Penitential Practices

The first Franciscan School Sisters of Maribor, founded by Mother Pucher, were religious of the Third Order of St. Francis of Assisi. Some of the older sisters: Sr. Regina Gosak, Sr. Aleksija Erzar and Sr. Scolastica Zurman, used to tell us that the sisters of the young Congregation led a life of great penance. After the example of St. Francis they mortified their bodies using several penitential practices for this purpose.  They would get up at night to pray; sleep on hard cots, fast, and deny themselves certain foods. On Fridays they would endure thirst in order to remember our Redeemer who thirsted while dying on the cross. On Saturdays, in honor of the Blessed Mother, they abstained from fruit, etc. They were zealous and bore the difficulties of daily life silently, aware that they were members of the Order of Penitents of St. Francis.  Some of these acts of penance remained in effect until the new Constitutions of 1922.  Some even endured until the post-conciliar period. Several of these practices  will be enumerated here:

The hairshirt, as a means of penance, was actually made of movable pieces of metal.  It was placed directly on the skin and at every step or movement, while working or bending over, it caused pain, and sometimes even wounds. This depended on the zeal of the individual and on the way it was worn. Those who wore it did so for love of the suffering Jesus, in reparation for the sins of the world, for the conversion of sinners, or so that our Lord might spare the world the punishments it deserves for sin and not obeying God’s commandments, etc.

At the time of my aspirancy and novitiate (1916-1920), there were about ten elderly sisters in the Motherhouse who were wearing the hairshirt. We recognized them from their manner of walking and moving about. If they made a sudden move while writing on the blackboard in class, they trembled with pain.  We younger sisters never used such an instrument of penance, but our Novice Directress, Sr. Aleksija Erzar, had shown us three types of hairshirts and explained their use.

A second penitential practice, used as a reminder of Jesus’ flagellation, was the weekly use of the discipline.28 Many biographies of saints mention the use of this instrument. Although its use was suppressed in our Congregation,29 several other religious Congregations continued its practice, and on the part of some individual sisters it did not disappear.

In Mother Margareta’s time, and also in my time, fasting or abstinence, and the renunciation of certain foods (meat, sweets, fruit, wine, eating one full meal a day, renunciation of recreation etc.) were still rather rigorously observed, not only by religious, but also by all the faithful.  With time the Church has mitigated these practices. Fasting on bread and water still remains in many places.30 I know some mothers who fast on bread and water for several months so that God might bless their children and return them to the right path. In addition, they recite rosary after rosary - the price of maternal love!

In the convent, we rigorously followed the prescriptions of the Church. The superiors, however, only allowed the sisters who were in good health to perform penances.  Some sisters, impelled by zeal, obtained permission to practice certain penitential acts from their confessors, but they did this without the knowledge of their superiors. Mother Margareta, while assuming the confessors had acted in good faith, nevertheless humbly asked them not to give the sisters permission  to do such penances. She told them that some of these zealous sisters had delicate health, and she was afraid they would become ill.  Another consideration was that since the sisters already worked so hard, such penances would damage their health. The Community did not want this.

We do not know if the confessors accepted with understanding this humble request of Mother Margareta. However, from that time on no Sister, no matter how zealous she was, received permission for particular penitential acts.

On one occasion during recreation, Mother Margareta talked about other acts of penance that were not so harmful to one’s health. She suggested for example, the practice of self-control, which in a way is tied to self-discipline. She cited two habits that would be good to eliminate without any damage to one’s health: these were curiosity and the unnecessary talk that often occurred outside of the allotted times and places.

According to Sr. Regina Gosak, Mother Margareta suggested, either in teasing or seriousness, that we could offer an act most pleasing to God if we could limit our curiosity. She said, “I knew a person who did not look out the window, eavesdrop, or read romantic novels during the entire period of Lent.”

Perhaps today if Mother Margareta were here she would caution against watching certain TV programs.

The importance of silence was close to Mother Margareta’s heart, as can be inferred by the previous section on silence.  She emphasized its value on many occasions.  Therefore, it was not unusual that she included it in her ideas on spiritual fasting.

