Appropriate Penances

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Appropriate Penances

ROME, 2 SEPT. 2008 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Could you please comment on what appropriate and adequate penances might be in the sacrament of reconciliation. I tend to stay to the traditional Our Fathers and Hail Marys, but I feel at times they are inadequate. A colleague gives much more "difficult" penances: e.g., the Stations of the Cross, two or three rosaries, reading certain psalms or other Scripture texts. Many of his penitents come back later not having been able to complete their penance and are troubled. As a young priest I was instructed to give a penance that can be completed before the penitent leaves the church. — H.J., Peabody, Massachusetts

A: Perhaps it should first be observed that all penances are intrinsically inadequate in order to make true satisfaction for sin. The gravity involved in any sin far outweighs our possibility to repair the lack of love toward God. The wonder of confession is God’s generosity toward us in offering us reconciliation and restoring us to his friendship.

The Church limits itself to instructing priests to impose adequate penances corresponding to the nature of each case. The custom of imposing prayer as penance is no mere formula; rather, precisely because it is prayer, it is a sign of the renewal of grace in the soul that makes authentic prayer possible and meritorious.

In imposing a suitable penance there are several things to be taken into account.

First of all, the nature of the sin must be considered as penances seek to be remedial, and graver sins need more severe penances so as to awaken the conscience to their gravity, especially if repeated often. Sins of injustice such as stealing or calumny must also be remedied through some form of restitution of goods or good name.

Just as important, however, is the nature of the penitent as there is no automatic tariff corresponding to certain sins.

As far as possible a priest has to judge the spiritual weight of his penitent before imposing a suitable penance. This usually becomes clear through the manner of the confession itself. A person who has a strong spiritual resonance as well as a solid Catholic formation is more likely to benefit from penances such as reading Scripture, reciting psalms, or performing pious practices.

When a person has less knowledge of the faith and is not habituated to certain practices such as the rosary, Via Crucis, or fasting, it is probably better not to impose such penances as it is likely to lead to frustration.

The rule that the penance should be able to be fulfilled before leaving the church applies above all to this class of penitent. If the priest thinks that the customary Hail Marys and Our Fathers are inadequate in particular cases, then he could impose a doable but less formal penance. For example, he could tell the penitent to visit the Blessed Sacrament, or an altar dedicated to Our Lady, for a certain amount of time and, in this climate of intimacy, to give thanks for the pardon received and to ask help in overcoming a particular fault.

This last form of penance is often very beneficial to souls who have been away from confession for a long time and have been moved by a particular grace to seek the sacrament.

Sometimes the penance itself can be a source of conversion. There is an old anecdote of a priest who overheard a group of lighthearted young men making a wager in which the loser had to go to confession. With this knowledge the priest took his seat in the confessional and when the youth came to confess, the cleric imposed as a penance that the boy go before the church’s large crucifix and repeat 20 times: “You did this for me and I couldn’t care less.” At first the youth repeated it nonchalantly, and then more slowly and finally finished in tears. For this young man this confession was the beginning of a journey of conversion that eventually led to his becoming archbishop of Paris.

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Follow-up: Appropriate Penances [9-17-2008]

After dealing with the topic of penances (see Sept. 2), I wish to address a couple of related questions.

An Oregon reader asked: "The last time I went to confession the priest intentionally did not give me a penance. What effect, if any, does this have on the sacrament?"

From the point of view of the penitent I believe that there was no negative consequence. For the sacrament to be valid the penitent must accept the penance, that is, he must not refuse to accept it either openly or interiorly. Since this willingness is present in spite of the fact that the priest did not impose the penance, then the person is duly reconciled with God.

However, the priest in this case did not act well. Both as representative of Christ and the Church, and fully respecting the faithful's rights to receive the sacraments, he should follow with all delicacy the steps required for a good confession.

These duties include imposing a penance (even a light one), for its acceptance constitutes one of the three acts of the penitent that make up the quasi-matter of the sacrament of reconciliation: contrition, confession, accepting the penance.

A New York reader inquired: "Recently I read, in a series on the sacrament of reconciliation, that the penance one receives, e.g. three Hail Mary's, removes the temporal punishment incurred by the confessed sins. I had never heard of this before. Is it true?"

This is new for me too. While the penance, just like any prayer, will certainly have some effect in balancing out the effect of our sins, I doubt that one could hold that it completely eliminates all temporal punishment due to the sins confessed.

If this hypothesis were true, a probable consequence would be to render somewhat useless the Church's doctrine and practice regarding the use of indulgences. In this scenario, the confession would obtain by itself the effect that is sought in carrying out the indulgenced practice.

Since Church teachings do not cancel one another out, but rather interconnect in a harmonious whole, I believe that the theory mentioned by our reader does not correspond to sound doctrine.

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