Penances assigned in confession, memorization, and helping people be less afraid. Wherein Fr. Z rants.

I have in the past ranted that priests, when hearing confessions, do well to give simple penances which people can do immediately and then know they are completed.

I have been to confession to priests who assign something too complicated, leaving me in doubt as to how to perform it.  I therefore ask for something else to do.  You can do that, by the way.

Even though it sounds simple, a penance such as “Do something nice for someone” is so vague that people can be left in doubt about whether they actually did it or not, or did enough.  On the other hand, “one Our Father” or even ”one thousand Our Fathers” is clear.  You know when you are done.  I am not suggesting that one thousand Our Father’s should be suggested by any priest.  My point is that that would be a clear penance.  If you can count, you know when you are finished.

Penances should be understandable and doable with certainty soon after the confession.

Now I want to bring in my friend Fr. Ray Blake, the great parish priest of St. Mary Magdalen in the troubled city of Brighton, in England.  He has some interesting observations about penances in confession.   Be sure to visit his blog.

Thus, Fr. Blake:

I have a small range of penances I give to penitents and it is getting smaller. I found a lady looking through books at the back of church trying to find the “Hail Holy Queen” when a visiting priest was in “the box”. Another woman told me she doesn’t go to confession because she is “embarrassed”, not just by her sins but also her inability to remember the correct prayers.

In parishes that don’t have the Hail Mary during the Intercessions it isn’t just children who can’t remember the “Hail Mary”, adults forget it too [....]

The repertoire of recited prayers of your average English Catholics is diminishing. Except for those under the the spell of Medge, younger people tend not to learn either the Rosary or its prayers. In our schools prayer seems to be “Charismatic” spontaneity rather than the ancient prayers of the Church. It is about Catholic identity as much as abstaining fro meat on Friday.

Part of catechesis should be teaching prayer, when the disciple ask the Lord to teach them to pray he gives them a text to learn.

Fr. Blake touches on important points, including the dimension of memorization of prayers as part of our Catholic identity.

In other posts when talking about confession in general, and preparation of children for confession, and even adults going to confession after not going for long time, I have stressed the importance of knowing and using a regular format for making a good confession.  If you have a format memorized and if you know the standard bits and pieces, including the Act of Contrition, the fear factor can be greatly reduced.

Making a confession can be a frightful moment for some people.  They know in their bones that they are doing something important and solemn.  They want to do the right thing even as they are exposing their inmost souls.  They fear doing the wrong thing.  Knowing what to do can put them more at ease.

We do not do anyone, children or adults, any favors by avoiding or downplaying the memorization of prayers or other helpful formulas which express the truths of our Catholic Faith.

 

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61 Responses to Penances assigned in confession, memorization, and helping people be less afraid. Wherein Fr. Z rants.

  1. Suburbanbanshee says:

    The worst thing is when you memorize a prayer, and then they change the words. You’re left doubting your memory and your sanity, because every time you see the prayer, it’s not the one you know. And then you forget what you memorized, and you are really confused and drifting.

    I was so relieved this month to see an Act of Contrition (in the back of the Missalette) that was at least in the same format as the one I learned back in the Seventies in school. It was translated from Latin into totally different English words (less formal ones); but I instantly saw that the bones were there, and so I could coax our version of the Act of Contrition back out of my memory again. This time, I’m writing it down. I like to know where I am.

  2. Charles E Flynn says:

    When I was a child in the 1950s, I was required to memorize these prayers:
    1. Our Father
    2. Hail Mary
    3. Glory Be
    4. Apostle’s Creed
    5. Hail Holy Queen
    6. Act of Contrition
    7. Prayer to Your Guardian Angel (http://www.ewtn.com/devotionals/prayers/angel2.htm)
    8. Grace before and after meals

    I have forgotten none of these prayers. I would be interested to see what others were required to memorize.

  3. kab63 says:

    At last week’s Confession one of the priests was giving the rosary as a penance. My husband does not say a regular rosary (practice makes perfect) and was not sure how to fulfill his penance. I’ve been to parishes that keep a basket of string-tied rosaries and mail-enclosed rosaries at the back of the church. A little card with the prayers is not that difficult to produce and stock. Catechesis is crucial, but sometimes people, even the well-trained ones, slide. Is asking a parish to lend this kind of help too much to ask?

  4. Catholic Hokie says:

    I know I’ve certainly had those Confessions where I’m scrambling to find and read the Psalm that was my penance (or even making sure I remember which Psalm I was assigned!)

