ASK FATHER: Father gave me a penance that discouraged me.

From a reader…

QUAERITUR:

I am struggling with food and alcohol addiction. After confessing this, my penance was to fast the next day after such indulgences. I was discouraged. My confessor did not know my circumstances. I have successfully done “fast’” and abstained from alcohol more times than before, but I feel horrible about my failures. I need more help than this guild of failure. I feel this priest does not understand. I do need forgiveness and grace, but not this sense of hopelessness.

First, good for you for recognizing that you have a problem to confront.  Find all the help you need from others in order to map out your strategy and continue to ask God for help.  I do mean all the help you need, which probably involves professional counseling and might involve support groups.

Be ready to suffer!  You can do it.

Next, penitents are not obliged to accept every penance that the confessor suggests.  There are, indeed, circumstances that the confessor may not know (e.g., telling you to find someone and make amends when there is not way for you to find that person, or there is no prudent or realistic way to have that conversation).  Also, the confessor might suggest something that is not able to be accomplished in a reasonable period of time (e.g., say 10 Rosary a day for the next four months).   Moreover, the confessor could give you something that is so vague that you have no idea of when you have done it (e.g., think nice thoughts about someone today).   We are not obliged to accept such penances and we can ask for another.

Furthermore, I have written before about the matter of validity of absolution even if you do not do the penance assigned during confession.  HERE.

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.

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.  (I didn’t give a penance, but the absolution is valid.) 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, I 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.

You, as a penitent, can ask for a clearly defined penance, achievable in a reasonable period of time without undue burdens.  You are not required to take whatever the priest suggests, particularly if by attempting to fulfill it, you might do yourself or others harm.

Finally, don’t be discouraged.  God works wondrous things through fragile and erring priests: you obtained absolution for your sins!  Now, be of good cheer.  Even though you have a long road ahead, you are pointed in the right direction.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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20 Responses to ASK FATHER: Father gave me a penance that discouraged me.

  1. Uxixu says:

    One of my favorite confessors would assign fasting for my penances. I enjoy periodically fasting as a private devotion anyway but I always liked that since it’s one of the rarer penances. Nothing like that hunger pang kicking it to prompt a Deo Gratias & Ave Maria!

    Not as much detail in the question, of course, but note that fasting itself is fairly lenient by official law. I believe one full meal per day and eat smaller for the rest, though you’re welcome to go the whole way and restrict yourself to water, if you’re able (as I prefer).

  2. I was taught in the seminary that we were to ask the penitent if s/he can do the penance assigned — i.e., in line with our genial host’s point that the penitent must accept the penance.

    As it happens, I rarely assign either a difficult or unusual penance; if I do, it’s because I hope it will be particularly meaningful for the penitent in his or her particular circumstances. And I always explain, if you do not want this penance, I will assign another.

    Another point: if you have difficulty with a penance after departing the confessional, you can ask another priest to commute that penance to something else.

    Finally, in extreme situations (such as a near-death situation), I have assigned a very light penance, such as a single Glory Be or Our Father, which I recite with/mostly for the penitent. I figure that way, the person in distress can feel the peace of knowing s/he made a completely proper confession.

  3. KAS says:

    I have been quite fortunate in the penances I have been given. All were within my capacity to do and did not take so much time that I could not do them in the hour between confession and the vigil Mass.

    It is such a relief that I can go to confession, clear my conscience of the wrongs I have done, and go nearly directly to Mass so I have as little time to mess up between Absolution and Eucharist as possible.

  4. frjim4321 says:

    I lived with a priest for a while who tended to give impossible penances and I was often called upon to undo the damage.

    My experience with scrupulous penitents has reinforced the wisdom of my seminary professors who said the most important characteristic of a penance is that it be do-able. [YES!] The penitent, shortly after leaving the confession, has the right to know that he or she has made the satisfaction in entirety. [EXACTLY!]

    It is an inhumane, cruel, unenlightened malpractice to leave an penitent with the heavy burden of an impossible penance and a sense that absolution is contingent upon performing it. [Well... it could also be the sign of youthful zeal or lousy formation in the seminary. Either way, it must be corrected.]

    The priest with whom I lived would give a penance of a very large monetary contribution to some kind of charitable organization. [?!?] Hundreds of dollars! The dear souls who took this to heart were in agony!

    I’m of the “one Our Father” school . . . because the person can do it, and they can know that they have completed it. Penance is not a punishment, it is practice for living the restored relationships that the sacrament effects. [Dead on.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  5. The trouble with being given a penance I can’t perform right away is that I am liable to forget about it. If I am given such a penance, I will ask the priest to give me another on those grounds.

    Some people complain about being given too easy a penance. To that I reply that it is Christ Whom we meet in the confessional, and maybe the real penance is not so much the three Hail Marys as the mortification of our will and the exercise of the virtue of obedience.

