QUAERITUR: difficult to fulfill penance

confessionFrom a reader:

The priest I go to gives me a penance that I have to wait to do because it’s too long to do because of my lunch break, it involves something scheduled at a different time, etc. But before I can do it, I often fall back into mortal sin. So I go to confession with the intention of doing the prior penance once I am in the state of grace. Is this alright? Alternatively, is it okay to do my penance in the state of mortal sin? Should I ever go to confession without having done my prior penance.

I go to gives me a penance that I have to wait to do because it’s too long to do because of my lunch break, it involves something scheduled at a different time, etc. But before I can do it, I often fall back into mortal sin. So I go to confession with the intention of doing the prior penance once I am in the state of grace. Is this alright?Alternatively, is it okay to do my penance in the state of mortal sin? Should I ever go to confession without having done my prior penance.

It seems to me that you should ask your confessor to give you a penance that you can fulfill right away, so that you don’t have to worry about it or get sidetracked in any way.

Doing penance for sins is an obligation we have out of justice.  Doing penance is a necessary part of the sacrament of penance.  At this point, I would say the next time you make your confession, tell the confessor that you are not sure you adequately performed the penances you were given in the past.  Ask for a clear penance you can perform right away.

You can always chose to perform additional penances at other times.  A good idea anyway.

Confessors laudably desire to make the sacrament of penance “relevant” in some aspects to the penitents who request it.  They like to be able to tailor their counsel to the individual.  They like to assign a penance that pertains in some way.  However, what is more important by far is that the penitent not, at the end, be confused about what he or she is to do, or whether it can be done in a reasonable period of time.  I think that clarity is better than something which is nebulous or even postponed.

If you haven’t done your previous assigned penance, tell the confessor.  But you might explain briefly why you didn’t.   Don’t dwell on it.  Don’t ramble.  Don’t add lots of details.  Just say it and then ask for a penance you can be sure to do right away.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Charlotte Allen says:

    Oh, dear–I’m still feeling guilty about a penance I never completed about 15 years ago. The penance was to meditate for a half-hour. I’m not a very good meditator, so after trying for about five or ten minutes, I gave up. I meant to go back and do the rest of it later, but then I forgot. What should I do? I’ve been to confession many times since. Should I try to finish that old penance is five-minute increments? Should I bring it up at my next confession and try for a substitute penance? Help!

  2. Will D. says:

    On Holy Thursday I was given an odd penance: to offer the next two Masses I attended for my sins. Fortunately, I was able to behave myself between the Holy Thursday Mass and the Vigil, but I wondered what would happen if I fouled up or got hit by a bus. Fortunately, most penances I’ve been given are prayers that can be said immediately after confession.

    As for Charlotte’s question, I believe you should bring up this lost penance with your Confessor. He should be able to clarify the situation.

  3. Titus says:

    A difficult-to-fulfill penance is not nearly as bad as a penance that one can’t really know if one fulfilled or not. The local parish priest has a fondness for penances like “take some time and ask God for this day to be a new beginning for you.” Not really sure what that means, much less whether I asked enough.

  4. Fr. Basil says:

    I think this person’s BEST solution is not to try to squeeze confession into a lunch break.

  5. Paul says:

    Fr. Basil, I agree, but with the hugely abbreviated availability of confession time at many parishes, almost any time I can make it is good enough. There have been times when I’ve managed to get to a cathedral during a business conference between sessions and have been very thankful for even that short window.

    (Note, I am not the original poster.)

  6. Fr Martin Fox says:

    I was taught in the seminary that the penance must be accepted by the penitent–it’s not imposed. I always propose the penance a question: “for your penance, can you do X?”

    As our host observed, many priests, including me, want to offer a penance that connects some way. My hope is that it will be meaningful, spiritually fruitful, not a rote performance. Also, as I sometimes explain, it can be a way that we cooperate with God in the healing of the damage done by our sins. So, for example, I often ask, if someone confesses to hurtful words or actions, “is there anyone to whom you need to apologize?” And if so, I suggest that as a possible penance. For married persons, I sometimes suggest as penance doing something special for or with their spouse–explaining that strengthening their marital bond pleases God and is good for them.

    But–whenever I do that, I do ask if they can do it promptly, and in any case, if I am offering a penance that perhaps be outside the penitent’s usual experience, I do ask, “can you do this? Is this too hard?”

    If you priest doesn’t ask, know that you can–and should–let him know that it will be difficult to perform the penance, or at least promptly.

    Finally, if you ever receive a penance, and later find it too difficult to perform, another priest can “commute” that penance–meaning, give you another penance in place of it.

  7. Josephus Muris Saliensis says:

    We have no details here, but I think this post should flag up to confessors the dangers of giving complex and vague penances. The real danger, as we see from the poster and other comments, is that this needlessly encourages scrupulousness.

