“Offer up your sufferings.” “I’m offering to God my fasting and prayers today.” “I have a horrible headache. It will be hard but I will offer this up to God.” For a Catholic, the principle of “offering up” is engrained in our vocabulary. What exactly though does it mean? And by extension, what is penance? Our Lady of Fatima repeatedly called for penance, but what exactly is penance? What is redemptive suffering? What can be offered up to God, and how do we do it?
It used to be quite common for Catholics undergoing some trial to be told by either their parish priest or some good Catholic friend to offer up their suffering for the souls in Purgatory. We don’t hear that kind of talk much anymore, largely because so many Catholics, including some parish priests, have pretty much abandoned, at least in practice, the whole notion of Purgatory and redemptive suffering.
Where this is most noticeable is at the funeral services held for Catholics. Sadly, most funeral homilies sound more like canonization speeches, where the deceased is treated as a canonized saint who doesn’t need prayers, and then they offer petitions for prayer for the decedent. So many times, even bishops and Cardinals speak of the dead person as if he were already in Heaven, having no need to be purified by even a brief stay in Purgatory. So many modern-day clerics see the funeral Mass as an occasion only to give comfort and consolation to the survivors, and not as what it primarily and fundamentally is: an occasion to offer intercessory prayer for a deceased loved one. And we have even forgotten the importance of praying for the “faithful departed” and not merely “the dead.”
What Is Penance?
Our Lord tells us, as recorded in Scripture, “Unless you shall do penance, you shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). And St. John the Baptist announced the coming of the Savior with the admonition, “Do penance: for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).
What though is penance? We often use the word without understanding its various meanings. The Father Hardon Dictionary defines penance as:
“The virtue or disposition of heart by which one repents of one’s own sins and is converted to God. Also the punishment by which one atones for sins committed, either by oneself or by others. And finally the sacrament of penance, where confessed sins committed after baptism are absolved by a priest in the name of God. (Etym. Latin paenitentia, repentance, contrition.)”
So, penance may refer to repentance for sin, to the Sacrament of Confession, or to “the punishment by which one atones for sins committed, either by oneself or by others.”
When we do penance, we make satisfaction to God for our sins. As mentioned in a previous article on Purgatory, our sins demand justice to God. When we sin, we incur both a guilt and a punishment for the debt. The eternal guilt that would sentence a soul to hell (for mortal sins) is removed by the Sacrament of Confession, or in rare circumstances by a perfect act of contrition. The debt, however, remains on the soul and must be “paid” to God before a soul can be admitted to Heaven.
We share a responsibility to make restitution to God for our debts and those of our family, our friends, our fellow citizens, and everyone on earth. Every sin on earth wounds all of us, since it is an offense of our race against the One True God of the Universe.
The debt we owe to God may be paid in the form of indulgences (which are various holy works or prayers that the Church possesses by virtue of the authority granted by Christ to bind and loose) or by our own sufferings. Those sufferings, if they are borne with patience and resignation while in the state of sanctifying grace, help to pay the debt to Almighty God. Thus, we do not just “offer up” abstinence from meat or dessert during Lent. We can offer up everything – our prayers, our sufferings, our good works, our disappointments, our joys, and our entire lives.
“I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”
Understanding penance is the key to understanding the otherwise cryptic remark of St. Paul: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the Church” (Colossians 1:24).
What could possibly be lacking in the sufferings of Christ?
Our Lord Jesus Christ, by His death on the Cross, has made restitution to God for all the sins of mankind committed before His Crucifixion, committed contemporaneously with His death, and all those that will be committed until the end of time. His sufferings were truly complete in the fullest sense, because they not only made infinite reparation but also “speaking generically, He did endure every human suffering” (Summa Theologica, Third Part, Question 46, Article 5).
But there is one thing “missing” from His sufferings. And that is our participation. Your participation. My participation. Every baptized Catholic’s participation in His Sacrifice. The only thing lacking in Christ’s sufferings is our union with them.
In commenting on this verse, Pope Benedict XVI remarked:
“Jesus, Whose divine love alone can redeem all humanity, wants us to share His Cross so that we can complete what is still lacking in His suffering (cf. Col 1:24). Whenever we show kindness to the suffering, the persecuted, and defenseless, and share in their sufferings, we help to carry that same Cross of Jesus. In this way, we obtain salvation and help contribute to the salvation of the world.”
