. Third we are from a village, town or city and part of that society. We also live in a nation or a state of which we are a part. Our true homeland is heaven with God our Father and Mary our Mother but while sojourners in this world we are members of many social bodies.
These societies are often guilty of sin. As members we share in the guilt of these sins. Catholic Families sin when members of those families do not practise the Catholic faith. The sin is greater if some members have abandoned the faith and joined a false religion.
In many Catholic families the children are not educated in the Faith. They do not learn their catechism well. This is a sin. Marriage if for the procreation and education of children. Children who are not taught to know, love and serve God are sinned against. The family is guilty.
Families are broken and divided, actually many children suffer not being born into a family. Some families refuse to bring children into the world. The command was given to Adam, “Increase and multiply, and fill the earth” [Genesis 1,28]. This is a command given to mankind in the person of Adam. The fulfilment of this command is delegated to those who choose to marry. Those who marry have an obligation to bring children into the world for the good of the entire human race. Those who do not marry are forbidden to bring children into the world. Our society discourages and makes it difficult for married persons to have the large families that normally (there are exceptions) God wants them to have. Likewise it permits and encourages unmarried persons to have children. Thus society is sinning by families not have children and by individuals having children. These are great social sins for which penance must be done. There are other sins against the family, e.g., the alphabet sins, that are encouraged in our society, and divorce which destroys a family. All those who live in societies encouraging these sins share in the guilt of these sins. The sin of abortion is a worldwide plague crying to heaven for vengeance; and the sin of euthanasia is not far behind it.
There are also sins of nations. For example those that don’t practise the Catholic Faith. Those that encourage Sunday shopping or work. Those that have institutionalised injustice, by unjust taxes or unjust money or unjust banking laws, or economic laws, or unjust property laws. Certainly most western nations are guilty of all of these sins. These injustices all offend God. The fashions that offend the Immaculate Heart of Mary. So many sins of immodesty.
We also have unjust international laws. International societies, e.g., the UN, WHO, the EU, NATO, UNESCO... are guilty of many injustices and other crimes. Penance must be done for these sins.
Societies are temporal creatures. They do not go into eternity. Since God is infinitely Just these creatures are rewarded for the good they do or punished for their evils in this world. Covid is a sin, and an injustice but it is also as a punishment for the nations.
The Church is the spotless bride of Christ and is incapable of sin. However Churchmen can be guilty of sin. During and after the Council the Popes, Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, Monks and Nuns have been guilty of many public sins. These public sins are against every single commandment. Some of the worst are idolatry, apostasy, perjury (many violated their anti-modernist oath), blasphemy, heresy, scandal, scandal of children, keeping people out of the Church, refusing to teach the faith to all nations, breaking their vows, and many sins of impurity. Much penance must be done for these sins.
There are also Personal Sins. These are the ones for which we bear personal guilt. All the thoughts, words, deeds or omissions against the law of God for which we are daily guilty. We ought to especially consider our own sins during Septuagesima. That we might resolve to give them up and also do penance for them during Lent. We should examine ourselves during these days on the ten Commandments of God. And the commandments of the Church. And our duties of state. Also any negligence in acquiring virtues. It is our own sins that we need to be especially concerned with. If we have a bad habit we must do penance and ask for the grace to conquer this vice. Not only our sins but our imperfections must have penance done for them.
Catholics who are complacent with the state of their soul have the most to worry about. Our Lord set a high standard for us “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect” [Mt. 5,48]. We are called to holiness. Our personal sins and imperfections prevent us from achieving the relative perfection God wants us to acquire. We must not lay down our weapons and call a truce with the world. The world attaches our heart to it and prevents us from loving God with our whole heart. We should constantly try to detach ourselves more and more from the world and its goods and honours. We also cannot call a truce with the flesh. It is always looking for opportunities to rise up in rebellion. We must constantly bring it into subjection by penance. And St. Peter admonishes us “Be sober and watch: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour” [ I Peter 5,8].
It would be good during Septuagesima to spend some time every day considering all the sin in our own souls and the sins in our families and nations, and amongst the Churchmen and determine to do penance during Lent. Our Lady of Fatima especially asked for prayer and penance for the Holy Father, it would be good if we offered sacrifices and prayers for him. Also She asked for prayers and penance for sinners. There are many public sinners that probably have few people praying for them. Almost all politicians fit into this category. Most journalists, newsreaders, actors, actresses, entertainers, bankers, economists, magistrates and judges, and many scientists, and undoubtedly many other fields of employment are corrupt. We should all prepare to do penance during the fast approaching Lent.
