Too stupid for words: planting trees instead of going to confession

I am not making this up.  This is from Treehugger.


Priest in Brazil Replaces Prayer With Tree-Planting
by Stephen Messenger, Porto Alegre, Brazil on 06.22.11

Planting trees may be a great way to help save the environment, but thanks to one Catholic diocese in Brazil, it’s having a similar effect on parishioners’ immortal souls. In an effort to bring a bit of green back to the small city of Pires do Rio, a local priest has begun telling churchgoers that the only way to get square with the man upstairs and cleanse themselves of sin isn’t through prayer, but by getting their hands dirty planting trees. So, the city’s faithful are on a roll righting their sins — and they’ve a forest’s worth, in fact.

According to a report from Globo, confession-time in the central Brazilian city has taken a turn for the green. Typically, the Catholic sacrament involves churchgoers divulging their moral indiscretions to a priest who then instructs them to pray to God as a way of absolving themselves of sin [My God!  How wrong is that?] — but while that may offer peace to the faithful, it’s usually not much of a benefit to the environment. A local priest, unnamed in the report, is hoping to change all that; He’s telling his parishioners that the way to find forgiveness is by planting trees[We should create a new award.  The “Puir Slow-Witted Gowk” Award? The “Oaf For A Day!” Award?]

“Take a seed from a tree native to your region,” says the priest. “Because if you plant the seed and take care of the tree we will see a better tomorrow.”

And the padre’s eco-minded positivity is winning its fair share of supporters among the town’s religious community — a welcome departure from the doom and gloom so often associated with penance and reconciliation[Perhaps the writer of this article and the unnamed priest will be able to share the “Oaf For A Day!” Award.]

“I was surprised, because for a lot of priests the penitence is a bad thing, [?!?] but in this case you have your sins forgiven [?!?] and you are still making the environment better for the future,” churchgoer Aline Pedreira tells Globo.

So far, the sins have really added up, represented now as nearly a thousand young sprouts carefully tended to in seed trays and planters. Come October, when the saplings are matured, the faithful residence of Pires do Rio say they plan on holding a tree-planting celebration. They’ve even chosen a perfect spot to host the embodiments of their penitence: a part of town left devastated and denuded by sinners past — soon to be a fitting tribute to the power of redemption.

We are going to see a lot more of this.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, Puir Slow-Witted Gowk, Throwing a Nutty and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. ContraMundum says:

    The main point is, as Father said, beyond words, but there’s something basically stupid about planting trees in Brazil, too. Sure, I know there are so many acres of rain forest destroyed every day, but at the same time, if you just do nothing, the jungle will return. That’s even a problem where I grew up in Florida; if you don’t keep your lawn mowed, it will rapidly be taken over by fast-growing pine trees.

  2. Philangelus says:

    The writer of the article got so much wrong that I’m wondering if the tree-planting isn’t the penance part of the sacrament. I’ve been given some bizarre penances in my time, including “Vacuum your whole house by Tuesday,” so I wouldn’t blink at the idea of a priest telling someone to plant a tree for her penance.

    It wouldn’t be illicit or invalid for a priest to say that as the penance *after* a person confessed and received a proper absolution, no?

  3. Philangelus says:

    BTW, if the sapling does, do the sins come back…?

  4. Dan G. says:

    Like Philangelus, I think that, clearing away the fog of the article’s many mistakes, it sounds like the priest is hearing the penitent’s confession and assigning planting a tree as penance. And that is a fine, valid penance, isn’t it?

  5. Rich says:

    My wife is from Brazil. She acknoweledges that traditional Catholicism has been falling out for some time in this country in which practically everyone considers himself Catholic and is baptized but never goes to Mass. And, most people aren’t really concerned for relearning authentic Caholicism, but whose ears are itching to learn trendy new ways to practice their faith so as to still wear the “Catholic” badge “meaningfully”. It’s as if Brazil is going through what we saw a lot of in the 80’s in this country. Part of me does not find this story so alarming, however, as I don’t think these people would be going to confession otherwise.

  6. Luke says:

    I logged in to write exactly what Philangelus did, but now I don’t have to worry. Frankly, the priest deserves our kudos.

  7. MichaelJ says:

    Don’t you mean to say that the Priest deserves our kudzus?

  8. Jason Keener says:

    I think we have a strong candidate for the Doofus of the Day Award.

  9. Augustin57 says:

    Are Brazilian priests required to go through the same level of education and formation as priests in this country??? It seems not.

  10. The Egyptian says:

    To quote Glenn Beck “wrap you head with duct tape, this is going to make it explode”

    All I can think of is AAAAAAHHHHHHH.