There were many occasions for this type of fasting from morning till evening, during the summer or winter, inside the convent or without, on the stairways or in the halls, in the dormitories, in chapel and during work time. According to Mother Margareta, when silence was observed sincerely and for a good intention, it was a healthy way of fasting that was suitable for persons of all ages and every life style.  She recommended that we meditate on the value of silence in our spiritual life and learn from the example of those religious orders who practice strict silence.  

An excellent model in the practice of silence was the Blessed Virgin. She had much she could have said to the world about herself and about her Son Jesus, but she preferred to remain silent and “to dwell on all these things in her heart.”  As the evangelist tells us, Jesus was silent in the presence of the Jewish tribunal. It is written for all time and for all generations, “..and Jesus made no answer.” (Lk 23:9)

Mother Margareta did not forget to point out to us the examples of our older sisters, who spoke little and appreciated silence. They sanctified their silence with a good intention and by offering it in reparation for all the murmuring, deceit, calumny, quarrels, and other offenses, such as scandalous speech, swearing, etc.

She was concerned that the sisters who should be sowing good seeds in their religious lives would also find sown among them the bad seeds of misunderstanding, quarrels, careless words, and hasty decisions. These cause hurts that are not easily forgotten. She said,

For this reason I desire that the sisters remember Jesus who, under the appearance of the Host, comes into our hearts. Do not dishonor Him with empty words which have no lasting value, and are, therefore, not suitable for persons consecrated to God.”

In view of this “spiritual fasting,” Mother Margareta fostered the custom that before leaving the convent the sisters would kneel and ask the superior for a blessing with holy water. The superior would make the sign of the cross on their foreheads.  They asked for a blessing also upon returning, and related to the superior what they had accomplished. The sisters received this same blessing every time they requested to work at night, to be temporarily absent from community prayer, or when they needed to do extra study on their own.

We novices were most edified to see with what respect and humility the elderly sisters, themselves formerly superiors, requested what they needed as they knelt before their present superiors, many of whom were much younger than they were.

Some of these exemplary religious were: the ex-Superiors General, Mother Angelina Krizanic, and Mother Stanislava Voh; the principal of the Teachers’ Institute, Sr. Luitgardis Schweiger; and other important members of the teaching staff of the religious community. I cannot also neglect to mention the many other humble and simple sisters who never neglected the customs of religious life.

Mother Margareta recommended these practices of spiritual fasting in reparation for the sins of disobedience, of irreverence, of quarreling in families between parents and children, and for the neglect by their children of elderly parents in need of the necessities of life.

The chapter of faults was one of the ordinary acts of penance in the Congregation.  It took place every weekend. During this  practice we publicly accused ourselves for acts of negligence we had committed during the week, or we said what we had thoughtlessly or unwittingly omitted, for example: the care of the religious habit or items in the convent or classroom, forgetting to close the windows or lock the doors at night, not extinguishing the lights or the fire in the stove, leaving electrical equipment plugged in, wasting time or neglecting something in the daily schedule, leaving the convent without permission, and doing other things which did not seem appropriate for a conscientious religious, yet which were not matters for sacramental confession. With Vatican II this penitential practice was also eliminated.  

In this regard, I would like to mention something Sr. Fabijana Neuwirth told me in 1923 concerning the last chapter of faults that Sr. Margareta attended in the Motherhouse at Maribor, in the presence of all the sisters who were gathered there on New Year’s Eve 1900.  Because of her advanced age31 she was restricted to bed. Having heard that the sisters were to gather for the chapter of faults after evening prayer, Sr. Margareta requested that the superior, Sr. Scolastica Zurman, assist her in coming to the refectory, because she wished to be part of the chapter of faults. Sr. Scolastica satisfied her request.