During these days we could also read the lives of saints. The Saints are our exemplars. The Church holds them up before us that we might imitate their virtues. That we might convert as they converted. Here is the story of a conversion of a sinner during the time of the Elizabethan persecutions. Philip Howard is Venerable, not a canonized saint, as are many who suffered during that time. Like him we too can convert.
The Venerable Philip Howard was the son of Thomas Howard, fourth Duke of Norfolk, by his first marriage with Mary Fitzalan, daughter and co-heiress of the Earl of Arundel. He was born in the reign of Queen Mary and at his baptism King Philip himself was his godfather; but, nevertheless, he was brought up as a Protestant. By his father’s arrangement Philip was married, at a very tender age, to Anne Dacre, daughter and co-heiress of Lord Dacre of the North, who, with her sisters, was a ward of the Duke’s. The attainder of Duke Thomas prevented his son’s accession to the dignities of the house of Norfolk, but he was still young when he became Earl of Arundel, in virtue of his mother’s right. For a length of time the Earl enjoyed the special favour of Elizabeth, to whom he was nearly related in blood, and followed the follies and vices of her corrupt Court, to the great injury of his character as well of his estate, cruelly neglecting his wife, and squandering his fortune. The question of religion was brought home to him by a disputation, at which he was present, between Fr. Campion and other priests and certain Protestant ministers. He saw how the truth lay; but not feeling disposed to change his life, he endeavoured to banish the subject from his mind.
At length the grace of God reached his heart, and his resolution was taken, in which his brother William joined him, with the arrangement that they should go to Flanders, and remain there until the times were more secure. Suspicions, however, were roused at Court, and the Earl was arrested and severely examined, though, as nothing could be proved, he was in the end released, and took the opportunity of being reconciled to the Church by Fr. Weston, the Jesuit. His manner of life was now totally changed; his conduct henceforth blameless; he became affectionately attentive to his wife, who had also become a Catholic. He devoted himself to exercises of piety and frequent reception of the sacraments. This reformation was so obvious that the suspicions of the Court were confirmed, and his enemies resolved to make it the occasion of his ruin. Foreseeing this, the Earl determined to carry out his original plan of retiring to the Continent; but he had scarcely embarked when the vessel was stopped by order of the Council, and he was taken prisoner. This was in the year 1585, and then began that long confinement and series of hardships which ended only with his life, ten years later. He was frequently examined, and the chief charges against him were his attempt to leave the kingdom without the Queen’s licence, and his reconciliation with the Church of Rome. The result was that he was fined ten thousand pounds and sentenced to prison during the Queen’s pleasure.
For some time he had considerable liberty within the Tower, and he and other Catholics contrived to have Mass celebrated; and as it was about the time of the Spanish Armada, the Earl persuaded some of the Catholic prisoners to join in prayer for twenty-four hours, to avert the dangers threatening their fellow-Catholics. This was treacherously reported, and interpreted as a prayer for the success of the invasion, especially as he had often spoken with affection for his godfather King Philip. His trial for high treason followed, and as a matter of course, his condemnation to death. The order, however, for his execution was never given, and he was left to linger in prison, treated with great severity and never allowed to see his wife, towards whom Elizabeth had a violent dislike. Nothing could be more edifying than his conduct during this interval. His prayer was almost continual, his fasts frequent, his meekness and charity most edifying, and his forgiveness of all was without reserve.
He studied and wrote, translated the Epistle of our Lord to the devout soul by Lanspergius, and wrote several treatises himself, which, however, he was not able to complete. At length the time came when, worn out by the sufferings of his prison, he was to yield up his soul to God, which he did with singular tranquillity and devotion, on the 19th October, 1595. By some it was suspected that his death, which could in no case have been distant, was accelerated by poison. In the year 1624, his pious widow obtained permission from the King to remove his venerated remains to Arundel.
Excerpted from: A Menology of England and Wales, by Richard Stanton, Priest of the Oratory, London. Burns and Oates, Limited, 1887