    I have a priest friend who was once given 20 acts of charity. Laudable in itself, but it is hard to be clear when it is complete, and by the end may have led to considerable additional sins of pride!

    PLEASE, Father Confessors: you ask us to keep our confessions simple; keep the penances simple too! Not things that require us to come back to church later for specific services, or vague activities which cannot be clearly recognised as having been done. This does not mean they need to be short, but even a full rosary is at least finite.

  8. wantny says:

    It has always been my understanding that unless the penance is completed the absolution is not efficacious. The absolution is dependent upon the penance. I notice that you, Fr., with all due respect do not bring out this point. I understand that if a person unintentionally forgets, then he is not culpable. In the case of the man who did not do the penance isn’t it true that he must confess those same sins again as the absolution is, in effect, not truly given? Please clear up this point.

  9. Ana says:

    I’ve had priest assigned three different acts as one penance with each act having to be done at a different time usually one immediately, one when the same type of temptation/sin presented, and a third daily. This made completely the penance near impossible, because 1) I don’t take pen and paper to confession with me so with a laundry list of acts to complete it was difficult to remember exactly what my assigned penance was and 2) I’m not going to remember the following day or several days to do xyz if a certain temptation arises while I’m at work or around town.

    I’m with the need for priests to keep the penance simple. This doesn’t mean it has to be a short penance, but something that can be easily remembered such as a full rosary or two full rosaries or even a rosary for every mortal sin committed, but multiple part penances are problematic for most penitents.

  10. tsunamimommy says:

    Sounds like this person needs to schedule Confession so that it is at a convient time that will allow him to spend time with his confessor and be able to complete the penance that is given. If he has such an easy time falling back into mortal sin, I believe that more time spent thinking about God and about why he is sinning would be worthwhile. I say he, but it could be a she, so I mean no disrespect. And, multiple mortal sins may sometimes call for multiple penances–I am not the confessor and therefore don’t feel I can comment on the penance given.

  11. dans0622 says:

    Forgiveness of sin is granted at the moment of absolution, presuming that the confession and contrition was integral/genuine. Validity does not depend on the penance. The apparent frequency/rapidity of the this person committing mortal sin is more of a problem than the penance, it seems to me.

  12. Philangelus says:

    I detest penances you are never sure you’ve fulfilled. “Do something nice for someone” is my absolute un-favorite. Something nice IN ADDITION to my normal level of niceness? Something heroically nice? Does holding the door for someone on the way out of the church count? Dropping a ten in the poor box?

    I’ve got a hard enough time as it is with prayers. I pray the rosary every day (I asked my guardian angel to remind me and to help me make the time every day to do it, and every day, I get reminded) and I’m in dread of the day I get assigned a rosary as penance, since I won’t be sure whether I should say it twice — once for my daily devotion and once for penance — or whether my daily rosary would count. :-b

  13. Shellynna says:

    I’m surprised Father did not gently point out the possibility of scrupulosity. Unless this person is waiting an extended period of time to do his penance, it could be the case that he is seeing mortal sin where there is no mortal sin. Of course, there are some types of mortal sin that it is possible to commit “right away,” but then I would question if this involves an ingrained habit that could mitigate against adequate

    In any case, if this person is scrupulous, he should probably ask for a referral to a priest experienced in assisting those with scrupulosity. Such a confessor will likely know that scrupulous people often need clear, simple, penances that can be performed right away, and can help this person set up a confession schedule that best addresses the particular challenges of scrupulosity.

  14. frjim4321 says:

    Our seminary prof taught us that penances should be “do-able,” in otherwords, the penitent should be able to complete the penance readily. The penitent should not be left with the impression that the penance is a necessary cause of absolution – absolution takes place with the words of absolution. I lived with a priest who as a penance told people that they had to give large sums of money to various charitable organizations. It led to great spiritual harm.

    In this case scrupulosity is almost certainly a factor because the person thinks she/he can lapse into mortal sin during lunch hour. While that is certainly possible, it does not seem likely. If indeed the person is scrupulous, all the more reason the person should be given a very simple penance. I would even consider asking the person to complete the penance right in the confessional (e.g., saying the Lord’s Prayer) – then the confessor could say; “you have already done your penance.”

  15. JMGDD says:

    @ Philangelus: I had to ask my FSSP priest this very question recently. His reply was that unless the priest specifies an “extra” or “additional” rosary as penance, it is okay to combine other intentions in one recitation, so long as reparation for sin is your primary intention.

