QUAERITUR: I don’t know if the priest gave me a penance during confession. Are my sins forgiven?

From a reader:

I went to Confession this weekend and the confessor was a man with a very thick [FOREIGN] accent. On top of that, while pronouncing the absolution he seemed… a little out of it (that sounds like a bit much to me, but it’s the best way I can describe it). He ended with ‘thank you, have a nice day’ before I had a chance to say an Act of Contrition, and I also couldn’t tell if he gave me any penance (in hindsight, I should have asked, but I was rather surprised by the brevity of the exchange, and it was also only my third confession; I prayed 1o Hail Mary’s just in case).

My question, then, is whether the Rite of Reconciliation requires the act of contrition by the penitent or the giving of a penance by the confessor (cf. can. 981)?

I love this.  It was your third confession and you quoting canon law like a vet.  Well done!  I like informed Catholics.

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

Nevertheless, 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.

That said, let’s go over a few things.

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.   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, a confessor 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.

Also, some confessors keep track of the penances they give penitents and then do them themselves afterward.

In the situation you describe, considering the linguistic difficulties, it may well have been that the priest imposed a penance but you did not understood.

In normal circumstances, when you are not sure about the penance and you and the confessor are communicating reasonably well,. you can always ask for a clarification when in doubt.   “Father, I didn’t understand the penance.  Could you repeat it, please?”

But that’s water under the bridge at this point.

People will, once in a while, forget the penance that was assigned.  This can happen when some well-meaning priest assigns one of those loopy, long, open-ended penances, such as, “Read the seventh chapter of the Second Book of Kings and spend some time under an elm tree counting ladybugs while you think about the impact your use of fossil fuels has on the environment.”

In those cases, just substituted some good work, as you seem to have done.

Going to confession the next time you could say that you didn’t do an assigned penance because you didn’t understand it, forget it, couldn’t do it.. whatever… and that you, instead, substituted 10 Our Fathers and 10 Hail Marys.

In the meantime, rest confident in the fact that your sins were forgiven.   You can receive Communion without any qualms on that point of the penance.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    In the words of President Ronald Reagan, “here we go again . . . .”

  2. As acardnal said, It seems like this is one of the most oft-misunderstood aspects of any Sacrament.

    Having said that, I love your repeated emphasis on it and assurance to people that the power of Absolution itself lies in the pronouncement of Christ through the words of the Priest, and not in penance afterward, which is satisfaction for justice and the remedy for trying to stay out of purgatory.

  3. Philangelus says:

    Have you ever found yourself in a situation like you described (e.g., absolving someone in danger of death in an emergency situation while emergency response crews are trying to extract the person and save his life)? Because that was eye-opening. I never really thought about that “call a priest” thing they used to have on the bottom of some ID cards, but it makes sense to minister to someone in the place and time they truly need it.

    (I hope asking such a question doesn’t violate the Seal of Confession since it doesn’t ask about the contents of any hypothetical emergency absolutions.)

  4. frjim4321 says:

    This is so aggravating. How hard is it to absolve someone? It’s not like the words are so hard to understand . . . they are very beautiful and easy to comprehend. I am always very careful to say the words properly.

    As mentioned previ0usly I have a serious pet peeve about people who cant follow the Rite of Penance as published. It’s really not that hard.

    [You said it. Sometimes I wonder if these men should be allowed to drive a car, given the fact that they can’t or won’t go by the book.]

