ASK FATHER: Am I obliged to do the strange penance Father gave during confession?

penance_confession_stepsFrom a reader…


When I went to confession the priest asked me to watch a certain movie for my penance. I have done a search for it but what I found (trailers) seems contrary to the faith, very progressive/liberal ideas. Am I bound to do this penance? Thank you for your help.

In my judgment, no, even though that really could be “penance”, in more ways than one.

Priests must give penances to penitents and penitents are obliged to fulfill penances themselves (can. 981).  However, the penance should be clear, reasonable and doable in a reasonable period of time.

It should be clear: “Think a nice though about someone,” isn’t clear.  How do you know when you have done it?

It should be reasonable: “Rebuild with your own hands old St. Ugthred’s Church, which has been abandoned since 1923.”  Most people can’t do that.

It should be doable in a reasonable time frame: “Say the rosary for 100 days… Travel to the Shrine of Our Lady at La Vang, Vietnam… Next Easter Sunday (months away) do… Obtain and watch this questionable movie which I like and watch it….”

Getting and watching a movie isn’t commensurate with, say, saying a chaplet of the rosary or reading a specific Scripture passage for a few minutes.  For one thing, unless it is free, he has asked you to spend money.  Next, you may not have the means to watch it.  Also, are you supposed to watch it without blinking?  What if you have to make supper for your children and, therefore, must needs interrupt the movie?  What it you don’t want your children to see it, but can’t stay up late to watch it alone?

Look. A priest can give whatever penances he can get away with, I guess.   If the penance is too onerous or impossible, or too vague, you can, as a penitent, ask for a something clear and doable.

In my opinion it is – in general – a bad idea to propose (and that is what assigning a penance is, a proposal which the priest is obliged to propose) something that the penitent cannot do easily and in a short period.

In the counsel part of a sacramental confession a priest might usefully advise someone to seek therapy, or to attend AA, or to join Weight Watchers, watch a movie, or to frequent meetings of Liturgical Ad-Libbers Anonymous (LALA). Those suggestions or counsels, not good penances.

Fathers… especially you NEW priests being ordained in this season… assign something the penitent can complete before leaving the church.  Thus, short prayers are good penances.

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  1. Nan says:

    My priest friend gives normal, basic penance, most often a Hail Mary. He gave me a silly example of a mind boggling penance, like pray the rosary while standing on one foot in the rain, which is a problem because if it’s too long, you’ll forget half of it by the time you leave the confessional. If it’s too crazy, you won’t understand it, can’t reasonably do it and will think the priest is nuts in addition to the uncertainty of whether or not it counts if you’re uncertain you completed it, wondering whether it was raining hard enough, did it still count if you lost your balance?

  2. I have just come back for making my confession at a local Cistercian monastery! My penance was to read Ephesians 2:1-10. When I hear confessions (morning and afternoon, every other day at the moment for about two hours in total) after I’ve offered some (hopefully helpful advice and encouragement) I usually give three Hail Marys or three Our Fathers (for the serious sinners) for a penance. I also urge them to pray for those they may have hurt and to look for good that they can do for others. If they have nothing to confess (yes we do get those) I will offer a blessing instead.

    [Penances should be for the good of the penitent. Simple penances can be as effective as longer or more difficult penances. Trying to make a penance be “proportionate” to the sin committed isn’t, in the last analysis, possible.]

  3. St. Irenaeus says:

    For a solution, isn’t it true that another priest can “commute” a penance? I had that happen to me once, and the priest that did the commuting is as erudite and orthodox as you can get.

  4. Once I was given the penance of saying the Divine Mercy Chaplet. I’m 62 years old, a cradle Catholic, and never had occasion to learn a devotion that only became popular in recent years. My not knowing it wasn’t good enough for the priest, and as this was a parish that had confessions before and during the start of Mass, there was no occasion to do the research. So I did something I considered equivalent. The next time I went to confession, I confessed this to the priest (a different one), if only because it was a confessional matter, whether sinful or not. I was advised to learn it (on the grounds that, if nothing else, it couldn’t hurt).

    And so I shall, for the next time a confessor hands out a penance that may not be so “clear, reasonable and doable in a reasonable period of time.”

    [Interesting as that is, it is not a good GENERAL confessional practice.]

  5. lmgilbert says:

    Like everyone else, I am delighted with 3 Our Fathers and/or 3 Hail Marys for a penance. Beats standing on the porch of the Church for seven years, that is for sure.