    At one of the parishes near my house, the priest gives out prayer cards for people to use as penance, that way there is no need to worry about not knowing the prayers. At the Catholic school I went to for most of my childhood, the chaplains would generally give pretty interesting and unique penances…such as doing pushups, spending a specific amount of time in the chapel praying, or buying a rose for our mothers! Certainly easy one to remember and know they are complete!

  5. Legisperitus says:

    Sometimes a priest will assign certain prayers as a penance and then ask, “Can you do that?” That’s a good way of ensuring that the penitent knows the prayers.

  6. riopeljm says:

    my daughter was just saying today that if she went to confession again with Fr So and So that she was taking a notepad to write down her penance. but, on the other hand we have another priest who gives exactly the same penance every time. my 9 yr old even commented after confession that he wondered what he would have to do to get an Our Father instead of 5 Hail Mary’s.
    i know we don’t get the penance we deserve and that is what i tell my kids but they feel like the priest doesn’t vary the penance based on the severity or frequency of the sins they are confessing.
    should there be a change in penance from time to time?

  7. Choirmaster says:

    Fr. Z: Thanks for all of your Confession-related posting. It keeps these things in mind and really helps to ignite the courage to confess in us weaker, more sinful beneficiaries of this blog.

    I recently went to confession, something I do far too infrequently, and now I can fully participate in the Triduum liturgies and have a Happy Easter.

    I went to your average suburban parish in an area normally out of my way due to the fact that they actually offered confession at a convenient time. I must not have been the only one who thought that because they had three priests in the boxes and after two hours the line still wasn’t getting any shorter! My confessor used the full and proper (Ordinary Form) absolution so there is no doubt in my mind about the validity!

    But I must say that Fr. Z’s comments about the penances hit home! I was given a penance of “10 minutes of “unstructured” prayer for the rest of the week. This runs afoul of the guidelines set up in this post! I will struggle with this penance and here’s why:

    (1) I have to watch the clock! Feels wrong.
    (2) I pray only structured prayers. I never “use my own words” or “tell God what I’m feeling or thinking” (except if/when I state an intention). Maybe it’s something psychological, but it’s hard to “listen” to God if you’re talking/pondering whole time, while the repetitions in a Rosary keep things focused on contemplation and meditation, and other formulas of prayer provide similar helps.
    (3) How many days is “the rest of the week”? (Yes, I should have asked for clarification).
    (4) How about Adoration? I’m not using a formula of words, but does that count as “unstructured”? (Yes, I should have asked for clarification).

    Maybe I’m just complaining too much. Maybe I depend too much on the formulas and rituals. But the good Father’s comment that “when the disciple ask the Lord to teach them to pray he gives them a text to learn” makes me think that I may not be the only one that would have a tough time with this one!

  8. acardnal says:

    Oh! I have received some real doozies for penance. Won’t go into the details now, but I had to bring this matter to another priest in my next confession because I did not know for certain if I had successfully performed my last penance.

    Something concrete should always be given as a penance as Fr. Z stated above so the penitent KNOWS when he/she has completed it.

    Memorization of prayers and the catechism was given short shrift in the 70′s and 80′s. Thats a BIG reason why Catholics today do not know what the Church teaches in matters of faith and morals not to mention traditional prayers! Thankfully, Holy Mother Church reemphasized the absolute necessity of memorization for catechetical instruction in Catechesi Tradendae.

  9. Phil_NL says:

    I recently had a priest who, without a single prompting from me, immediately added ‘or 10 Hail Mary’s if your cannot find that’. The interesting effect of this being that the 10 Hail Mary’s were quickly ‘dealt with’, before the Mass even began, and I looked up the vastly less common prayer – but more tailored to the situation – at home. A win-win in a way, clear and quick on the one hand, and more situation specific on the other.

  10. wmeyer says:

    I am sufficiently old that memorization does not happen as easily as it once did. And as I was only baptized last summer, the Act of Contrition is not among the things I have memorized. That said, I have gone to confession with my Kindle, and on it, I have several Bibles, and the CCC. I think that for me, at least, the need to read the Act may contribute to my focus and reflection as I recite it.

  11. Gregg the Obscure says:

    A confessor whom I used to frequent years ago (he’s since been transferred far away by his order) had several little situation-specific prayers on slips of paper he’d slide through the grille. I just ran across one of those old pages the other day.

    A few months ago a priest gave me the “do something nice for someone”. I doubled it to doing one nice thing for my wife and one for me. The nice thing I’m doing for myself is not going back to him for confession.