  5. Denis Crnkovic says:

    I was quite stunned to see this topic come up, since I had a very similar experience this past weekend and was considering sending our good Father Zuhlsdorf a quaeritur. The situation for me was, however, rather simpler. The priest simply forgot to give me a penance (the result, I wold gusess, of a rather interesting doubt I had and the good confessor’s response). It only ocurred to me that the priest had forgotten to assign me a penance as I was already in my car driving away. As luck would have it, I passed another Catholic Church on my way out of town that was offering Confession at that very time. So I stopped and went into the Church, entered the confessional and asked the priest if I needed to re-confess. He (agreeing with our mentor, Fr. Zuhlsdorf) said that the absolution was quite valid, but that the confessor needed to take the penance upn himself. [I am not sure about that last point. But it is true that he should have assigned a penance.] Now, I had never heard of this, assuming that the penance is – if not optional – dismissable in cases like those Fr Zuhlsdorf has alluded to, and, given an occasional lapsus is not a “big deal”. Is this true, that the confessor is somehow responsible and liable for the penance in such circumstances? [I don’t think it is fruitful to speculate about this.] If so, I feel rather bad for the confesor, who was obvioulsy not at fault here. I would think that performing an adequate penance or good deed of one’s own would be sufficent as a matter of “good faith”. After all, it might even be that the confessor doesn’t even realize that he forgot to give a penance. Any wisdom on this from the canonists? [It is probably best to let this one go.]

  6. Tim Ferguson says:

    I would agree with the good Father, our host, wholeheartedly. I’d also add a little habit I picked up – I believe it was a kindly old confessor in the Twin Cities who recommended this to me: when I’m assigned a penance, I always tack on some additional prayers for the priest who absolved me. If he assigns five “Haily Marys,” I’ll say ten – five for my penance, and five for him. If he assigns five decades of the Holy Rosary, I’ll sometimes do another round, or at least another decade for him.

    If he tells me to sit under an elm tree and count ladybugs while meditating on my environmental impact, I suppose I would either also count june bugs, or perhaps pray over the maledictory psalms on his behalf…

  7. Ralph says:

    I found your Hmong example interesting and humbling. I am sorry to say it never occured to me that a person who speaks a minority language may have difficulty making an understood confession. I am feeling ashamed for the times I have been annoyed at the foreign accent of some priests. At least they were speaking a language I could try to understand.
    Yet another reason to pray for more and varied vocations to the priesthood.

  8. mike cliffson says:

    Godsend a language problem never put anyone off frequently availing themselves of the sacrament – I mean, we never know when it’ll be our last, or even our last confession for months or years anyway – suppose a war on priests, suppose losing one’s ability to speak and being misidentified with a noncatholic in some institution – similar circumstances have ocurred to countless millions!
    For myself , I was brought up in the idea of confessing whenever on pilgrimage, or making a sort of side pilgrimage when just travelling, and places like Rome, Fatima and Lourdes have confessional boxes with boards above lighting up in whichever language or languages somebody believes FR inside is sufficiently fluent in.The absolution is reasonably recognizable in my experience- I think they have a sheet stuck up with abslutions written out – but it can sometimes come in something like Serbocroat or Tagalo, but often nothing else. What does it matter? You wanted a friendly chat with someone who wold pat you on the back for what was a sin , or you wanted to confess your sins to God through a priest- a peculiarly foreign one – and get absolution?
    Yes Ive sometimes been unsure about a penance as sounded like feeve eerkj marries and gearchange, but again, so what, if you do everything you think it might possibly be, no sweat

  9. john_6_fan says:

    My wife’s friend said she had a priest “absolve” her by saying, “I am a priest, therefore I have the power to absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Ugh. Thanks for making confession a common topic on your blog and thoroughly answering questions regarding it.

  10. jhayes says:

    Interesting that the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) said that penitent should “do what they can” to perform the penance:

    All the faithful of either sex, after they have reached the age of discernment, should individually confess all their sins in a faithful manner to their own priest at least once a year, and let them take care to do what they can to perform the penance imposed on them. Let them reverently receive the sacrament of the eucharist at least at Easter unless they think, for a good reason and on the advice of their own priest, that they should abstain from receiving it for a time. Otherwise they shall be barred from entering a church during their lifetime and they shall be denied a christian burial at death.


  11. acardnal says:

    In the last several years, I have always said a prayer for the priest who just heard my confession and I tell him that I plan to do so before leaving the Confessional. It’s a good practice.

  12. acardnal says:

    I usually pray for the priest after I have done my penance.

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