Confession tips, and notes about not receiving, or doing, the assigned penance.


Now that I have that out of the way, I saw an incoming link from my friend, the great Fr. Finigan, His Hermeneuticalness, to my page

As I followed the link, I discovered that, back in 2007, he added some useful tips of his own:

Fr John Zuhlsdorf has a helpful list of 20 tips for making a good confessionwhich I recommend.

A couple of things I added in the combox in response to others:

If the priest is harsh
Don’t waste energy being cross with him or feeling sorry for yourself. God is infinitely good and everything that he allows to happen to us can work to our good by his grace. In the past, I have found that it has challenged me on some sin that I have become a bit blasé about and it has done me good.

But also, pray for the priest. He is running a great risk here. If souls are lost because of his harshness, he is going to have a lot of explaining to do to Our Lord when he meets him.

If the priest doesn’t give a penance
(Apparently this happened quite a bit in San Diego.) First of all, ask him “Father, would you please give me a penance.” He may just have forgotten. If he refuses to do so, you could first of all accept this refusal as a penance in itself (these things are annoying, aren’t they?) Then you could voluntarily impose a penance on yourself, perhaps a decade of the rosary. These would be pious acts, not necessary to the validity of the sacrament.

I just checked Cappello [A great canonist whose cause has been introduced.] and he says that although the imposition of a penance is necessary for the integral celebration of the sacrament, omitting it does not make the absolution invalid. [More below.] So you can rest assured, go to communion, it is the priest’s sin, not yours.

Again, pray for the priest because he is obliged by the teaching of the Council of Trent and required by canon law to impose a salutary penance if you have actually sinned. He may well have to do the all these penances himself in purgatory. Added to which, it was always considered grave matter to omit giving a penance unless there is an excusing cause.

On the issue of the priest not giving a penance, YES, the absolution is valid.  HERE

On the issue of not doing your penance before your next confession.  HERE

Go see Fr. Finigan’s interesting photo of the confession of Fr. Cappello.  HERE

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. frjim4321 says:

    I like “one Our Father” because it is easily do-able and can be completed in a very short period of time, even before the person leaves the building.

    Complex, expensive and long penances are not helpful and very difficult for those penitents suffering with scrupulosity.

    I’ve heard things like, “for the next week, do this, etc.,” which is very unhelpful. The person has been absolved and should not be left with the feeling that things are incomplete for days on end. The average Catholic may not understand that doing the penance is not essential to absolution.

  2. You mentioned scrupulosity, Father. My husband suffers from it, and hasn’t been to confession for several years. I am worried about this, but it’s a catch-22 to say something about it, as it tends to worsen the scruples. Any suggestions?

  3. HeatherPA says:

    As someone who suffers “scrupulous tendencies” at times, I agree that vague/ complex penances are very hard to deal with. I usually get a “meditate on X,Y,Z ” or “think about and invite the Holy Spirit/Lord/Blessed Mother inside to give peace.”
    I would much prefer being given even a whole Rosary, a Holy hour, or any specific prayer or act of charity than these penances. I am always plagued with “did I do this right?” “Did I meditate long enough and on the right parts?” It is troubling.
    Oh well. At least confession is available.

  4. lucy says:

    I have a question regarding the old type of confessionals. How did people confess in secrecy when it’s so open? What if the priest were hard of hearing?

  5. Salvelinus says:

    Very helpful post. A few months back I had gone to my local parish (that I dont attend – All too “charismatic” in the liturgy) and I wasn’t assigned penance.

    He had stated “…I haven’t done this before, but your penance is no penance…”

    It has been bugging me that due to that, it wasn’t valid.
    Thanks for posting this to let me know that it was, in fact valid.

  6. Palladio says:

    This post makes me happy to be Catholic. Faith and Reason. Father knows best–supported by Sacred Tradition, the Saints, Magisterium, …

  7. Suburbanbanshee says:

    When Cappello’s confessional was a working one, it would have had curtains for muffling noises, a screen for blocking the priest’s view, etc.

    Here’s a picture of a similar style of confessional.

  8. APX says:

    I’m not a particular fan of the say 10 X’s, 10 Y’s, and 10 Z’s and would much rather just be told to prayer a Rosary on the Sorrowful mysteries. When I start getting litanies of the same prayer, my attention and intention wanders, and half the time I catch myself praying a decade of the Rosary instead and have to start over again.

  9. sunbreak says:

    Not necessarily. There are still confessionals in Europe that are the style of Cappello’s confessional. I saw them being used when I was in Europe a few years ago. There were no curtains or enclosed sides.

  10. C. says:

    So it’s not like a parking garage, if he forgets your penance you have to do the max amount?

  11. MarkG says:

    Even with a screen, do priests really not know who the person is by their voice and/or types of sins? I’ve always assumed (maybe wrongly) that if the priest knew you and knew your voice, and the types of sins you were likely to be confessing, that it would be hard for him not to recognize who you are. Not that he would be trying – just that it would be unavoidable.

  12. av8er says:

    Thanks for this Fr. Z. One of those questions in the back of my mind. My pastor would forget to give a penance every once in a long while but I think he simply forgets. He’s a super busy guy in a large parish, with only a deacon and sometimes has help from a monsignor. He also is naturally absent minded. He forgot the name of the bride he was marrying one time. No one batted an eye.

  13. APX says:


    I have certainly had the experiences of my regular confessors knowing it was me. There were many an awkward times with one of my confessors. That being said, I have had the experience of having a confessor mistake me for a man and encourage me to look in to the priesthood! I guess that means if I need anonyminity, I can use my deep manly voice.

  14. VexillaRegis says:

    APX: ” I have had the experience of having a confessor mistake me for a man and encourage me to look in to the priesthood!”


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  16. babochka69 says:

    As far as I understand, confession “behind the screen” was introduced for propriety, not necessarily for anonymity. Anonymity cannot really be guaranteed unless the priest simply doesn’t know you. In many places, there is only one parish priest and fairly small parishes. Unless you’re willing to travel, you’re taking the risk. The confessional as we know it today was introduced by St. Charles Borromeo, who died in 1584. They were not universal until the 17th century. In the Byzantine Rite, confessions are always done face-to-face, and this is how I grew up, so I never really consider anonymity as an issue.

    As far as more creative penances go, my regular confessor is rather fond of them and I appreciate them. They are generally tailored to my situation and my sins. If it is a particularly difficult penance, he always asks me if I will accept it. (As if I would say “no”!) I would be a bit taken aback by such a penance from a priest who does not know me, however.

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