  12. Legisperitus says:

    The dreaded “something nice.” I always say a prayer for the person (surely that’s nice), and one for the priest.

  13. lucy says:

    I only learned The Lord’s Prayer since I grew up Protestant. Since being catholic these last 20 years, though, I’ve learned all the usual Catholic prayers from teaching religion to my kids in our homeschooling environment. I’ve now rec’d a proper Catholic education where my RCIA was seriously lacking.

    As for penances….I was once given a Memorare. I know I should have had this one memorized, but honestly didn’t. I scrambled before Mass to find it in my missal and prayed it before Mass started. I agree that it’s better to give a simple penance to make sure the penitent can complete it prior to leaving the church. I was once asked to pray a rosary for my penance, but when I said that I already pray a daily rosary, he said do the penance in addition to what I normally do.

    Since recently we’ve been preparing for confirmation, one of our friends who is an adult also needed confirmation. We were talking about all the prayers he needed to have memorized. He said he had never prayed a rosary! He’s what I would call one of our “good” Catholic friends. We were shocked, but I guess we shouldn’t have been since he grew up Catholic and didn’t really learn much of anything about his faith in his 22 years.

  14. FaithfulCatechist says:

    Anything wrong with posting the Act of Contrition in the confessional where the penitent can read it, if need be?

  15. mrsschiavolin says:

    I was once given the penance of reading the Catechism every day for a month. Since I’m one of those people who tends to prioritize reading theological texts over actually praying, it was probably not the best remedy for my soul…or perhaps God was trying to speak to me? Who knows. The worst thing, though, was that I was in doubt whether or not I could receive communion until the penance was up. It’s one of those technical points that I misunderstood…and hadn’t come up in my reading of the Summa. :) Now I know better. I believe that I brought this up with my RCIA class to spare them the same uncertainty (but as a mom of youngsters my memory is pretty much mush and unreliable at best).

  16. Nicole says:

    I am not in the least diminishing the importance of memorization in regard to these prayers and practices, but all of the parishes that I’ve attended after a regular fashion have made ready access both to the rite to be followed in the Sacrament of Penance and the common prayers, with posted cards and verbal indication to the missalette. I feel pretty fortunate in that regard when I forget something… :)

  17. Will D. says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the idea of a clear, concrete penance. The pastor at my parish once told me to “meditate for a time on God’s blessings in my life.” I knelt for a while in the church, but never felt like I was sure I had satisfied the penance.
    As for Fr. Blake’s case and others along those lines, perhaps investing in a selection of holy cards with various prayers would help.

  18. Bryan Boyle says:

    I’m guilty of, within the context of my voluntary obligation as a catechist for my parish’s RCIA program, of contributing stuff (the parish can afford it, but, it’s a free-will offering on my part…since I am friendly with the local Catholic book/etc store) like rosaries, the CBP rosary booklet, and, each year, the Catholic Book Publishing Co (no connection, no gain, no interests, etc) treasury of Catholic Prayers. They’re all in there…in a nice, smaller missal (my students get a nice missal, too…not a throw-away one, but a real hand missal) format. Makes it easy, as an instructor, to let them know ahead of time which ones we’ll be using for the Sunday morning class, so they can look ahead.

    I agree that catechesis is important. Because, as the good Fr. Z points out…simple penances, if you’re prepared and know at least the basics, are easy enough to perform and don’t require a lot of mental parsing to try and understand. They are, at least to my layman’s interpretation, something you just DO, not have to have a degree in quantum mechanics to figure out. Some of the most challenging penances, that really make you think, are the simple ones given for what you know are in reparation of a mortal sin. “one Our Father, a Hail Mary, and a Doxology for THAT?” Yeah…father said to me: “God’s forgiveness is endless, you’ve suffered enough with the guilt…pray the penance in gratitude for His love” (after the proper and strenuously correct absolution).

  19. mysticalrose says:

    I really am shocked that a Catholic wouldn’t know the Hail Mary! I don’t mean this at all in a judgmental way — just that even though I was catechized in the 80′s and 90′s, we at least learned to pray the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be daily (actually, I think the minimum is 5 of each if you don’t say any other prayers that day? Is that true?).

    Concerning confession — I gearing up my dad to make his first confession is decades and he is totally panicked about remembering the prayers. I’m giving him a confession “handout” from here:

    http://www.theologicalforum.org/product.asp?pi=356

  20. Lotsoflittlekids says:

    The penance for my first confession (as a convert), was “Sit with a lighted candle until you FEEL forgiven”. Needless to say, I still light a lot of candles. Now I know better and try to only go to the priest who assigns the Memorare.

