From a reader:
I went to Confession this weekend and the confessor was a man with a very thick [FOREIGN] accent. On top of that, while pronouncing the absolution he seemed… a little out of it (that sounds like a bit much to me, but it’s the best way I can describe it). He ended with ‘thank you, have a nice day’ before I had a chance to say an Act of Contrition, and I also couldn’t tell if he gave me any penance (in hindsight, I should have asked, but I was rather surprised by the brevity of the exchange, and it was also only my third confession; I prayed 1o Hail Mary’s just in case).
My question, then, is whether the Rite of Reconciliation requires the act of contrition by the penitent or the giving of a penance by the confessor (cf. can. 981)?
I love this. It was your third confession and you quoting canon law like a vet. Well done! I like informed Catholics.
I have written before about the matter of validity of absolution even if you do not do the penance assigned during confession. HERE.
Nevertheless, it is clear in the Latin Church’s law that the confessor is to give penances. If he doesn’t give one, the absolution is still valid.
That said, let’s go over a few things.
We are obliged to do penance for sins that we have committed. This is a matter of justice.
That said, the imposition of a penance is not required for validity of the absolution. In normal circumstances it should not be omitted. I can envisage situations when I as confessor would not give a penance, as when I am absolving an injured teen in an overturned car while the emergency teams are cutting it up with the saw to get him out. Another moment might be when I have, with some difficulty, heard the confession of native Hmong speaker having only a few words in English or French, with no translator or even book to point to. Rather than make the situation an ordeal, a confessor might just be confident in the penitent’s sincerity, absolve, and send the frustrated fellow on his way, satisfied that the confession itself was a penance.
Also, some confessors keep track of the penances they give penitents and then do them themselves afterward.
In the situation you describe, considering the linguistic difficulties, it may well have been that the priest imposed a penance but you did not understood.
In normal circumstances, when you are not sure about the penance and you and the confessor are communicating reasonably well,. you can always ask for a clarification when in doubt. “Father, I didn’t understand the penance. Could you repeat it, please?”
But that’s water under the bridge at this point.
People will, once in a while, forget the penance that was assigned. This can happen when some well-meaning priest assigns one of those loopy, long, open-ended penances, such as, “Read the seventh chapter of the Second Book of Kings and spend some time under an elm tree counting ladybugs while you think about the impact your use of fossil fuels has on the environment.”
In those cases, just substituted some good work, as you seem to have done.
Going to confession the next time you could say that you didn’t do an assigned penance because you didn’t understand it, forget it, couldn’t do it.. whatever… and that you, instead, substituted 10 Our Fathers and 10 Hail Marys.
In the meantime, rest confident in the fact that your sins were forgiven. You can receive Communion without any qualms on that point of the penance.