I find myself increasingly drawn to a lay association called the Confraternity of Penitents. Why? As I’ve grown in my faith, I’ve increasingly come to see that the Lord really does demand of us a “giving up” — not just in principle but in reality. I think He’s saying being a follower shouldn’t be a bed of roses. While he doesn’t expect us to be penniless and sleeping on a storm grate, but he does expect us to carry a real cross — daily experience a bit of discomfort as we put Him first.
Ordinary Catholics used to live under a set of rules that did that: Our ancestors in the faith, for instance, didn’t eat meat on Fridays — ever. Today, except for the Fridays of Lent, it’s fine to eat meat anytime. They had a bunch of Holy Days of Obligation. Today, the number has been drastically reduced. Our Catholic radio talkers often talk about how secular we have become — and they are right. It’s very hard, these days, to tell many a Catholic from an Episcopalian, and in some cases, from an atheist.
And yet, on Sundays, that doesn’t seem to be what Jesus is telling us. He told one person to “sell all you have, give to the poor, and follow me.” To others, he said, “take up your cross daily and follow me.”
To be sure, some groups are swimming against the tide. Opus Dei, for instance, has as a primary mission helping Catholics achieve personal sanctification. That includes a set of norms — Daily mass, scriptural reading, daily Rosary, mental prayer — that is well beyond what most Catholics do. And for full-time members of Opus Dei — those called numeraries — there’s more: Celibacy and wearing a celice two hours a day.
Order of Malta requires a real commitment to defense of the faith and personal service to the sick and the poor, and the Lourdes Pilgrimage where at one’s own expense, one helps the sick and the poor. Lay Carmelites are expected to pray extensively, to be active in their Carmelite community and to serve the poor.
Some writer called Opus Dei “Catholicism on steroids.” That’s a pretty good description of the Confraternity of Penitents: It has a rigorous practices its members are called to perform every day in their own homes, and without attracting a lot of attention.
Members are expected to pray a lot — about 90 minutes a day; to eat only two meals a day; to abstain from meat 208 days a year; to fast about one-third of the year; to wear unpatterned, inexpensive clothing that is modest, solidly neutral or blue in color; to avoid as much as possible the use of jewelry, perfumes, aftershaves or cosmetics, in short any clothing or other things that would attract attention to the penitent, and to always wear a visible cross. “When people see you, they should see the (visible) cross,” not the clothing one is wearing, one person was told.
Would you want to live this lifestyle? Would I? I’ll share with you my reflections on the cost of commitment in coming weeks.