  16. VetusMores says:

    Philangelus’ second paragraph reminds me of a not-quite dilemma I’ve faced: while others here describe time-consuming penances assigned by their confessor, I’m usually told to say one Our Father and three Hail Marys — and this is from three different parishes in my area — while I feel at times that I ought to be picking up trash alongside the road. Since I too pray the Rosary every day, three Hail Marys hardly seems like “penance”; should I request something more … stern?

  17. Philangelus says:

    VetusMores, I’ve had some truly…bizarre penances. Like the time the priest instructed me to vacuum my whole house by Tuesday after I confessed sloth. (And someone said to me, horrified, “I will never confess household sins again!”) When I’m told to do one Our Father and three Hail Marys, I do them extra, no matter how many I’ve already said that day. I don’t ask for more because I’m afraid I’ll get “Do something nice for someone.” :-b

    JMGDD, thank you for your answer. I’ll rest easier now. :-) (I do battle against scrupulosity.)

  18. Josephus Muris Saliensis says:

    @frjim4321. God bless you, you are, or will be (if you are still a seminarian), a good priest.

    This post has bought much of interest: Penance is PENANCE, it is NOT punishment. If God in his mercy, through his priest, gives you an easy penance, who are you to demand more pain? This is spiritual pride.

    Most priests give simple prayers, some Hail Marys, an Our Father, a Salve, a single Station of the Cross in Lent (but not if it is to be said as part of a public recitation, which is an unreasonable penance unless he knows FOR SURE that you planned to be there anyway). These are good penances, but the penance is an INTENTION, so you can do it as the intention of your daily prayers if you say this prayer regularly. If you ask a priest to say a Mass, he does not say an EXTRA Mass, but adds you intention to his daily Mass; so with your penance if you are given a Rosary.

    Remember, God has already forgiven you; all he wants is your Love, not your abjection.

  19. jade says:

    I always learn from reading Father Z and from the comments. I had mistakenly believed that absolution was dependent on my obedient fulfillment of the penance. Years back, when our four children were very young and were were struggling on my husband’s day laborer pay, a priest gave me the penance: ” send your Mother a nice bouquet of flowers”. Since I was unable to comply, I was –I thought–unable to receive Our Lord until able to go to confession (luckily with another priest) who then gave me a penance that I could obey.

  20. VetusMores says:

    @Josephus Muris Saliensis: Thank you for the clarification. For what it’s worth, when I do pray those additional Paters and Aves, I do so with a sense of contrition for what I’ve just confessed. I never thought of expecting a more substantial penance as “spiritual pride;” like scrupulosity, this is something else I’ll have to consider prayerfully. Again, thank you for the reproof; it is welcome.

  21. Banjo pickin girl says:

    I think there may be more scrupulosity amongst us more conservative folk than we might think at first. I am glad for easy penances because it is the fact of going in the box and saying it that is the hardest. Recently a priest asked in a querulous tone, “as your penance could you say 5 Hail Mary’s in honor of our Blessed Mother?” I said, “Even I can do that.” He chuckled. Glad to brighten Father’s day, I bet they come out of their with their ears burning, need to soak them or something.

    One priest told me to “Devote the rest of your life to God.” I thought, “he wants me to be a nun? What?” So I substituted 15 decades of the rosary.

  22. Lirioroja says:

    I live in a large city where between the many parishes there are lots of opportunities for confession throughout the week.

    One priest at one of the churches I frequent for confession has the habit of assigning “an act of charity” as a penance. This drives me nuts. It’s too vague and I never know how to go about doing it. Put more money in the collection? Hold the door open for someone? Volunteer at a charity? Spare a prayer for the souls in purgatory? It makes me prefer the ones that don’t assign a penance; what I do then is say an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be for the Pope’s intentions.

    At my territorial parish there is a priest I’ve confessed to twice who both times gave me hard penances. The first time was to pray Psalm 51 every day for a month. The second time was to pray the rosary every day for 15 days (I am not in the habit of praying the rosary.) These were very hard for me and there were many nights when right when I was about to go to bed, sometimes after midnight, I’d reach to shut off the light and I’d suddenly remember I didn’t do my penance that day. Of course during both those long time periods I’d committed mortal sin and had to go back to confession. And there I was still doing my penance from my previous confession! Since then I’ve never complained about the usual three Hail Mary’s again.

  23. JuliB says:

    One priest I confessed to assigned me the choice of reading a book of the Bible or reading a book about a saint. Being in a Scripture class, I felt that it would be cheating to read a book from the Bible. I ended up reading a book about St. Kolbe. Wow….. knowing about him has changed my thoughts for the better.

    My cradle Catholic SO was shocked when I told him my penance. He asked if I had killed someone or something that bad… he always got the 1 Our Father, 3 Hail Marys…

  24. LawrenceK says:

    @jade and @wantny: The formula of absolution itself absolves your sins, and is not conditional on your future penance. In fact, no sacrament is ever conditional on future events (e.g., the sacramentality of a marriage does not depend on what the husband and wife do later in their lives).