    As for the prayers that no one remembers, isn’t there an app for that? Seriously. A selection of ‘penance prayers’ should be on the confession app if they aren’t already. I don’t own ianything to check. Besides that, in the front of the 1962 missal there is a section that states “What every Catholic Must Know”. It is your duty to learn what is there and you will have to face judgement on whether you filled your head with sports stats, pop culture or your religion. Parents also have a duty to teach them to their children. It really is not that difficult, I have a recording of my 2 year old reciting the St. Michael prayer – it’s really cute.

  21. Blaise says:

    I have yet to meet a Catholic who didn’t know the Hail Mary (above the age of about 6 or 7). I think Fr Ray is exaggerating that one a little.
    The Hail Holy Queen though, many a cradle Catholic of my age would struggle with that.
    At St Mary Moorfields in the City of London they have laminated cards with various prayers on used specifically for penance. Indeed I have been told to pick my own from the card. Which I think is quite a good idea. I do think anything beyond the Our Father, Hail Mary or Glory Be is potentially going to be stretching it for many a younger Catholic to say from memory but prayer cards (either reusable or to give away) are a good way to introduce prayers to those who may never have come across them before.

  22. Steve Girone says:

    What does “under the spell of Medge” mean?

  23. acardnal says:

    Adding on to what Bryan Boyle said above, I asked Father for a hard penance in light of the serious sins I confessed. I wanted something like a rosary and the Way of the Cross for a week to show God how much I was sorry and repentant. Instead, Father said I should not be so proud that I not accept God’s mercy as he gives it, and he gave me a light penance of a few prayers. After contemplating that for some time, the priest – acting in persona Christi – was absolutely right! Now I do not dispute the penance given me but accept it as Father gives it, unless it is not definitive and concrete then I usually ask.

  24. Apparently no one has told here the story of the parish where the two priests heard confessions simultaneously every Saturday evening. One gave a penance of 3 Hail Marys for every sin of the flesh, however large or small. The other one gave a penance of a full Rosary, said kneeling at the communion rail, for every sin of the flesh, however large or small. One’s confessional always had a very long line, the other, a very short line.

  25. The Cobbler says:

    @mysticalrose, I’m pretty sure there’s no specific daily prayer minimum ascribed to Catholics — if there were any, you’d find it in Canon Law for your rite, by the way — but all the Saints and Confessors and Church Fathers agree that if one doesn’t develop a regular prayer life one won’t overcome sin, and if one does one will. An Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be together a few times a day, whenever one remembers or at a set time if that helps one remember, is a seriously undervalued start; if one found even that difficult to focus on (modern life keeps us constantly busy, to the point where even when we’re not we feel like we should be), one could start just taking a moment and asking God to be with one, and not worrying about making anything more of it or getting anything out of it; if even that’s hard to remember or focus on, the best thing is to find somebody (a friend, a spouse) who’ll remember more easily and agree to sit down and pray something shortish together, so it’s easier to avoid brushing it off (to be honest, this has been the most helpful thing for me — that probably tells you something about my spiritual life and mental focus). The ideal as I understand it is for the structured prayers to give one the framework, both external and in terms of mode of mind, to be asking God to be with one just about all the time (“pray without ceasing”); but the exact details are generally left up to the individual and his/her spiritual advisor, if any, aside from vows of religious orders setting new minimums (although joining an order is itself up to the individual and the superiors/abbots of the order, so maybe it’s the same principle). In any case it’s one of those things where the Church tells you what you have to do in minimal or general terms so you can adapt to your circumstances, but then throws all sorts of helpful suggestions out there in case they fit the bill for you.

    @no-one-in-particular, I grew up mostly in the nineties and nulls, and, without ever (as far as I recall) being made to memorize prayers, wound up knowing all the prayers on Charles’s list. However, my parents were the type who prayer family rosaries almost consistently, and we tended to seek out parishes and communities where, say, what Vatican II actually said was discussed rather than its nebulous “spirit”, the Mass may be in English or Latin but it’s chanted either way, et cetera.

