The teachings of the Catholic Church may be summarized into four general headings: Repentance, Faith, Hope and Charity. The last three are infused theological virtues, gifts from God and humanly unattainable. In effect, Repentance is man's only human effort in the work of salvation, though still with the help of grace.
The Old Testament taught Repentance, John the Baptist being its last preacher. In the New Testament, Christ perfected the doctrine; and the Apostles preached this perfected version of Repentance. So did the Fathers of the Church, those who followed the Apostles. Later on the other great preachers also preached repentance. Among them were St. Wilfrid, Savonarola, and St. Louis de Montfort. The Popes, in different ways, reminded us of the need to repent. In these last days Mary herself has urged us to repent, from La Sallete to Fatima.
Christ emphasized the importance of repentance by living his 30 years of hidden life "repenting" but for our instruction. This hidden life was picked up by the early Christians in the form of the monastic life. Thus St. Benedict wrote in his Holy Rule that the life of a monk is a life-long Lenten observance of repentance. In fact, St. John Climacus divided his work "The Ladder" into 30 chapters, representing the 30 years of hidden life of Christ and the spiritual activities that make up the life of Repentance.
Is repentance truly so difficult as to give the prophets a difficult time preaching it in the Old Testament? Neither did Christ have an easy time teaching it in the New Testament. Neither did the Fathers of the Church and the Saints find it easy. The Blessed Virgin at Fatima included a threat to her invitation to repent. But the fulfilment of the threats made at Fatima showed that mankind failed to repent. Perhaps some did but, like in Sodom and Gomorrah, the number was not good enough for God to hold back His threat.
God wills to give us the three theological, infused virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity if we have the proper disposition. Repentance disposes us to be worthy. The way towards these three virtues are easy, especially if we are like children. But when we become adults we pile up obstacles to these virtues. Repentance removes the obstacles, aside from preserving the initial innocence of childhood.
But then again, why does repentance seem so difficult? Well, it really isn't, because it is an act of grace, and therefore, easy. First, we must remove the wrong concept from our minds that repentance is merely that brief moment we spend examining our conscience, then confessing our sins to the priest, then receiving absolution, and finally saying a number of Hail Marys given us as penance, and then . . . that's it! No, that is merely external repentance. But internal repentance, as Sts. Benedict, Ambrose and Augustine described it, is a way of life that lasts for life. The first monasteries and convents were for life-time internal repentance. A sin is an offence against an infinite God and restitution has to be made for a lifetime.
The beginnings of the life of repentance must include an act of supernatural Faith, motivated by Hope of receiving forgiveness, and the fear of God which is enlivened by Charity and aided by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Note that the junction where Repentance, Faith, Hope, Charity and the Fear of the God meet are all works of God. What takes effort and time is approaching the junction to dispose ourselves to receive those graces.
True repentance can only be had by living a monastic life, as St. Benedict mentions in his Rule.
And the steps for repentance are clearly and specifically enumerated in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The 30 chapters of "The Ladder" of St. John Climacus can be summarized into the 5 steps of the same Parable.
The parable has splendidly enumerated the 5 steps of repentance that can lead us back to God. If we do the first step well, the next steps would follow easily. (The parable also enumerates the 5 steps we take to depart from God.)
The first step towards repentance is coming to oneself: "he (the Prodigal Son) came into himself." This is similar to the exhortation to "take heed," which St. John Chrysostom commented on. Everything in the world today prevents us from going into oneself. Everything is luring our intellect and free will to focus on things outside ourselves. The external stimuli is so overwhelming we almost have no choice but to be lured to them. The lusts of the flesh and of the eyes make us commit sin and keep us in our sins. And the devil sees to it that new inventions, new foods, new tourist spots fill the earth that will attract our attention. And our priests are not spared by this siren call.
Thus the first rule of Christ's hidden life and adopted by the monastic movement is "fuga mundo." It is easier to flee the world now than undergo the misfortunes of the Prodigal Son to learn our lesson. And both St. Augustine and St. Benedict emphasized the importance of being free from this overwhelming stimuli that prevent us from beginning our repentance by coming into ourselves. We must come into ourselves so that we may see the 5 (opposite) steps that brought us away from God. Only then can we say like the prodigal son "I will arise."
Since there are very few who are preaching true repentance nowadays, an option would be to take recourse from Scriptures, the Fathers, and the writings of the saints and Papal documents. But we can also pray that the Lord send labourers to His field in order to sow seeds of repentance.
(Painting is "Mary Magdalene" by Simon Vouet, 1700.)