Penance, Yes; Extreme Ritual, No

By Fr. Michael Carr
Casper Star-Tribune [Wyoming]
Downloaded April 26, 2004

The news of the actions of Anthony Jablonowski, his strange and inappropriate behavior, the question "was this behavior religious or sexual?" and labeling it as church ritual has prompted this reflection.

The Catholic Church believes in the beauty of all creation. God created all things good, Genesis tells us, and God created humankind as the greatest of his creatures. Pope John Paul II has, in the last 20 years, emphasized the holiness of humankind, our bodies and spirits including our sexuality, in his "Theology of the Body." Our bodies and all their parts are created good.

In the Middle Ages, especially around the 11th Century, church practice, particularly in monastic life, included penitential practice of self-whipping with cords and even chains or the wearing of hair shirts or other very rough and extremely uncomfortable clothing. This was also sometimes applied as a punishment in monasteries. Sin and evil were recognized in very different terms in those days and the body was often seen as a necessary evil. They recognized Christ's suffering for their sins and were encouraged to join in those sufferings of Christ. Extreme practices, which developed, have subsequently been condemned by the Church and disappeared, except for some moderate forms under the direction of a competent spiritual director.

Prayer and act of penance continue to be part and parcel of Christian life. We have just ended our season of Lent, where Catholics and Christians are encouraged to pray and do acts of self-denial, such as missing a meal or not eating meat on Friday. These acts of mortification are meant to lead us out of materialism and self-centeredness to a deeper relationship with our God.

Anthony Jablonowski's "penance practices" were not Church ritual at all. At best they were an extremely exaggerated form of self-denial and at worst they were deviant, sinful behavior. They have no relationship to the normal practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where we ask our priest to pray with us and impart the healing mercy of Jesus Christ. In the name of the Church, I express deep sorrow and profoundly apologize to his victims. The Diocese of Cheyenne and I continue to encourage counseling for those still impacted by the trauma and pledge to work with them as best we can for their complete restoration of peace. I pray for their healing and for that of Anthony.

The Catholic faith is rich in its belief about the sanctity of human life and the beauty of creation. Our bodies are miraculous gifts. May we all grow in our appreciation of self and our respect for the inherent dignity of each individual. As St. Paul says, "Because you are God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with heartfelt mercy, with kindness, humility, meekness and patience ... Over all these virtues put on love, which binds the rest together and makes them perfect ... Whatever you do, whether in speech or in action, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." Col. 3.

(Fr. Michael Carr is the pastor of St. Anthony's parish in Casper and a native of Cheyenne. He is the Vicar General for the Diocese of Cheyenne. The Vicar General serves as vice president of the Diocesan Corporation and is the Bishop's first assistant in the administration of the Diocese.)


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