    One word of advice: don’t lay off on the family rosaries as your kids get to be teens and then college age — I was a very distracted child (not in the ADHD sense, but just in that my mind was usually off on its own tracks) and had trouble remembering a few of the prayers of the rosary more or less until I started growing up and self-managing. About that time is when it’s crucial that kids should have all their essential skills’ practice in recent memory so they can use them when it occurs to them to try to do things on their own. (And if your kid has shown himself/herself capable of most of the skills per se and only lacks an organized, self-managed routine to use them in — for Pete’s sake, encourage them to and help them to try stepping out into their own life where they’d have reason to teach themself such a routine. No sense making them keep practicing the same building blocks over and over for years without applying them.)

  26. Andrew says:

    Inside my head after I was given a “do something nice for your wife today”:
    I have to do something nice for my wife. I know, the cappuccino I make for her every day will take care of this. She really enjoys that. But no. I can’t use that. I do that ANYWAY. This has to be something unique that I wouldn’t do otherwise. If not, how is it going to be a penance? I have to do something nice for my wife. Let me buy her … what? Flowers? Is that REALLY something nice? It’s just buying stuff. This has to be something that I DO, not something I paid for. What if I buy her jewelry? Too expensive! Let’s start over. I … have to do something nice … I know. I will do the laundry. Shucks! But I can’t. All that color separation stuff. We’ve been through that too many times. I don’t know what color goes with each load, and which wash is cold water, and what cycle to use and all that. It’ll just create some unnecessary tension. I could just hear her say: “why are you doing the laundry now?” Forget the laundry. I have to do something nice for my wife. I’ll take out the trash. Sure! I take out the trash anyway. I go to visit her sister anyway. I take her car for an oil change anyway. I do all these other things anyway. How about … I take her out. Done! But I can’t. After work I’m picking up the kids from school and she’s got this appointment … no that will not be possible. Hmmm! Something nice for my wife. Cappuccino? I know I do that every day, but I don’t have to. I’m still not sure about that. Why is this so haaaaaaaard? I have to doooo sooooomething nice for my wife. I have to do something nice for my wife. Oh that priest drives me crazy. Off course: he doesn’t even have a wife. If he had a wife he would know never to give me such a penance. Maybe I can just smile when she gets home and give her a big hug. That’s nice. But that’s not a penance. Is it? Can I just go back to a confession and get a different penance?

  27. acardnal says:

    Nice one, Andrew. :-)

  28. acardnal says:

    By the way, you can go to another priest later and ask for another penance. I have done it more than once!

  29. ocalatrad says:

    The worst penance I ever got was “promise to be good”. “Darn, Father! I was just planning to be evil!” Argh!

    The best penance I ever got, though, was given to me while I was working in Paris, France at the Church of the Madeleine. My confessor told me to take a pilgrimage to the beautiful Notre Dame des Victoires — where I had never been– about 15 minutes away on foot and to pray there. It was the most unique and memorable penance I’ve ever done.

  30. James Joseph says:

    For what it’s worth… I have found priests who do not have the basic prayers memorised. I write this in an interesting note but not condemning in any way.

    I haven’t learnt the Hail Holy Queen but I have memorised the Salve Regina. :p

  31. St. Peter Canisius says:

    I attended our parish’s penance service last night and received an original act of penance rather than Haily Marys or Our Fathers. The priest ( from another parish) told me to meditate on John 21:15-17 and tell the Lord that I too love him although I greatly fail Him at many times and to remember how Jesus greeted Peter after the Resurrection. No judgement, just pure love. Thank God for our priests who REALLY care for their flock.

  32. Mrs. O says:

    This could be a good “embarrassment” or shame as one should know the basic prayers. Or at least know of a good, reliable site to find them – smart phone could help. I have told our children if they don’t understand the penance, ask OR come to me if they are not familiar with the title. The only one that threw them off was to say 1 confitetor – they knew it, just not by that name.

  33. Allan S. says:

    I always have a problem with Psalms. My last encounter went like this:

    Priest: “For your penance, pray Psalm 51.”
    Me: “Um…which Psalm 51?”
    P: “What do you mean ‘which’ Psalm 51?
    [I had been using iConfession on my iPad, but now open iPieta]
    M: “I mean Pslam 51 according to the Septuagint or the more modern numbering?”
    P: Huh?
    [showing Miserere Mei on iPieta through the grill]
    M: “This one?”
    P. “Oh, yes…that one.”
    M. “OK, but…I prayed Psalm 50 in today’s Office already.”
    P. “Look, just say your Rosary then, OK?”
    M: “But I already…OK Father.”

  34. Legisperitus says:

    James Joseph: I can’t recite the Memorare in English, but It’s Better in Latin anyway!

    Steve Girone: A certain phenomenon which could derail the thread if its full name were given.

  35. heway says:

    I agree with Peter Canisius – he got a nice penance, one you can learn from. I might remind priests that although you learn all your prayers as a child-ours included Acts if faith, hope and charity-when you approach an older age, you may forget or become confused. We have the act of contrition taped to the grille and a few pamphlets outside the confessional to aid people.
    Our organist in the midst of early Parkinsons became very nervous about confession because of forgetfulness. Hence the taped helper. My penance yesterday was 2 Our Fathers and I did not question it.

  36. mariadevotee says:

    As a convert going to confession, I was always afraid I was going to do it wrong or forget something, so now I have a very handy holy card that has the order for Confession–what the penitent says and what the priest says printed on it. It has the Act of Contrition and a grid where one can write the date of their confession for future use. It really has taken out much of the stress of going to confession. It is available from confessioncard@gmail.com.

  37. Scarltherr says:

    Perhaps this is too lighthearted, but when my son and I go to confession he usually asks me what my penance was. If my penance is more than his he says, “What did you dooo?”

    Our priest has since been giving my son more prayers to say. I appreciate that.

  38. akp1 says:

    I got a difficult penance this week – difficult to know how long; and being the busy week it is even finding 10 mins to get down to it (I’m gonna need quiet!) is tough. But I will – I made a note because I was concerned I’d forget! Maybe next time I’ll ask for something I can just go out into the Church to do, there and then. (I won’t have the courage to do that – I know this priest means well ….)

  39. Mike says:

    A grew up in the 70s, Catholic family, Catholic parish school. Left (the Church, that is) in my late teens. On the way back, could not remember a Hail Mary. I even remember trying. Just couldn’t do it.

    Today, I say the Rosary daily, often in Latin. My high school students in my Religion class have to memorize prayers. My noon class has the Angelus down.

  40. ndmom says:

    This is a handy app for the forgetful. All of the basic prayers are there.http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/confession-roman-catholic/id416019676?mt=8

  41. Kathleen10 says:

    I never knew what kind of reception this would get, but I do this. I bring my written Act of Contrition and at the correct moment ask Father if I may read it. No one has objected. I just have the hardest time remembering the Act of Contrition, possibly because I get confused between different versions while I am a bit self-conscious during Confession. Usually there is something else that I say during the Confession to express my regret over my sins and failings, so it feels like it all balances out.
    To make cards with “typical” prayers is something parishioners can do to help any pastor with his church. What would it take to chat with Father to see if he agrees…type up some large cards with prayers on it, have them laminated, and available on a little rack outside the Confessional? It seems like Father may really appreciate the offer, and you get a nice chance to give something to your church. Don’t be surprised if Father says “oh I don’t think we need it”, but at least you made the offer!

  42. shin says:

    I like the cards idea very much.

    It would be nice if priests were more familiar with the justice/punishment side of confession these days, since the penance given to do in the confessional is of greater value and surety than the penance done outside of it.

    Given the significant amount of penance actually due each sin, the penitentials give some idea of this — For those that will do more penance, it’s not merciful to give them less, but rather the opposite.

  43. I can remember getting 10 mins of centering prayer for my penances — and I won’t mention which order of Priests gave that one out — but the Priest would go into such detail about how to correctly do centering prayer that I wasn’t able to say I couldn’t do it when he asked. I had to find my favorite chair, light a candle, get comfortable with a blanket do some deep breathing and then say a certain line over and over… One week I was told to walk around and admire God’s beauty in the trees. Needless to say, I never completed the centering prayer and would always call my director for a more direct penance. :-)

  44. Andy Lucy says:

    Once, I was assigned the penance of reading “The Ascent of Mount Carmel” by St. John of the Cross. I did it (and enjoyed it, FWIW), but as I had murdered no one, and had committed no heinous sacrilege, I felt that particular penance to be “a trifle on the harsh side of strict,” especially as my darling bride was told to read the Gospel reading for that day. She was done in about a minute, and I had to wait three days for Amazon to deliver a copy of St. John’s tome to my door before I could complete it. lol

  45. Ed the Roman says:

    My most recent penance, which I have been unable to complete, was to make a Communion for the intentions of my family. I would have thrown up my hands but it was the parish penance service.

    I’m glad that guy is not my regular confessor, though.

  46. jdcarriere says:

    For penance I recently got “do three good turns”. So I said, “That’s a dumb penance, Father” and counted it for one. Somebody had to tell him.

  47. Marie Teresa says:

    Once for my penance, the priest said, “Sin no more.” I asked what my penance was, he clarified that was it: “Sin no more. Don’t …. (here, he mentioned the sins I’d confessed).”

    Within a week, I failed. it’s the only time in my life when I’ve seen a second priest to request a different penance.

    Some part of me was doubtfully hoping that I’d fulfill the original penance and sin no more … sigh.

  48. Cathy says:

    In the confessional at my parish, the Act of Contrition is on a plaque right in view of the penitent – this is very helpful. I think if you do not know or remember the prayer given for penance, it would be a great humility just to tell your confessor that you do not know/remember it. I’ve been to confession many times where the priest would actually give a printed form of devotion/prayer to the penitent, this is helpful as well and a great mercy acknowledging that prayer and the habits of prayer and devotions were not greatly instilled in a few generations of the faithful.

  49. AnAmericanMother says:

    @ Charles Flynn,
    Good question. Raised “high church” Piskie – of course as a child I learned the Our Father, Glory be, Apostle’s Creed, and the Grace before meals – after meals being apparently unique to Catholics. Picked up the Hail Mary somewhere along the line but probably not in Sunday School. Knew I had a Guardian Angel but didn’t have the prayer.
    Probably 20 years before I converted, I had a Catholic coworker and we were chatting about prayers and she recited the “Hail Holy Queen” and I liked it very much, so she taught it to me while we were sitting on a fence at the Swan House waiting for the bus. Just another nudge in the right direction (I am a bit slow on the uptake.) Thank you Micheline! (obviously she was raised right – she was one of the New Orleans Sacre-Coeur girls I think.)

  50. Angie Mcs says:

    This is a very timely subject or me, as I am making my first confession this Saturday. As I look back over my sixty plus years, it is both alarming and extrmely humbling to take into account my actions, thoughts and what has been in my heart. Although I’ve always known that “bad” things are sinful, like stealing and lying, learning about sin through the lens of Catholicism has changed how I see things. It has given me true awareness of what I have done and hope for forgiveness. I pray I make a good confession and have faith in our priests to absolve me properly and give me a penance I can understand and manage. In addition, Father, your earlier words “You are forgiven your sins even if you don’t do the penance” are very comforting. I will do my best and then look forward to taking part in my first Eucharist, which I know will change my life forever.

  51. asperges says:

    How can any Catholic child not know the Hail Mary or Our Father? This is a terrible indictment of Catholic. A knowledge of the basics (used to be the 1d – ‘penny’ – catechism) is the most basic of building blocks, just as sound liturgy serves for proper worship and its absence has caused such problems.

    A prayer card somewhere to hand near the confessional would seem to be a good idea. I was asked once if I knew the Memorare or Salve Regina and when I said yes, the priest sounded mildly surprised. Those who give the vague “pray for world peace for 5 minutes” don’t help matters. The point of a penance is largely a token of former, very severe, penances. It needs to be appropriate, definable and do-able or there is not much point in it.

  52. asperges says:

    “..of Catholic education,” I meant (line 2 above)

  53. Cathomommy says:

    To all those sweet souls who are aghast that a child can grow up Catholic and never be taught proper prayers… believe me, it can happen. I grew up in a happy-clappy seventies parish, was taught all about how in the Eucharist we all gathered round the table and got to share in a nice big feast, and that I was special and God loved me…. but never in 10 years of CCD were we taught the Hail Mary, Hail Holy Queen, Memorarae, or even Glory Be. Lucky we even knew the Our Father from Mass. In Catholic high school, there were a couple of wonderful diehard old Sisters who would have us recite the Memorarae on test days, and I’d say over half of us didn’t know it, just stumbled along and followed the few who did. All the other prayers and the rosary, I taught myself, long after Confirmation. Sad indeed. My generation of Catholics is largely lost.

  54. jaykay says:

    Hmmm… I’m 51 and I’ve never been given a “wacky” penance, neither have I ever been told to pray a Psalm, although on one occasion in the last year or so I was told to read a Gospel passage – and I can’t remember which one it was, but it may have been the woman taken in adultery as this particular priest always ends (after the correct absolution) with “Go and sin no more”. So a pretty good experience over all the years.