The sisters were pleased to have her present and immediately prepared a chair for her. However, Sr. Margareta did not wish to be seated.  With great effort she knelt down, using the chair as a support, and in all seriousness made her chapter of faults.  After she finished, while still on her knees, she clasped her hands and asked pardon from the religious Community for having been so stern and uncompromising in regard to the observance of the religious rules, the daily schedule, and the customs of our Congregation.
 
She thanked the sisters present for their willingness to do all that their superiors had asked them to do for the good of the religious community, so that it could accomplish the purpose for which it was founded.  She thanked them for responding when God called them, and for

coming to us, the School Sisters of Maribor. Faithful to your religious vows, you have dedicated all your energies and talents with great sacrifice. You have prepared yourselves for the activity of our Congregation, and have contributed by your presence to the expansion of our work beyond the city of Maribor to the establishment of local communities of our Congregation, not only in Slovenia, but also in other countries.

I am happy and I thank God, Our Lady of the Rosary, St. Joseph, and you, dear Sisters, for your help, support, and prayers, for your sacrifices and faithfulness to the work of our Congregation.  God has blessed our activity of educating the children. In accord with the desire of Bishop Slomšek and our own desires, we have dedicated all our energies primarily to the poor and the abandoned children of our city. I thank you for dedicating yourselves to this work with maternal hearts. Now, one no longer sees abandoned children in the streets of Maribor. However, all the poverty is not eliminated.  

May our schools remain faithful to the founding charism.  May care and education be devoted in the first place to the children of  poor families, and then to those who are able to pay the scholastic fees. In addition, minister so that we never show a distinction between the poor and the rich.  I am convinced that this good work of our Franciscan Institution will be crowned with God’s blessing.
                                                                                        
For the year 1901, which we are about to begin, I repeat my best wishes already given - for good health and blessings on your activities with the young.  I wish that a reverent, holy and fraternal charity continue to reign among you into the future, as well as a love and faithfulness to our Institute, even when you are laboring in dioceses of other countries outside Slovenia.

I beg you, remain people of prayer, humble and simple, faithful to God according to your religious vows and to your superiors, faithful religious of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis who was humble, simple, and an obedient imitator of Jesus crucified. This humble, obedient, poor Christ of St. Francis is our incarnate God, who, because of the will of His Father and for love of us poor sinners, delivered His sacred body to the passion and death on the cross.  He alone is worthy to be My God and my all.

Dear Sisters, I would like this prayer of our Seraphic Father Francis to become the constant prayer of our consecrated lives. Let it be present in all we do during the day, in our joys, our sufferings, in prayer, in repentance, in gratitude, in the recognition of our shortcomings and the evil inclinations of our nature, which often beckon our egos to want to say, “I am better. I am more successful. In comparison to me, others are insignificant.” Perhaps pharisaically we even think, “... I am not like that publican!”  And there are other examples where our nature in its weakness wants to be enthroned.

I beg you, therefore, dear Sisters, let this prayer be on your lips from morning until evening, in every circumstance of your lives, “My God and my all!”  When we pray for ourselves, our sisters, our superiors, our Congregation, for the young, for families, for strangers, and for all those who are in our country and in the Church, may it be our supplication and affirmation.  May this prayer, “My God and my all” be ever in your lives and in mine, in your hearts and in mine - hearts consecrated to God.

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28. Translator’s note:  In the North American province this was a practice brought over by the first Sisters in 1909.  The discipline consisted of  five twisted cords of about a foot and a half in length, bound together at one end to form a handle. It was used as a penitential practice on Fridays during the year, and on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent. (See the Archive room of the North American Province for more information, as well as an actual discipline that has been preserved.)

29. Translator’s Note: Mother Teresa Vidan suppressed  the use of the discipline in the North American Province when she came for visitation in the fall of 1959.

30. Translator’s note: Our sisters in the Province of Mostar esteem fasting as a method for attuning the mind and senses to God’s presence in their lives. Every year there are several retreats in which the participants are guided through proper ways of fasting, and fasting as an aid for prayer.  Almost all the sisters of the Mostar Province have made this retreat one year or another.

31. Translator’s note: Sr. Margareta was 82, an advanced age for that day.