While we are talking about redemptive suffering, we should not forget that not all suffering is redemptive. When we think of the martyrs and their suffering, we are forced to recognize that their suffering was imposed from without. Quite literally, they died for their faith. Much suffering in our lives is the result and natural consequence of our own misdeeds. As harsh as this may sound, a lifelong two-pack-a-day smoker should not be expecting abundant graces from Heaven for enduring the pain of cancer – at least not on the same scale as one who takes a bullet for Jesus. And even more of our sufferings are the result of the supernatural consequences of our sins and those of others.
Yet, we know that in God’s plan for the world, suffering exists. He ultimately permits evil that good may come of it. It does not matter how terrible the evil may be, if we offer it up in union with Christ’s Cross, then we can gain eternal merit and much grace for ourselves and others. What’s more, the supernatural good which comes from such an act of redemptive suffering far outweighs the natural evil. Here we clearly see the absolute and infinite power of God! Every plot, attack, and temptation of the devil can actually be foiled – and turned to good!
Offer it up
So how do we offer something up? It’s simple!
First, one must be in the state of grace. So make a good Confession regularly (once a week is an excellent habit).
Second, accept the inconvenience, trial, or hardship with a ‘good attitude’ – that is, with Christian virtue and patient resignation to the Will of God.
Third, have the conscious intent to offer it up and do so with a prayer. You can do this in the moment the unpleasant event occurs, sometime thereafter, or even have the habitual intent to offer up every suffering by praying a good Morning Offering each day. Brief ejaculatory prayers are excellent for this purpose, as well as one of the Seven Fatima Prayers: “O Jesus, I offer this for love of Thee, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”
With these three simple steps you can offer up anything and everything!
May those of us who are faithful to Our Lady and the requests of Our Lady of Fatima never let a single day pass when we do not offer up to God through the intercession of Our Lady all our prayers, works, joys, and sufferings. And may we especially offer up our trials throughout the day and make up what is “lacking” in the sufferings of Christ this Lent and always.
 As per Catholic tradition, a Requiem Mass is also offered for the deceased person three days after the burial, seven days after the burial, and thirty days after the burial. These three additional Masses are so important that the liturgical rubrics even has them supersede a Lenten day or saint’s feast day. (You will find these Masses after the Rite of Burial in many missals.)
 On this point, Dr. Peter Kwasniewski wrote a good analysis some years ago, viewable at http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2013/10/do-we-pray-for-dead-or-for-faithful.html
 Our prayers, fasting, and almsgiving during Lent do no profit for our souls if we are in the state of mortal sin. We can gain merit and atone for sin only if we are in the state of grace. As the Father Hardon Dictionary reminds us, the state of grace is the “condition of a person who is free from mortal sin and pleasing to God. It is the state of being in God’s friendship and the necessary condition of the soul at death in order to attain heaven.” Thus, this is a baptized person who does not have mortal sin on his soul. There is nothing more important in life than living in the state of grace, since the state of our soul at the moment of death determines our ultimate eternal destiny in either Heaven or Hell.
 I encourage everyone to make the Total Consecration to Jesus through Mary as practiced by St. Louis de Montfort. He writes: “This devotion is a secure means of going to Jesus Christ, because it is the very characteristic of our Blessed Lady to conduct us surely to Jesus, just as it is the very characteristic of Jesus to conduct us surely to the Eternal Father.”
 Stop and reflect upon this passage of Scripture. To the Protestant mindset, it is completely unfathomable. To a Catholic it would even appear as heretical, except for the fact that it is found in the inspired and inerrant word of God. So how can the Holy Ghost state that there is something ‘lacking’ in the Perfect Sacrifice of the perfect God-man? Here we are touching upon the profound mystery of the Incarnate Christ – He who is One with His Mystical Body, the Catholic Church.
 Vatican translation of one of the meditations and prayers that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger prepared for the Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum in Rome on Good Friday of 2005.
 If we are not in the habit, start praying the Daily Offering every morning. One good option can be found in the Raccolta, online at http://www.liturgialatina.org/raccolta/almighty.htm#164. Another good option is to memorize this prayer: “O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer Thee my prayers, works, joys and sufferings, all that this day may bring, be they good or bad: for the love of God, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for all the sins committed against the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”