  6. Random Friar says:

    I do give some “other” penances once in a while, e.g., fasting, if I think it will help, but I always ask the penitent if he or she feels they will be able to complete it, if it goes beyond the Our Fathers and Hail Marys.

    The worst experience I ever had assigning penances was a First Confession, where most of the children that came had no idea how to say an Our Father or Hail Mary. I was very sorely tempted to throttle the Pastor.

  7. LeeF says:

    Perhaps some priests are not good at clearly separating counsel from penances. Obviously they should be clear because one follows the other with clear use of the word “penance” in between. But I suppose that given the willingness of some priests to ad-lib the liturgy in general, that attitude and practice might be carried over to confession as well.

  8. All the comments here are good. I’m guessing everyone here has gotten a rough confession at least once in our lifetime. It is good that this penitent sought advice rather than giving up!

    Isn’t the assigned penance a form of reparation for one’s sins? Also, there are graces attached to the penance, both that we have the strength to do them, and the graces we get for doing the penance.

    Here’s hoping the penitent here that wrote in will get the help needed from a good priest, and the help needed to overcome the spiritual bondage too. Unless the priest was difficult to talk with, wouldn’t it be a good idea to go back to that priest and explain that the penance is too difficult? If this priest is a regular guy, he might benefit from the feedback with better insight, and maybe be able to help with a different method.

    Since self-denial is crucial to fighting entrenched sins, along with digging up the real root cause, which sometimes isn’t obvious to us without help, it never hurts to read up on how to fight sins. Fr. Tanquerey among others, if you can find one of his books, is a classic spiritual master, if you aren’t familiar with him already. Also Fr. Ripperger offers audio for “Seven sermons on the seven deadly sins, viz. anger, envy, gluttony, lust, pride, sloth and vain glory” that I just now listened to and found very insightful and helpful at
    http://www.sensustraditionis.org/multimedia.html

    Prayers for the penitent from me!

  9. msc says:

    I was once given a penance for a mortal sin that I was not able to fulfill, and it bothers me to this day. I feel like my sin still hangs over me. [NO! Let that go. But, do willing penances, thoughtfully.]

  10. msc says:

    I was once given a penance for a mortal sin that I was not able to fulfill, and it bothers me to this day. I feel like my sin still hangs over me.

  11. APX says:

    Uxixu,

    From reading your post I can reasonably assume you don’t really understand addictions all that well, and your response, I felt, was rather self-absorbed and insensitive. It doesn’t matter if some feel that being assigned fasting is considered “lenient” (fwiw: I’ve never been assigned fasting as a penance from any of my confessors). My current confessor has often advised in his sermons that there are many people who are not able to do a lot of penance who come to the confessional, but there are many people who come to confession who can do more than what is assigned to them. Our priest has asked us to let the priest know if they can do more penance on behalf of those who cannot do penance. This makes a lot of sense and I think it should be encouraged (unless it’s going to be a source of pride for others).

  12. Sword40 says:

    I am a Recovering Alcoholic with 27 years sobriety. It wasn’t easy but it can be done. It takes a “total surrender” to God’s will. Total surrender, easier said than done but that’s what it takes.

  13. RafqasRoad says:

    Fr. Z. and FR. Jim4321, spot on!! to the enquirer who has written in, back during Holy Week of 2012 I was in the midst of doing battle against serious habitual sin. I availed myself of confession courtesy of the good Fr. who served as Campus Ministry director. Now, he set a fairly significant penance that would have required me to gain assistance in undertaking due to my location and poor public transport at the time (to attend daily mass for a week). I advised him that though I wished sincerely to undertake this penance, which I did, that due to my circumstances (cannot drive due to disability, all but non-existant public transport at local masss times, and needing to prevail upon my husband to also get up at the crack of dawn and drive me to church, go home, come back and drive me home – trust me, getting rides at church in this location were few an far between), Fr. graciously modified the penance to one weekday mass. Let me tell you, that one weekday mass was a profound gift to my spirits. I think you will find that most priests are happy to ‘negotiate’ if tougher penances are being issued. Take heart and be of good courage. Keep fleeing to Christ’s mercy through the sacraments of confession and penance. And as one who has fought hard against long-term persistent sin, it takes time, utter trust in God, constant prayer and re-orienting one’s way of living. This will not happen overnight but may well be a life-long endeavour. Call upon Our Lady, undooer of knots, Our Lady of ransom and Our Lady, Refuge of Sinners.

    My uni chaplain at the time also counselled to pray to Jesus and Mary daily for special specific graces to gain the victory over and be released from said sin (prayed silently) each and every day. It takes time and persistence. There will be days when you fall off the wagon. Don’t be discouraged. Get up and keep on going, remembering God’s words in joel 2: 25 ‘I will restore the Years the Locust has Eaten’. We serve a God of new beginnings. Might I also suggest beginning to cultivate a habit of praying the chaplet of divine mercy daily; its easy and quick…and very very efficacious. All shall be well, and all things are possible through Christ who strengthens us. We’re doubly blessed in that he gives us the sacraments via Holy Mother Church to make real headway.

