2. The Catholic Church has noted with joy that almost everywhere and at all times penitence has held a place of great importance, since it is closely linked with the intimate sense of religion which pervades the life of most ancient peoples as well as with the more advanced expressions of the great religions connected with the progress of culture.
In the Old Testament the religious sense of penitence is revealed with even greater richness. Even though man generally has recourse to it in the aftermath of sin to placate the wrath of God, or on the occasion of grave calamities, or when special dangers are imminent, or in any case to obtain benefits from the Lord, we can nevertheless establish that external penitential practices are accompanied by an inner attitude of "conversion," that is to say of condemnation of and detachment from sin and of striving toward God. One goes without food or gives away his property (fasting is generally accompanied not only by prayer but also by alms) even after sins have been forgiven and independently of a request for graces. One fasts or applies physical discipline to "chastise one's own soul," to "humble oneself in the sight of his own God," to "turn one's face toward Jehovah," to "dispose oneself to prayer," to "understand" more intimately the things which are divine or to prepare oneself for the encounter with God.
Penance therefore -- already in the Old Testament -- is a religious, personal act which has as its aim love and surrender to God: fasting for the sake of God, not for one's own self. Such it must remain also in the various penitential rites sanctioned by law. When this is not verified, the Lord is displeased with His people: "Today you have not fasted in a way which will make your office heard on high.... Rend your heart and not your garments, and return to the Lord your God." The social aspect of penitence is not lacking in the Old Testament. In fact, the penitential liturgies of the Old Covenant are not only a collective awareness of sin but constitute in reality a condition for belonging to the people of God.
We can further establish that penitence was represented even before Christ as a means and a sign of perfection and sanctity. Finally, we find among the just ones of the Old Testament those who offered themselves to satisfy with their own personal penitence for the sins of the community. All this, however, was but a foreshadowing of things to come. Penitence -- required by the inner life, confirmed by the religious experience of mankind and the object of a particular precept of divine revelation -- assumes "in Christ and the Church" new dimensions infinitely broader and more profound. The preeminently interior and religious character of penitence and the new wondrous aspects which it assumes "in Christ and in the Church" neither excludes nor lessens in any way the external practice of this virtue, but on the contrary reaffirms its necessity with particular urgency and prompts the Church -- always attentive to the signs of the times -- to seek, beyond fast and abstinence, new expressions more suitable for the realization, according to the character of various epochs, of the precise goal of penitence. Although penitence may be practised through abstinence from meat and fasting, other forms of penitence have been ratified to replace the observance of fast and abstinence with exercises of prayer and works of charity. (Papal Writings, Paenitemini, 1966).
2. In primitive societies and informal communities, it becomes the declaration of social mistakes and injustice. Often, the priest or ruler will publically atone to call attention to social abuses.
3. As a factor in social change, atonement insists on constant reflection and personal responsibility for the broken relationships within society.
4. Doing penance for one's sins is a first step towards obtaining forgiveness and winning eternal salvation. That is the clear and explicit teaching of Christ, and no one can fail to see how justified and how right the Catholic Church has always been in constantly insisting on this. She is the spokesman for her divine Redeemer. No individual Christian can grow in perfection, nor can Christianity gain in vigour, except it be on the basis of penance. The very frequency with which this call to penance is reiterated makes it imperative for Christians to recognize it as coming from the divine Redeemer for the purpose of bringing about their spiritual renewal. (Papal Encyclical, Paenitentiam Agere, 1 July 1962).
5. Penance then is, as it were, a salutary weapon placed in the hands of the valiant soldiers of Christ, who wish to fight for the defence and restoration of the moral order in the universe. It is a weapon that strikes right at the root of all evil, that is at the lust of material wealth and the wanton pleasures of life. By means of voluntary sacrifices, by means of practical and even painful acts of self-denial, by means of various works of penance, the noble-hearted Christian subdues the base passions that tend to make him violate the moral order. But if zeal for the divine law and brotherly love are as great in him as they should be, then not only does he practice penance for himself and his own sins, but he takes upon himself the expiation of the sins of others, imitating the Saints who often heroically made themselves victims of reparation for the sins of whole generations, imitating even the divine Redeemer, who became the Lamb of God "who taketh away the sins of the world" (Io. i. 29). (Papal Encyclical, Caritate Christi Compulsi, 3 May 1932).
2. Public atonement rites can dramatize the negative actions of individuals to the disruption of societal life.