  11. This reminded me of a stupefying YouTube video that circulated several years ago. This seems to be a shortened version:

  12. John UK says:

    I think the biggest problem here lies with Mr.Messenger (angel in Greek, of course – perhaps he needs to consider his name?!?) – with Mr.Messenger’s reporting.

    He writes: Typically, the Catholic sacrament involves churchgoers divulging their moral indiscretions to a priest who then instructs them to pray to God as a way of absolving themselves of sin showing a lack of research and appreciation of the sacrament.
    Which research might have lead him to discover that
    Confession of sins [not mere moral indiscretions]>>
    >>[advice & counsel to and acceptance of a penance (often a prayer) by the penitent >>
    >>priest granting absolution to penitent in God’s name >>
    >>execution of penance by penitent
    is the usual pattern of administration of the Sacrament [unless something is very amiss in Brazil].

    It seems to me that should the Sacrament actually be administered in the usual manner, and not as described by the reporter, then certain creative thing in choice of penance (remembering that the penance is a token, and should be within the penitent’s capabilities) may not be such a bad thing. After all, was it not St.Benedict who said laborare est orare?
    And should not also, where and as possible, some restitution/reparation (not to be confused with penance) be made?

    Kind regards,
    John U.K.

  13. isnowhere says:

    Today… everything I print and copy will be single sided. I plan to use a toothpick at lunch. I might even print out some of my emails so that I can read them on paper. And when I get my groceries tonight… I will ask for paper AND plastic.

  14. pfreddys says:

    It also seemed to me that this is a case of sloppy reporting and bad writing. I also got the sense that the priest was assigning the tree planting as the penance to be performed. It might be abit creative for some tastes but I cant see anything wrong with that.

  15. digdigby says:

    This is seven years old but still true. Rifan was an early and gentle proponent of the traditional Latin Mass.
    Bishop Rifan noted that church attendance in Brazil at parishes with the Latin Mass hovers around 50 percent of the congregation, compared to 10 percent at other Catholic churches. Church attendance in the United States is about 30 percent of a congregation.

  16. lucy says:

    This is simply a return to paganism. God is so yesterday to so many folks, but who can blame them ? The faith hasn’t been taught in how long now ? 40+ years ?

    I thank God that I have the grace needed to believe in my faith of only 20 years (convert) and that we have a local traditional Mass which feeds our souls so wonderfully. Now, may God grant us a good bishop (we await his appointment).

  17. Panterina says:

    Father Z., you did not make this up, but Mr. Messenger, the writer at, probably did.

    I think Philangelus got it right: The original Brazilian piece talked about penance. It seems that Mr. Messenger doesn’t know the difference between penance and confession.
    Moral of the story: If it’s too good to be true, it probably is–better check one’s fact. But then it would have killed the “story”, wouldn’t it? (I had an editor chastise me once for deflating a story because the real facts weren’t as sensational as the reported story made it to be. Ah, journalists, gotta love them! )

  18. Luke says:


    Very, very clever! That put a small smile on my face (a rare thing indeed in the comments section of this blog).

  19. wanda says:

    I vote for the puir slow-witted gowk title. It sounds worthy of the situation. How utterly stupid and, if I may, sinful. Woe to this priest, if he actually said to plant a tree instead of going to confession. Lord have mercy.

  20. MargaretMN says:

    I thought the same thing JohnUK, laborare est orare, that the priest might be a Benedictine or maybe a Franciscan and this was part of a pennance, not THE pennance and certainly not the confession. I think the writer is confused about catholic sacraments (not a shocker) and I would give the priest the benefit of the doubt, before complaining about him or his flock. Crazy new age treehugger priest is certainly a sterotype we can all recognize though.

  21. Tim Ferguson says:

    The stupidity is clearly on the part of the Treehugger translator, who has seemingly little grasp of what goes on in the sacrament of reconciliation. The original story from Globo, and the accompanying video make clear (insofar as my limited ability to understand Portuguese allows) that the treeplanting is not replacing confession, but is being given as a penance. (The video also shows some people actually confessing to the good friar – I hope those “confessions” are staged, or we’ve got some serious issues about violating the seal going on here)

    Whether tree-planting is a salubrious penance is another story. Perhaps it’s out of the same sort of spirit as St. Philip Neri giving a gossip the penance of ripping open a feather pillow on top of a tower and then trying to collect the feathers. To me, it seems a bit too gimmicky – but I’d rather have “plant a tree” given as a penance than “do what you think would be appropriate for a penance,” as I’ve gotten before.

  22. Mundabor says:

    Either the writer is exceptionally ignorant, or he is very thick, or something has gone lost in translation, I think. .

    I can’t imagine a priest who hasn’t already decided to leave the Church to tell his parishioners that planting tree can be in any way a substitute to confession.

    My impression is that the planting of trees is given as *penance*, instead of the prayers also generally given as penance.

    Personally, I think I’d refuse to accept a penance like that as I think my penance is nothing the priest should misuse to further his political agenda.


  23. TupinikinNosEUA says:

    I’m Brazilian myself. I’ve read and watched the original video and news in Portuguese. Here is what I can tell you:
    Brazil’s theme for their equivalent of the CCHD has to do with ecology. To bring people to reflect on the planet (focusing on this year’s campaign) the priest is telling everybody who comes to confession that their penance is to cultivate a seed of a native tree, nurturing and taking care of it. He did that also in one of those (I’ve never seen one) sacrament of reconciliation with general absolution. So everyone in the church went out looking for seeds – they don’t mention how many people were there. His goal is to, in October, take the people in some sort of procession with their sprouting seeds and plant them on an empty devastated area in the vicinity, and here, my guess is this would be a way to make amends(?). Does it make sense?

  24. medievalist says:

    Could bring a new meaning to: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

    But, seriously, considering the new classes of seminarians and the ongoing biological solution, we will probably actually see quite a bit less of this.

  25. TravelerWithChrist says:

    …the “Oaf For A Day!” Award. …
    Perhaps the priest (and writer) will earn their own “Oaf for ETERNITY” award…

    I pray they have a conversion, the focus should not be on the environment (unless their sins involved destroying trees) but on cleansing souls.

  26. jto57l says:

    After reading the original story, I had to ask: Is it any wonder the Evangelicals are walking off with the flock in South America? Hopefully, the translation is at least 82% at fault.

  27. digdigby says:

    ” What profit it a man to reforest the whole world if he lose his soul?”

  28. Actually, apart from whatever other silliness is attached to this, in and of itself, and perhaps depending upon what the sins confessed were, planting a tree as penance isn’t such a bad thing. Planting a tree is something done most likely not for oneself, but more for posterity. A fully-grown shade tree will benefit someone twenty or fifty years up the road far more than it will benefit the planter. As such, it can be an act of selflessness, which seems to me to be good penance. Now, if someone confesses murder, maybe planting a tree isn’t quite suitable. But for other, venial sins, it isn’t all bad. But if the priest assigning tree-planting told me that Hail Marys and Our Fathers are “old-fashioned” or “behind the times,” I would be tempted to grab a tree branch and start thrashing him with it.

  29. Panterina says:


    “confissão comunitária” is a communal Penance Service, which normally comes with private confession and individual absolution. I did not read anything in the Globo article to suggest general confession and absolution, which I understand is a very rare form used only in case of emergency. But who knows how accurately Globo reported the facts.

  30. melch_arias says:

    Father, I think there is some misunderstanding in regards to this story. I am also from Brazil and the original story just says that people from this small town in Brazil were encouraged to come to confession to engage in a reflection and reconciliation with Christ but as penintence the father encouraged them to pray AND to help with the reforestation of the local forest that had been suffering with so much deforestation and such was really culminating to serious environmental and micro-climatic changes in Goias, the state where they are from.

    Such deforestation has mainly been fuelled by Brazil’s higher supply of meat and soy beans to the constant and higher demand that China and Russia have required in order to feed their own and respective peoples.

    I hope this really clears everything out

    In Christ

  31. TravelerWithChrist says:

    This brings to mind the “ONCE SAVED ALWAYS SAVED” philosophy – if I plant a tree, my sins are forgiven. How many trees can one plant. Sorry guys, we are sinning far more frequently; my yard would be so full of saplings I’d have my own forest in a year… This gives the false security that “I did my duty (is this comparable to receiving absolution?), therefore I’m saved.
    Nay, we should constantly be striving to become more holy, going to confession more than once; preferably once to several times a month (pre-VII, people went once a week) – that is what draws us closer to God; if we take care of our souls, he will take care of the forest (the Old Testament is full of such stories).

  32. RCGuerilla says:

    I have lived in Brazil (I am a Cuban-American) since 2006 and worked back and forth since 2001. There is a “popular” priest here, with TV appearances and CDs and books for sale. Recently he was asked by a listener “Father, I have lived with my (hetero) partner for 20 years but we are not married. Is this a sin? Do I have to pay for this sin? Must I get married?”
    His response was “you do not have to pay for this sim because Jesus has already paid the price. If you have been faithful, this is more pleasing to God than marriage. If the Spirit moves you to get married, you should do so. If not, time has shown that your union is as stable as any marriage.”
    Sadly, “inculturation” and the flawed, failed “liberation theology” has done much damage here in Brazil.
    On Good Friday the Cathedral where I live announced “general absolution” to anyone who attended the Communal Confession.
    It is common to walk in to a Catholic Church and find a “pentecostal service” instead of Mass. Please pray for me, us, the Church in Brazil..

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