The Catechism of the Catholic Church
1459 Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused.62 Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must “make satisfaction for” or “expiate” his sins. This satisfaction is also called “penance.”
A teenage boy is in very hot water with his dad. He got so mad during dinner he swore at him went out in the yard, ripped out all the flowers, stomped through the raspberry patch and tipped over the lawn mower, causing it to break.
The parents send him to his room, and they spend time considering. Their hearts ache for many reasons, but first and foremost for their son, who is now separated (by necessity!) from the family; fellowship is broken. After an hour the son comes downstairs, contrite, but not perfectly so. He also has real idea how much damage he has done, how much pain he has caused. Much has been harmed, not the least his very heart and soul where a wound is forming a scab: acting this way once makes it harder to avoid acting this way again—a very serious matter which calls for serious measures.
On the basis of his apology, the boy is allowed to finish his meal, alone, but Dad sits within earshot. When the boy is done, the father calls him over to the couch. On the basis of his apology, which had some real but incomplete sincerity, the boy is forgiven. The dad makes it very clear to the son that he loves him; has always loved him; will always love him; and not because of anything he does or does not do, but on the basis of his being a son. But he also spells out the logical consequences of the son’s behavior. The damage is considerable. Some of the flowers are irreparably damaged, the boy will need to go to the nursery and buy new ones out of his allowance money. He will work a certain number of hours in the garden every day tending the flowers that can still be salvaged. He must also attempt to bring back the raspberries, at least for next year. The lawn mower will need to be repaired.
His father provides the tools, the allowance, the car to drive to the nursery and the lawn-mower repair. The boy provides only the will to do what is right and the time and energy to do it. Every evening the father comes out to help the boy with heavy lifting. He stays in the garden after the boy goes to bed to make sure the next day’s work is exactly appropriate for the boy’s skills and energy.
As the next weeks proceed, the garden begins to flourish again and the boy also begins to change. He begins to understand the value of his family’s garden; he now sees just how damaging his behavior was. As he gains these insights his contrition (sorrow for sin) grows towards the size of his misdeed. But more than equal to the growing contrition is a growing joy. As he spends more time in the garden his love for his dad and for the garden blooms.
Most important is the healing of his inner wound, in his conscience. Because he has participated in a real way, in his own redemption, his conscience is liberated. He is liberated from acting out in such a way the next time. In a sense he is being saved from himself. He could not have done any of this without the love and care of his father, but it also would not have happened without his cooperation.
This is a short little parable to show some of the aspects of how a Catholic’s relationship to God is restored. He can do nothing on his own, and there is no “earning” God’s love. Yet restoration does not happen without his cooperation. The striking quality is how doing the reparative work (penance) serves to form him in love. The penalty—doing the extra work—is imposed, it is mandatory, and it is necessary. Notice also that it is real. The boy’s work actually brings something about and is a real part of the whole redemptive story