From a reader…
In line with your recent ASK FATHER postings on Confession, I have a question about vague penance given in Confession. We attend the local TLM and it is difficult to make it to Confession because the lines are always so long. My wife really wanted to make sure she made it to Confession, so she went to the nearest Novus Ordo parish where there is hardly anyone in line. She came back and told me the penance she was given was “to follow her heart” in a certain matter. Neither of us could figure out how to determine the fulfillment of such a penance. Is the absolution she received valid even though she could not be sure she completed her penance? She was so frustrated by this situation that she was nearly in tears.
I get this a lot and I have written about it before. No wonder there is a difference in the length of lines. Too bad.
FIRST: The absolution was valid.
Remember, every penance is arbitrary and cannot possibly be commensurate with offending God.
Contrary to some of the evidence, not all priests who give these sloppy, syrupy vague “penances” are nitwits. They mean well. They simply haven’t a) learned much about the confessional, or b) thought much about what they are doing. They think they are being “nice”, or “pastoral” or… whatever.
I would ask them: Why risk leaving penitents confused and anxious about their confession and their penance? Is that being “nice”? Is that “pastoral”?
Wanna know what’s pastoral? CLARITY.
To review, priests must give penances to penitents and penitents are obliged to fulfill penances themselves (can. 981 – they can’t pay someone else to do the penance for them, for example). The penance should be clear, reasonable and doable in a reasonable period of time. Common sense, right?
It should be clear: “Think a nice though about someone,” isn’t clear. How do you know when you have done it?
It should be reasonable: “Rebuild with your own hands old St. Ugthred’s Church, which has been abandoned since 1923.” Most people can’t do that.
It should be doable in a reasonable time frame: “Say the rosary for 100 days… Travel to the Shrine of Our Lady at La Vang, Vietnam… Next Easter Sunday (months away) do X… Obtain and watch this movie which I like and watch it….”
All of those theoretical penances are problematic.
Fathers… especially you NEW priests… assign/suggest something the penitent can complete before leaving the church. Thus, short prayers are good penances.
And remember, validity of absolution is not contingent on the penance that is assigned. Yes, we penitents must do our best to do some penance and we have a strong motivation to take the penance that the priest assigns seriously. But sometimes these well-meaning nitwits suggest something incomprehensible or undoable. So, we get out of the box, scratch our heads, and do something else that’s meaningful. Or, if there is time and opportunity, go to a different confessor, explain the situation, and get guidance about what to do. Not everyone has that option.
But, if you get one of these dopey penances, like “be nice to someone” or “think a happy thought”, go ahead and think a happy thought (“I’m happy when I go to confession somewhere else!”, or choose to be nice (“I’ll be nice, and not ‘penny’ the door to the confessional!”).
Then go be serious and pleased that you received absolution.