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.