From a reader:
Good morning Father, when I went to Reconciliation this past weekend I received a two part penance- the first part was immediately carried out and the second part I was to perform later at home. [grrrrr] As I sat there during Mass I got to thinking (yes, dangerous to say the least)- 1) am I allowed to partake of communion before I complete the penance and 2) if I fail to complete the penance am I still absolved. I suspect that I know the answer and I do intend to ask my confessor the same question, but thought maybe the question was interesting enough for your blog (which I greatly enjoy, by the way). May God bless you and keep you always.
I hate these “deferred penances” and do not give them. In my opinion, the penance should be easily doable within a short time after the confession. That way the penitent doesn’t have to wonder about whether he did it or not.
Priests should stop doing this vague penance thing right now. Keep it simple and immediate.
As far as your questions are concerned, yes, you can go to Holy Communion. You would not do wrong to make a spiritual Communion if you are in any doubt about your state. But, all things being equal, yes, you certainly can go to Communion if you made your good confession and you received absolution even if you did not do the penance assigned.
More on that, below… and make sure you read what I add, below.
If you forget to do the penance, because you truly became distracted through pressing circumstances, yes, you are still forgiven.
I suppose we could argue that the matter of doing penance is so important that you should have remembered to do it even though your cat was on fire, the toilet backed up and your 14 year old daughter brought her new 18 year old boyfriend to supper.
So, I don’t give deferred penances.
However… there is a more serious side to the question.
You are forgiven your sins even if you don’t do the penance.
People need to understand that the validity of the absolution and the efficacy of the sacrament do not depend on whether you do your assigned penance.
You should do the penance you are assigned. Don’t thumb your nose at it. Penances are important.
But God’s forgiveness is imparted by the absolution the priest gives. The satisfaction for your sins was accomplished in Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross. For your part, for the sacrament to be efficacious, you have to make your confession with sorrow for your sins and a firm purpose of amendment.
In the 1983 Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church we read in one of the instructional canons (there are some canons which are less legal and more theological):
can. 959: In the sacrament of penance the faithful who confess their sins to a legitimate minister, are sorry for them, and intend to reform themselves obtain from God through the absolution imparted by the same minister forgiveness for the sins they have committed after baptism and, at the same, time are reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by sinning.
One of the necessary elements for the sacrament of penance to be efficacious is “satisfaction” for sins committed. The three elements necessary for the sacrament to be efficacious are adequate sorrow for the sins, the confession of the sins, satisfaction for the sins.
Christ did the satisfaction part perfectly. From the penitent’s point of view, the very act of confession is itself a form of satisfaction.
“But Father! But Father!”, some of you are saying by now. “I’ve never heard such a thing! Why, then, do priests impose penances? Isn’t this all a bit arbitrary”?
First, we impose penances because we are obliged to impose penances. There is an obligation in can. 981 to impose penances during confession. Can. 981 is a legal and not just instructional type of canon. It places an obligation on the confessor and the penitent:
Can. 981 The confessor is to impose salutary and appropriate penances, in proportion to the kind and number of sins confessed, taking into account, however, the condition of the penitent. The penitent is bound personally to fulfil these penances.
In other words, penances are to be given, and the penitent is to do them, not some one else. You cannot pay another person to do them. But this obligation to give and do penances does not affect the validity of the absolution or the efficacy of the sacrament. If the penitent hasn’t done the assigned penance before going to Communion, he is still forgiven and can still go to Communion.
Why else do we impose penances? Doing penance helps in our effort to make satisfaction for the temporal punishment due to the sins that have been sacramentally forgiven. In other words, get a start on it now, because you are going to do it sooner or later. Doing penances can fulfill what we have to do out of justice to make amends for the wrong we did to others. Making amends can be hard. Doing penance can help us root out from our lives the vices that led to the sins. We need concrete acts to counteract habits. Because our sorrow for sin is sometimes imperfect (though adequate), we do penance. Because Christ joins our penances to His own perfect act of satisfaction for our sins and offers them for us to the Father, we do penances. Because we receive something, yes, ineffable, through no merit of our own we do penances in reparation for our faults and in gratitude for the pardon we have been given.
Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus: cor contritum, et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies.
Are those good enough reasons?
And, yes, it is a bit arbitrary to assign penances. How do we really judge that 3 Hail Marys are proportioned to, say, serial adultery. But how would 10 Rosaries be proportioned?
In any event, the penances assigned in confession do not affect the efficacy of the sacramental absolution we receive.
Confession can be hard, but it shouldn’t be the rack.
Priests should take it easy on people and not assign penances that are vague or hard to do. They should make clear to people what the requirements are for the sacrament of penance to be efficacious, so that they are not left in doubt or, by falling into error, run the risk of becoming discouraged or overly scrupulous.
Priests should do this out of charity and, simply put, because it’s their job.
UPDATE 10 Sept 1646 GMT: