QUAERITUR: Am I forgiven if I don’t do a penance assigned in confession? Fr. Z rants.

From a reader:

Good morning Father, when I went to Reconciliation this past weekend I received a two part penance– the first part was immediately carried out and the second part I was to perform later at home. [grrrrr] As I sat there during Mass I got to thinking (yes, dangerous to say the least)- 1) am I allowed to partake of communion before I complete the penance and 2) if I fail to complete the penance am I still absolved. I suspect that I know the answer and I do intend to ask my confessor the same question, but thought maybe the question was interesting enough for your blog (which I greatly enjoy, by the way). May God bless you and keep you always.

I hate these “deferred penances” and do not give them.  In my opinion, the penance should be easily doable within a short time after the confession.  That way the penitent doesn’t have to wonder about whether he did it or not.

Priests should stop doing this vague penance thing right now.  Keep it simple and immediate.

As far as your questions are concerned, yes, you can go to Holy Communion.  You would not do wrong to make a spiritual Communion if you are in any doubt about your state. But, all things being equal, yes, you certainly can go to Communion if you made your good confession and you received absolution even if you did not do the penance assigned.

More on that, below… and make sure you read what I add, below.

If you forget to do the penance, because you truly became distracted through pressing circumstances, yes, you are still forgiven.

I suppose we could argue that the matter of doing penance is so important that you should have remembered to do it even though your cat was on fire, the toilet backed up and your 14 year old daughter brought her new 18 year old boyfriend to supper.

So, I don’t give deferred penances.

However… there is a more serious side to the question.

You are forgiven your sins even if you don’t do the penance.

People need to understand that the validity of the absolution and the efficacy of the sacrament do not depend on whether you do your assigned penance.

You should do the penance you are assigned.  Don’t thumb your nose at it.  Penances are important.

But God’s forgiveness is imparted by the absolution the priest gives. The satisfaction for your sins was accomplished in Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross.  For your part, for the sacrament to be efficacious, you have to make your confession with sorrow for your sins and a firm purpose of amendment.

In the 1983 Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church we read in one of the instructional canons (there are some canons which are less legal and more theological):

can. 959: In the sacrament of penance the faithful who confess their sins to a legitimate minister, are sorry for them, and intend to reform themselves obtain from God through the absolution imparted by the same minister forgiveness for the sins they have committed after baptism and, at the same, time are reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by sinning.

One of the necessary elements for the sacrament of penance to be efficacious is “satisfaction” for sins committed.  The three elements necessary for the sacrament to be efficacious are adequate sorrow for the sins, the confession of the sins, satisfaction for the sins.

Christ did the satisfaction part perfectly.  From the penitent’s point of view, the very act of confession is itself a form of satisfaction.

“But Father! But Father!”, some of you are saying by now.  “I’ve never heard such a thing!  Why, then, do priests impose penances?  Isn’t this all a bit arbitrary”?

First, we impose penances because we are obliged to impose penances.  There is an obligation in can. 981 to impose penances during confession.  Can. 981 is a legal and not just instructional type of canon.  It places an obligation on the confessor and the penitent:

Can. 981 The confessor is to impose salutary and appropriate penances, in proportion to the kind and number of sins confessed, taking into account, however, the condition of the penitent. The penitent is bound personally to fulfil these penances.

In other words, penances are to be given, and the penitent is to do them, not some one else.  You cannot pay another person to do them.  But this obligation to give and do penances does not affect the validity of the absolution or the efficacy of the sacrament.  If the penitent hasn’t done the assigned penance before going to Communion, he is still forgiven and can still go to Communion.

Why else do we impose penances?  Doing penance helps in our effort to make satisfaction for the temporal punishment due to the sins that have been sacramentally forgiven. In other words, get a start on it now, because you are going to do it sooner or later.  Doing penances can fulfill what we have to do out of justice to make amends for the wrong we did to others.  Making amends can be hard.  Doing penance can help us root out from our lives the vices that led to the sins.  We need concrete acts to counteract habits.  Because our sorrow for sin is sometimes imperfect (though adequate), we do penance.  Because Christ joins our penances to His own perfect act of satisfaction for our sins and offers them for us to the Father, we do penances.  Because we receive something, yes, ineffable, through no merit of our own we do penances in reparation for our faults and in gratitude for the pardon we have been given.

Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus: cor contritum, et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies.

Are those good enough reasons?

And, yes, it is a bit arbitrary to assign penances.  How do we really judge that 3 Hail Marys are proportioned to, say, serial adultery.  But how would 10 Rosaries be proportioned?

In any event, the penances assigned in confession do not affect the efficacy of the sacramental absolution we receive.

Confession can be hard, but it shouldn’t be the rack.

Priests should take it easy on people and not assign penances that are vague or hard to do.  They should make clear to people what the requirements are for the sacrament of penance to be efficacious, so that they are not left in doubt or, by falling into error, run the risk of becoming discouraged or overly scrupulous.

Priests should do this out of charity and, simply put, because it’s their job.

UPDATE 10 Sept 1646 GMT:

Someone gave me a link to a blog, Improperium Christi, where a similar argument is used.  Check it out HERE.  And there is a follow up, citing this post, HERE.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. pfreddys says:

    I have such a horrible memory that alot of time I dont recall if I did the penace from my last confession. When I’m in this situation I tell the priest I cannot recall if I did do the penace from my last confession; in every instance the priest(s) have told me that the penace he will assign includes the penace from my last confession. I’m sure this is correct.

  2. Supertradmum says:

    Thank you for this important discussion. I have been given You Tube sermons from retreats for penance and had to sort out all the difficulties that caused me in an area where I did not have regular access, except on a small phone, which sometimes worked. This penance did give me anxiety and I had to phone the priest to clarify the penance, as there were 16 talks and I thought I had to listen to all of them. As it turned out, I only had to listen to one and it was very boring. I am not sure why some priests feel such penances are better than a sincerely said and meditated upon rosary, for example. The other problem is the arbitrariness of some penances. I can understand a penance which, for example I had from an excellent priest, to pray for someone I had uncharitable thoughts towards. That makes sense as a penance. But being kind to my mom, or going to a food pantry to help out for things which are unrelated seem odd and contrived. Again, thank you for an excellent outline as given above and much thought to a real problem.

  3. SentimentalGent says:

    Regarding penances, should a priest ask the penitent what kind of penance he wanted to do? Years ago I went to confession and was asked what kind of penance I wanted to do. There was dead silence because I didn’t know what to say I was so surprised. After the quiet time, the priest told me to read a prayer on the back of the missalette. A couple of months later, I went to confession in this church again (It was in a town I visit every so often and wasn’t my parish church) and I got the same priest. After my confession, the priest asked me again what kind of penance I wanted to do. I was ready this time and told him I would pray five decades of the Rosary. When I said that, there was silence from the other side of the screen. He didn’t expect that one. He said OK, and I left and said the Rosary before I left the church. [But I hope you know that the efficacy of the sacrament did not depend on your saying those prayers. You got that, right? Because that was the point of the entry. As for me, I, not the penitent, assign the penances.]

  4. (X)MCCLXIII says:

    Dear Father,

    Your posts on confession are always excellent, some of the best things on the blog.

    Thank you. [Thank you!]

  5. Rich says:

    I once made a “routine” confession of the few venial sins I committed most often and was given the penance of picking up a copy of “The Word Among Us” from the foyer of the church and reading it everyday for a month. I was already everyday 1) going to Mass, 2) making a holy hour, 3) praying 15 decades of the rosary, 4) praying the Divine Office, and 5) making a meditation on the day’s gospel reading. Needless to say, the “The Word Among Us” penance did not last for a whole month. [But I hope you know that the efficacy of the sacrament did not depend on your doing that reading. You got that, right? Because that was the point of the entry. As for me, I normally assign easy penances.]

  6. akp1 says:

    Thanks for this Father, so helpful. One of the Confessors I go to says, ‘spend some time in prayer about…..’whatever might be relevant (vaguely) – the first time I had to pop back and ask what the penance was, then of course try to define to myself how long is ‘some time’! Some might say a couple of minutes but I end up doing an hour, at least I feel it’s definitely done then! But of course it’s usually impossible to do it on the same day; 3 Hail Mary’s, the Rosary; anything with a title and number is so much better than something vague. Confession is wonderful but I am always nervous so one thing less to be nervous about is a blessing! [And the efficacy of the sacrament did not depend on your saying those prayers. You got that part, right?]

  7. Mother says:

    God bless you, Fr. Z

  8. Charles E Flynn says:

    It is regrettable that the text “And the efficacy of the sacrament did not depend on your saying those prayers. You got that part, right?” is too long to fit on a mug. [I bet I could make it fit. o{]:¬) ]

  9. Rich says:

    Yes, Father, I got that. Thanks for reiterating.

  10. tecumseh says:

    So can we say that ….Be brief, be brutal and be gone…..works either side of the grill..??

    Where in the priest is breif…brutal in the sense that he keeps it straight forward….and he lets the penitent be gone so as the next guy…or indeed gal, gets to throw themselves on the Mercy of God..??

    Great post father, always does good to remind us of the need for confession.

    I try and go every week, but not when I’m away at work where that is imposible…..so maybe some one will light a candle for us who have to miss confession this week….after they have been to confession themselves

  11. Father,

    Thank you for citing the canon stating “The confessor is to impose salutary and appropriate penances . . . ”

    It seems to me that this would imply that the confessor should actually be paying attention and giving a reasonable and useful penance — and also that the two extremes, namely “Say two Hail Marys and don’t do it again” [I don’t think that is one of the extremes. Nothing is an extreme.] or “Three hours of mortification before sundown” are avoided! (Exaggeration intended!)

    I find your commentary on the Sacrament of Confession to be quite helpful.

  12. Dr. K says:

    Random question:

    Can a priest assign a penance that asks for the penitent to turn themselves in to the police? For example, if a person confessed to murders as part of some serial killing rampage. [No, but that is a different topic.]

  13. I’ll admit, this stung a little bit–I’ve only been hearing confessions for a few months and still am trying to work on this portion of priestly ministry. To be honest, I definitely err on the side of the “custom penance” side of the spectrum; I experienced the ways that this could be helpful as a penitent and really wanted that to be something I continued on the other side of the screen as a confessor. However, I’ve definitely screwed up a few times on this and given penances I really regret later, for the reasons that you cite here. Chalk it up to inexperience and misdirected zeal….

    I’ve learned enough to recognize when a person is troubled or confused by an attempted “custom” penance, and give them something concrete and immediately doable. Sometimes when the penance tends toward vagueness–such as praying over a given psalm or Scripture passage–I’m specific about the time frame involved and try to give them “trigger points” to recognize when a penance would or would not be completed. I do always ask if a penance is doable and make sure the penitent agrees to it.

    However, as time goes by, I’m more inclined to send them over to the statue of the child Jesus on the other side of church and have them pray the prayer posted on the wall next to it, and be done with it. Or give them a holy card and let them pray the prayer on the back. It’s a concrete, clear penance, but also seems to have some more uniqueness to it than a standard paternoster avemaria, which may be why some people get frustrated with those as penances–sometimes the challenge of going to confession deserves a little reward!

  14. aarmstrong says:

    I had a confessor who would give me the option of a harder penance if I desired. I always chose the harder penance because it seemed to tie the spiritual counseling and reparation together.

  15. digdigby says:

    I had a confessor who liked to give a penance of “One Our Father….. but slowly.”.

  16. Gregg the Obscure says:

    Thanks for this clarification. It’s very good that absolution isn’t conditioned on performance of the penance. There are some penances where it’s overly difficult to gauge their completion (one recent case: “do something nice for someone”, an older one: “give a large amount of alms” – a thousand dollars seems large to me, but would be tiny for a rich man and impossible for a poor man, so what’s appropriate?). I sometimes wonder if vague penances are a way that a confessor subtly nudges some penitents to select other confessors.

    I appreciate the somewhat custom penances such as praying a less well-known prayer from a holy card – that’s how I was introduced to Cdl. Merry del Val’s Litany of Humility.

    Thank you for reminding me and your other readers of the importance of this sacrament.

  17. Random Friar says:

    I am probably one of those priests who annoys you in this case. I do give deferred penances when there is a case of justice that needs to be resolved (e.g., return that which you have stolen, or donate it, but do not keep it at all if at all possible), or some serious denial of a right or injury to another. I tell them that I cannot make them do that part, especially if it will expose their crime (if not already known). I also do not make it something unrelated or labyrinthine.

    If it is about returning or trying to make up for stolen goods, I insist, insist that the money does not end in any Church coffer of any kind. People are usually shocked at that part… but when I tell them that the Church has no want of ill-gotten gains, or the seeming of pardoning sins for profit, they always understand.

    One of the “optional” suggestions that I give is to take a pamphlet about, for one example, the effects of your pornography and leave it totally up to them. I need to include those pamphlets in my marriage prep, giving one to both, saying “If you even think of being tempted, see who’s hurt in this so-called ‘victimless’ crime

  18. Hidden One says:

    I have had one confessor sometimes give me a small penance, and then direct me to do something else on top of that. He would indicate that the other thing(s) was/were not part of my penance. I think that that is a very good way for priests to get penitents to do beneficial things without being limited to things that are easily judged as having been completed satisfactorily. A simple format like “Your penance is five Hail Mary’s. In addition, not as part of your penance, you should do something particularly kind toward _insert_here_ to help you grow in virtue” is helpful.

  19. ajrockers says:

    Fr. Z,

    I’m having difficulty reconciling this post with the following statement from Session XIV of the Council of Trent:
    The holy council teaches furthermore, that the form of the sacrament of penance, in which its efficacy chiefly consists, are those words of the minister: I absolve thee, etc., to which are indeed laudably added certain prayers according to the custom of holy Church, which, however, do not by any means belong to the essence of the form nor are they necessary for the administration of the sacrament. But the acts of the penitent himself, namely, contrition,[15] confession and satisfaction, constitute the matter of this sacrament, which acts, inasmuch as they are by God’s institution required in the penitent for the integrity of the sacrament and for the full and complete remission of sins, are for this reason called the parts of penance. But that which is signified and produced by this sacrament is, so far as its force and efficacy are concerned, reconciliation with God, which sometimes, in persons who are pious and who receive this sacrament with devotion, is wont to be followed by peace and serenity of conscience with an exceedingly great consolation of spirit. The holy council, while declaring these things regarding the parts and effect of this sacrament, at the same time condemns the opinions of those who maintain that faith and the terrors that agitate conscience are parts of penance.

    It seems to me that the satisfaction of the penitent is part of the matter of the sacrament and therefore integral to its validity. Would you mind clearing this up for me? I haven’t taken moral theology or canon law yet, so I may be missing something. Thanks

    [Okay. You are having difficulty. Read the paragraph again. I never said that satisfaction was not essential to the sacrament. It is. I was crystal clear about that. What constitutes satisfaction is the point. Also, when the penitent receives absolution it is either efficacious or it isn’t. It doesn’t become efficacious later on because the penitent said a couple Hail Marys later on. Good things follow from the doing to the penance, but the validity and effect of the absolution do not depend on the doing of the assigned penance.]

  20. Random Friar says:

    @Hidden One: I’ve done a similar thing, although I have to roll my eyes when I get asked, “so how much does ‘being kind’ mean?” So I’ve taken to adding “Nothing extravagant, just something that the other person would appreciate very much.”

  21. Catholictothecore says:

    Your posts on confession, Father, are always very helpful. Thank you.

  22. PaterAugustinus says:

    Is there not still a sense in Catholicism, that sometimes a penance should be hard and must needs be deferred until later for fulfillment? In the Orthodox Church, we will often be given a penance like, “Chant Paraklesis at your soonest convenience, and add 20 prostrations to your rule for this next week,” etc. I don’t see that an ongoing or deferred penance need be vague, and I don’t see why it should be viewed with disdain; this is a very normal practice in Sacred Tradition.

    Just for information’s sake, we Orthodox believe that confession is effective for all the sins confessed, even if the penance is not fulfilled. But, the obligation to fulfill a penance is so serious, that deliberately refusing or casually neglecting its fulfillment would require another confession. That said, the point isn’t to check items off a list; a penance is designed to help us discover the depth of our sin, and offer worthy fruits of repentance. So long as we’re doing our best, and we make some effort to correct our honest and infrequent mistake, there’s no need to worry. The sin lies in deliberately or casually neglecting the penance, not in accidentally slipping up a point or two.

  23. As a priest (who used to give ‘pastoral’ penances), this point was driven home during a confession where the penitent confessed that the previously assigned penance wasn’t something they were able to finish. When I asked why & what the penance was, I recognized it as one I had assigned.

    It was a terrible thing to know what is meant to be an avenue of grace continuing after the sacrament instead became a burden instead. I’ve been sure to give direct, specific and complete-able penances ever since!

  24. Faith says:

    I found this post VERY enlightening. I didn’t know that. In fact, I had a confessor that didn’t know that.
    I once went to confession in a new (to me) church. I wanted to pray my penance in the church’s Eucharistic Chapel. I got lost trying to find it. Ten minutes later, in front of the monstrance, I couldn’t remember what the penance was.
    I knew it was something simple, e.i., 3 Hail Mary’s. But to cover everything, I prayed every memorized prayer I knew, 3 x.
    A month later, in my parish church, I happened to mention this to the confessor — that I forgot the penance I was given, and that I probably prayed more than the original penance. The confessor got bent out of shape. He said I had to go back to that church and confessor and repeat the confession all over again, because the absolution wasn’t valid!
    I don’t know who that first confessor was? What if he wasn’t their parish priest, but a helper on weekends or something? Nevermind, the fact that I don’t remember what I confessed!
    Before I went out on this Confession Scavenger Hunt, I discussed the matter with my pastor. He said “Forgetaboutit.”
    But he didn’t explain it, like you did. Thank you.

  25. Supertradmum says:

    Perhaps some priests do not realize how hard it is to do some penances, which seem simple to them, who are in the ecclesiastical world. The very interesting comments above indicate that the typical lay person, like myself, might not be able to buy the Magnificat, or go online or do anything but get to Church and say a rosary. Again, a mug would be a great idea….even I, who am very fussy about my drinking crockery would consider a penance one. Thanks again, Father Z. And, for most of the laity, going to Confession is very difficult. In my parish, it is only offered for one hour a week, which I cannot get to most times.

  26. Supertradmum says:

    Perhaps some priests do not realize how hard it is to do some penances, which seem simple to them, who are in the ecclesiastical world. The very interesting comments above indicate that the typical lay person, like myself, might not be able to buy the Magnificat, or go online or do anything but get to Church and say a rosary. Again, a mug would be a great idea….even I, who am very fussy about my drinking crockery would consider a penance one. Thanks again, Father Z. And, for most of the laity, going to Confession is very difficult. In my parish, it is only offered for one hour a week, which I cannot get to most times.

  27. Supertradmum says:

    Perhaps if any given priest understood the power and efficacy of one Hail Mary, this problem would be less evident.

  28. albizzi says:

    Another interesting but relating question is:
    Does the assigned penance by the priest during confession suffice to avoid the purgatorial sufferings which the sins (only those of that confession) would bring if the penance had not been performed?

  29. jkm210 says:

    I don’t mind a deferred penance as long as it is simple. The vast majority of the time, I just get the “Our Father and Hail Mary” type of penance, and I just do it before I leave the church. Once, I got “do a kind deed for your husband today,” and that’s easy enough. My husband once had to buy me flowers as a penance! That was nice, but since I normally only get flowers on Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, it required an explanation, which led me to wonder what he had confessed that prompted the flowers….so maybe it wasn’t such a good idea on the part of the priest!

  30. digdigby says:

    The Sort of Thing to Expect in Ireland 2020:


  31. JaneC says:

    Thank you for answering this question, Father. I think I submitted, not this question, but a very similar one a while back. The pastor of my parish often gives vague, “custom” penances without a specified end date or circumstance: “Do some spiritual reading every day…perform an act of kindness for someone in need…” I avoid going to confession to him now because of this. I am glad to know that I was not wrong to receive the Eucharist without having completed these vague assignments.

    The other two priests who hear confession at my parish are less vague–one gives standard “three Hail Marys”-type penances, and the other often asks us to spend five or ten minutes in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, or to pray a prayer of our choice for someone he knows who’s in trouble.

  32. Toadehall says:

    I understand your aversion to deferred penances and your argument makes sense. Even so, I have found them to be very helpful in my own spiritual growth. My usual confessor is fond of these penances and generally, they end up focusing me on some aspect of my spiritual life that needs attention for a longer period of tim than an immediate penance would. I realize this is probably a combination of spiritual direction within the context of confession and the practice of penance, but don’t be too had on priests who do this. Delayed penances have their place.

  33. ContraMundum says:

    Before I converted, I had the idea that pennance might be something like, for example, no hot water in my showers for 3 months.

  34. Speravi says:

    I think Pater Augustinus does have a couple of good points. First, there is a real obligation which the Church places on the penitent to do his penance. The sins confessed are certainly forgiven. The forgiveness of the sins is not dependent on doing the penance. However, the priest actually has the authority to impose a real obligation on the penitent to do the penance. To INTENTIONALLY and UNNECESSARILY skip an assigned penance is not the same as simply skipping a non-obligatory devotion. I would guess it would be closer to something like eating meat on a Friday in Lent (another ecclesiastically imposed penance). I am not, however, sure of the gravity of the obligation. Additionally, as I understand it, if a penitent is not able to do his penance, he can bring it to his confessor (or another confessor) in his next confession, and the confessor can commute the penance to something else. Also, if a penitent is unsure about or unable to perform a penance, they do well to tell the priest immediately so that he can change or clarify the penance…this is better than leaving the confessional confused and nervous.
    The second point Fr. Augustinus made is about giving hard penances. He is right that there is a very long tradition of them and that they can certainly be beneficial. However, modern Roman Catholics are not accustomed to them and would likely find them burdensome or shocking in proportion to what they usually receive. Therefore, while permitted, they are usually not prudent. The Code of Canon law, as Fr. Z cited above, says explicitly that the penance is to be imposed “taking into account…the condition of the penitent.” In a culture where this is expected and understood, prudence might dictate otherwise.

  35. sparks1093 says:

    Thanks for the informative post (as always) Fr. Z! Another great article to share with my CCD class.

  36. Bosco says:

    I am so grateful for these clarifications, Father Z. A number of years ago (perhaps 25 now) I went to confession and the priest told me that my penance was for my wife and me to attend marital counselling. Now my wife had genuine psychiatric problems (as diagnosed by our family doctor) which I had hoped I had made clear during my confession. I told the priest I’d try, but I knew there was no hope of complying and that merely suggesting counselling to her (a thing I’d done before and was refused) would trigger a long-lasting rage and much unhappiness for myself and the children. I always wondered if I’d been forgiven since I didn’t do the ‘penance’ as prescribed. Now I feel better about it. Thanks.

  37. kittenchan says:

    Two points, with questions.

    1. Are priests no longer required to do the penances they impose? I seem to recall reading that way back in the Way Back Time, some penances were getting a bit out of hand, like carving stairs in a mountain for a pilgrimage path, and priests were eventually required to do the penances they made their penitents do so that they didn’t just assign lifelong arduous tasks. I think the more convoluted custom penances would diminish if this were the case.

    2. I went to confession once at my (awesome, traditionally-minded, orthodox, NO) parish, and I told the priest as part of my confession that I had not completed the penance given to me at my last confession. He told me that since I hadn’t done my penance, even though I was forgiven, my confession wasn’t “completed” (or something like that, I hadn’t finished it) until I had done it, so he couldn’t give me absolution this time around until after I had done it. He’s a trustworthy, knowledgeable priest, so I believed him and I still feel inclined to, but the discussion here seems to imply that (if one wanted to play with fire) one could go to confession and receive absolution as often as one likes without ever doing one’s penance. Which is it?

  38. germangreek says:

    I, too, was once given the penance of performance of a kind act for someone. First time in my life and I was wondering what might count since it was Saturday afternoon and I would be having dinner and staying in all evening with just my wife and I don’t really count any incidental kindnesses in my relationship with her as really all that kind because I like being married to her and what else would I do, be mean to her? Besides, there’s a healthy measure of self-interest tied up in being kind to one’s wife.

    I live only a block from the church, and as I was walking home, there, by the grace of God, was a motorist stuck in the snow, whom I was able to assist. Turns out she was another parishioner, so maybe there weren’t as many kindness points as there would have been if she’d been a stranger, but I was grateful for God’s provision.

    I suppose I should learn that God always provides, but I still don’t care for that kind of penance.

  39. Imrahil says:

    As a matter of fact, I find “don’t do it again” to be a harder Penance than three hours mortification before sundown. (Though I’d ask what practices of mortification he means.) In the second case, I know at least that the penance is done. To sin would be – sinful. It is quite hard if it also makes vain the satisfaction part of a penance, even though I

    know that the efficacy of the sacrament does not depend on doing the assigned Penance.

    “Being kind to someone” is extraordinarily hard. I once pressed my sister around “know what, I’ll do that for you as a favour”, and as she didn’t refuse my words, I could be sure that this was a favor. However, this was quite an unnatural behaviour of my part. And then there’s still the possibility that the penitent is still fighting around to get to know what is right and what isn’t and doesn’t safely distinguish an allowed kindness from a sinful kindness.

  40. scotus says:

    I found this VERY helpful. Twice I have been given vague penances and wondered (a) if I have ever actually completed them and (b) whether I was right to go to Communion before doing so. Now I know the answers to both questions. On one occasion, after confessing my sins, the priest asked, “What does God mean to you?” His penance involved thinking about what God meant to me. How was I ever supposed to complete that penance?

  41. marymoore says:

    Thanks, Fr. Z! However, I now have another question. You stated that Canon Law states: ” The penitent is bound personally to fulfil these penances.” How serious is the obligation? Last week my confessor (obviously English was not his primary language) told me my penance was something about praying for deeper faith. Actually, it was a lot more detailed than that, but that was the gist of it. So I prayed for deeper faith and “everything else Father said.” Is that acceptable?

  42. Rich A says:

    Our parish priest keeps a large file of type-written prayers in the confessional. For penance, he hands you a prayer or two related to the sin you confessed. The downside of this is what to do with the printouts after leaving the confessional. Anyone seeing your penance could speculate about what you confessed! I am wondering if this could conceivably violate the seal?

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