    The standard prayers aren’t a problem as we of course learned them all in my generation, plus the fact that we started each class with a prayer, including the full Angelus if it happened to be at noon. Then again, I’ve “kept it up” over the years, but I still think most of those who went to school with me and who have long lapsed (which, sadly, would be a good part of them) would still know pretty much everything. I see this at funerals where (here in Ireland) it’s the custom to pray a decade of the Rosary at the removal, and even those whom I know have not crossed the threshold of a church for a long time can still join in.

  55. LouiseA says:

    Praying for you, Angie Mes! I loved your post. Welcome back!

  56. plemmen says:

    @Charles E Flynn:
    My brother, sisters and myself all had to learn the same prayers as you did in the 50′s, in both English and Latin. The greatest disappointment in my young life was becoming an altar server and memorizing the prayers and responses in Latin, only to have the OF come in. Nowadays I only attend the EF celebrations of the Mass at the Cathederal here in St. Pete, every Sunday at 12:30.

  57. oblomov says:

    I prefer a penance that is a penance to one of those amorphous be kind to strangers penances or the ones that are too redolent of therapy. I’m there to confess my sins, not to see my shrink, give me a penance that is a penance, preferably one that is clear, and understandable.

  58. APX says:

    I was confused when I was asked if I knew how to pray the rosary before it was assigned to me as a penance once. Despite being young, I thought it was simply something that as Catholic you automatically knew. I can’t imagine not knowing the Hail Mary or Our Father. While we were never taught to memorize them (or any prayer for that matter), but they were picked up from reciting them ever day at school along with that “Serenity Prayer”. It doesn’t seem very Catholic to me. I would think if it was Catholic we’d be asking a God to grant us “grace” and not “serenity”, but I digress.

    Anyway, I’m very slowly starting to memorize prayers that I should have learned as a kid. I am quickly learning how efficacious the Memorare is at work. I never even knew that prayer existed. Prayer wasn’t something highly emphasized as being important in our daily life. I was under the impression the only places we pray are at school and at church.

    As for penances, after reading all these responses, I can’t help but get the feeling I’m the only one who gets the “say 3 Our Fathers and 3 Hail Mary’s for_________.” or “say 1 Our Father and 5 Hail Mary’s for______.” penances.

    I once got the “Do something nice for someone” which left me confused. I followed Fr. Z’s advice and asked for something quantitative that I knew I completed, which didn’t go over too well with the priest. I ended up assuming the nice things I did for people counted, and went with my regular confessor’s standard penance of “3 our father’s and 3 hail mary’s for the conversion of sinners” just to be on the safe side.

  59. Shamrock says:

    @Charles Flynn….I made my First Communion and First Penance in the 40′s ( age 7) and was
    confirmed 1950 (age 12) In addition to the prayers you mention we had to learn and know the
    various prayers known as Act of Hope, Act or Faith and Act of Charity….and the ones we learned
    were far more complicated than those being learned ( if at all) today. Now the emphasis seems
    to be more personal in prayer…encouraged to pray using one’s own words. While that may seem
    more sincere, I think there is time and place for both. Which is better depends upon the person, as well as the circumstances.
    I do not wish to be judgmental…but in most of the comments here it would seem “form” more
    important to the sacrament than sincere sorrow, which is why one participates in the first place.
    Personally, three of this or five of that seems “rote” to me but if that is what the “Doctor” orders
    than best I comply. One can always go the extra mile on one’s own it would seem and do other
    little acts of penance and personal sacrifice in addition to that given by the priest.

  60. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Shamrock — Pretty much every time I go to Confession, it’s a weepfest. I suspect that’s true for many of us. So why should all our posts on this topic also be a weepfest? Are we supposed to catalog every tear shed per Hail Mary, or every self-doubt when it came to “do something nice”, or every struggle we’ve had with temptation, successful or not?

    My Lord knows whether I was penitent or not, and it’s between him and me. Sometimes I may share a few things with you and the world, for your edification and comfort or mine, but I’m not going to give you a spiritual play-by-play unless you’re my spiritual director, and there’ll be no emotional dissection simply for your pleasure. I love you like a sister or a brother, but I’m not going to try to impress you with my sorry self.

  61. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Re: something extra — This is the topic you really need to be careful what you say about… because you can set off scruples-sufferers very easily, and because some people suffer scruples off and on. Angsting about whether one’s penance is enough is a common psychological trigger for trouble, just like worrying whether or not you accidentally skipped a Hail Mary in the Rosary without noticing can lead to infinite worry or dropping prayer altogether.

    I had a very brief but scary attack of scruples once, and it wasn’t fun, and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. (And scruples are another reason to make penances include a measure of definite accomplishment.)