    In the early Church, public reconciliation delayed absolution until the penance was completed. But in such cases, the priest did not pronounce the formula of absolution immediately! Rather, after the penance was completed, the penitent was liturgically re-admitted to full communion with the Church.

    The Jansenists wanted to revise this practice, and the Church refused. When some Jansenists insisted that it was doctrinally required for penance to be prior to absolution, the Holy Office condemned their assertion (Denz. 1306-1308 = DS 2316-2318).

  25. LawrenceK says:

    Sorry, I meant to say that the Jansenists wanted to revive this practice — not “revise” it! The Church in her wisdom moved from public penance to private penance, except in rare cases involving extremely grave and public acts.

    If you go to Confession with the conscious intent not to do the penance that the priest is going to prescribe, then of course that would invalidate the absolution — because that would be incompatible with an intention to submit yourself to the judgment of the Church. But if you intend to do the penance and then after leaving the confessional you change your mind, that confession is valid… although it’s possible you are now committing a new sin, depending on why you have changed your mind!

  26. AnAmericanMother says:

    We have a Father-One-and-Three at our parish. The joke is, you could go in and confess to murder and still get one-and-three.

    But, on the other hand, some “creative” penances drive me nuts because they’re not quantifiable. “Perform three acts of charity” covers a lot of ground, and just a general instruction to pray for a better control of my temper, etc. is fuzzier still.

    I kind of like the middle course — offering a specific number of prayers for a particular intention, or spending a particular amount of time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.

  27. Cath says:

    I was told to read a particular book once, but Fr. specified that after the first page or two my penance was met. He knew I would read the whole book though. I cannot recall ever having the do something nice for someone.
    American Mother- my favorite penance is prayer before the Blessed sacrament :)

  28. AnAmericanMother says:

    Me too! :-D To the extent that sometimes I wonder if it’s really a penance. Silly me, thinking that penances have to be onerous . . . .

  29. JaneC says:

    I have gotten the “perform an act of charity” one a few times, with the addendum “for someone you know.” Meaning I can’t just drop a few dollars in the poor box on the way out. Does making an extra nice dinner for my husband count, or do I have to reach a little farther? How do I know when I’ve done it?

    I vastly prefer the penances doled out by the other two priests who hear confessions at our parish. One of them generally specifies a set of prayers to be said for an intention relating to something confessed–“pray a decade of the Rosary for a person you offended.” The other generally asks prayers for a person he knows to be in need of prayers. It’s a little more involved than just “say three Hail Marys,” but not so complicated that I can’t remember it or that it takes longer than my usual time between confessions to complete.

  30. albinus1 says:

    What bothers me about some penances I’ve been given is the vagueness. “Spend some time meditating in front of the Blessed Sacrament.” Well, how long is “some time”? Thirty seconds? Two minutes? Half an hour? Meditating about what? Is it up to me to decide when I have completed the penance?

    This vagueness has extended to other areas as well. I’ve actually been told that physically being present for Mass does not, in itself, fulfill my Sunday Mass obligation. No, I also have to be “participating joyfully”, or else it doesn’t “count”. Well, who is to be the judge of that? Me? (OK, to be honest, my attendance at many NO Masses has been far from joyful. In fact, I often offer up the ordeal of suffering through NO Masses for the Poor Souls.)

    One thing I have learned in many years as a teacher is that whenever something is *required*, it must be accompanied by directions that are *clear*, *explicit*, and *objectively verifiable*. Not, “write an essay”; rather, “write a 500-700 word essay”. Otherwise, some students will write three sentences and consider that sufficient, whereas others will write five pages.

  31. Fr Martin Fox says:


    May I suggest that the next time you receive a penance in the sacrament of confession, and you are not clear on when it would be satisfied, ask that very question. Or, if you think that won’t elicit a clear enough answer, you could try this one of the following questions:

    “Father, I want to be sure I know I’ve completed my penance; would it be all right if I…(pray for X minutes, perform such-and-such an act of kindness for so-and-so)?”


    “Father, sometimes I get befuddled about whether I’ve completed my penance, would it be all right if my penance were something a little different?”

    Of course, I don’t know the priest to whom you are confessing, but in my experience, priests are always willing to clarify, or to suggest an alternate penance, as may be helpful. There are plenty of times I propose just such a “3 Hail Marys” penance precisely because I believe anything else would cause befuddlement or anxiety, and I’m sure most priests are the same way. On the other hand, there are penitents who react badly to a “3 Hail Mary” penance too, hence the attempt to do something different.

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