  14. Dear APX, I’m guessing that Uxixu is citing Church teaching that fasting can be considered lenient – of course dependent on the type of fasting [bread/water vs denying oneself a dessert].

    Its ironic how defeating sin takes the opposing action that seem insurmountable to us. It takes humility to fight pride [how in the heck do I do that when I am too proud to be humble? LOL], diligence to fight sloth [how can I when I am inert?], fasting to fight gluttony, meekness to fight anger, etc. I can understand feeling indignant and despairing when getting a penance that seems impossible but perhaps in this case the priest is wise in how to attack sin, but fails in understanding the specific situation of the penitent. It is true that some penitents are at differing levels of capability of penance. The smallest step, the most minor act is still a victory – and masters of the spiritual life teach that starting with small steps puts us on the best trajectory to big victories.

    Some sins can ONLY be driven out by prayer and fasting.

  15. teejay329 says:

    “Uxixu,

    From reading your post I can reasonably assume you don’t really understand addictions all that well, and your response, I felt, was rather self-absorbed and insensitive. ”

    APX…
    THANK YOU for that. Just ask anyone struggling with addiction and they would want to rip someone’s head off if they said such a condescending thing in such a grandiose fashion.
    And, for the reader who suffers from the addictions, you are not alone. Believe me, you are not alone. Prayers go out to you and all who suffer the torments of addition.

  16. rcg says:

    This has been a great thread. I recall a priest saying that the confession in Mass was sufficient for a contrite heart. I don’t doubt that, in theory, but I think we must make that step, one small step for a man, one giant leap for our souls, that is our contribution and seal of our sorrow and desire to sin no more. It is insignificant compared to the hurt we have caused, but it is very important, and I think a cause of joy for our Lord. It shores me up to think I can please Him in any manner.

    I also appreciate your advice to the original penitent and the others who posted frustrations with “failing” their penance. We must understand and accept our frailties, strive against them knowing that the battle starts over everyday, but that even after we have needed to be picked up, over and over, victory comes through the assistance of our Lord.

  17. Imrahil says:

    The Rev’d dear Fr Jim is right spot on here.

    In addition, assigning monetary penances has a remarkable odour of not knowing Church history. The Council of Trent, to combat abuses and for prudential reasons, forbade the Church to ever again give an indulgence for giving money for pious causes, however pious and in itself indulgence-worthy that is – and this is about indulgence merely: acquiring them is voluntary, it is “only” about relaxation of temporal punishments, and there are even still other ways to gain them.

    As for the idea to make giving money a satisfaction within the Sacrament of Penance itself, i. e. connect it to the very forgiveness of sin itself, certainly Br John Tetzel OP himself would have shrieked in horror from the very thought of such an idea.

    Thanks, by the way, Rev’d Fr Z, for that information about Confession being valid without the satisfaction, again. I recently confessed to a foreign priest who absolved before assigning a penance. I asked about one after absolution, he did not quite understand me and, as I went on sitting for another minute, suggested something like “penance” and “something to pray”… then he asked me whether everything’s fine with me. Ah yes; I said, “yes”, went out, self-assigned me an Our Father, Hail Mary and Credo (knowing of course that it is not the same the confessor assigning it) and went along.

    Still much better, though, than “cause some joy for someone else”.

  18. Moro says:

    Wow. Fr. Jim and Fr. Z agree on something. Thanks be to God.

    I just want a penance where I can clearly tell when it has been done. For example, a Rosary. It’s a big penance and if I’m confessing before work or on my lunch break I might not get to it until later, but I will know when it is done and I can clear my conscience that I finished that penance.

    I think the rule of thumb that it should be done in the church (unless its a special case – like returning to the Church after years away, a general confession, etc.) is a good one.

  19. DFLAT says:

    There was one time when Father gave me a penance and I responded, “Or?” and he said “Or your sins are not forgiven” So I did my best to fulfill it, but eventually another priests removed it for me. Having said that, the only other penance I was given that I thought I could not do, when I did it the result was that I returned to the Church after being away for 26 years. That was 15 years ago and I thank God for it everyday. So I guess my point is, best to do the penance rather than Father being too concerned about how comfortable we are with it.

  20. qowieury says:

    I am confused by this question and answer. The penance sounds perfectly reasonable. Am I misunderstanding it? Wasn’t the penance for the person to fast tomorrow? How could this be a “guild of failure”? I presume that the writer is not a native english speaker because of the grammar, but the most sense I can make out of it is that the priest gave a perfectly normal penance. Why are people acting like it was not?