    One older Dominican priest at Holy Rosary in Portland will say something like ,” For your penance say the prayers on page 69 and 70 of the missalette.” It might be from the votive mass for the Sacred Heart, for instance. To me this seems enterprising and pastoral, especially when one encounters the actual prayers. It takes confession out of the “same ole, same ole” routine. And obviously it has to be done then and there, in church.

    Every now and then, though, about every decade or two, a priest will give something much more demanding, such as a Rosary or the Stations of the Cross. Then he will ask, “Is that okay? Can you do that?” What Catholic after having been unburdened of his guilt so easily is going to say, “No, Father”?

    As much as I appreciate the lighter penance of the 3 Aves or Paters, the very lightness does communicate something- does it not?- about the seriousness of sin. When given a heavier penance, (usually for a heavier load of guilt) I come out of the Confessional thinking, “He is absolutely right. Sin is a serious business. And even with a Rosary I am getting off light, I know it well.” At least in my experience a heavier penance is more provocative of compunction, but real compunction should be a constitutive element of every Confession.

  6. APX says:

    I had to go to a different priest for confession a few weeks ago, and it took longer to get the priest to assign a reasonable and doable penance than it did to make my actual confession. The initial penance was to pray for every person I came into contact with for the next week. I work in customer service and come into contact on average with almost 2000 people per day. When I told him that, he told me to pray for the people I come into contact with throughout the day, which already made me start feeling scruples begin to emerge, so I asked him for a penance that was objective, and could be completed before I left the church. No dice, so we continued with trying to get an acceptable penance. I finally got frustrated and just accepted what he gave me and left it in the hands of my guardian angel to help me complete properly.

    My regular confessor has penance booklets of prayers, litanies, readings and psalms appropriate for the various sins people confess. He usually assigns his penance a out of there. Seems like a good option for priests who want to give meaningful penances.

  7. Uxixu says:

    My favorite confessor is one who would assign mortification, especially fasting and offering up dinner in reparation. Very few of those. While I appreciate 5 Ave Maria or a decade of the Rosary as much as anyone, this always seemed to move me the most.

    [So, your confessor knew what you needed. That’s fine. That is, however, not a good GENERAL confessional practice.]

  8. assign something the penitent can complete before leaving the church
    Some of the penances that I think helped me grow could not have been completed before leaving the church because they related to other people (e.g. as a teenager I had a difficult relationship with a close family member and once my penance was to do 3 favours to this person within about a month. When I was at university, penances sometimes related to my studies; later, when I started working, to my work.

    [That’s sweet. But it is not a good GENERAL confessional practice.]

  9. tradne13838 says:

    This was an odd one. Based on what I read in Moral Theology by Jone-Adelman, you are not obliged to do that penance.

    Here is the relevant quote, taken from paragraph 573:
    “One does not sin by not performing a penance which is not in keeping with current church practice or which is unreasonably grave. In such cases it is best to have the confessor [my comment: I would suggest a different priest in your case] commute the penance in the subsequent Confession.”

    In short, I suggest explaining the situation during your next Confession and getting that commuted, preferably by a different priest. It’s your call on who to confess to, though.

    [While this is ASK FATHER and not “ask everyone”, I’m happy to let this go through… I like the reference to a Manual. We are
    Unreconstructed Ossified Manualists here, after all.]

  10. Some people think three Hail Marys or three Our Fathers is not a serious enough penance. I would say that in that case, simply saying the three Hail Marys or three Our Fathers is especially meritorious and beneficial because then one is mortifying one’s desire for something grander and perhaps more dramatic.

  11. bushboar says:

    The only penance I’ve ever gotten other than “say X Hail Marys/Our Fathers” is to say the Rosary during Mass. It seemed reasonable enough.

  12. Nun2OCDS says:

    I was taught that the penance would be something that could be done in church before leaving. Recently, however, (in a different parish) I was given as a penance to pray a certain litany for five consecutive days. I accepted it because the confessor explained how the Saint invoked could help me with a particular sin. While you would probably say, “it is not a good GENERAL confessional practice,” it was good advice and helpful. Perhaps it should have been given as advice and not penance. Accepting it as a penance does indicate that one will try to do it. I left the confessional thinking that the priest had been attentive and truly helpful.

  13. juergensen says:

    I once confessed before a beautifully faithful priest from Nicaragua whose penance was to say a few prayers and to “read a short little book: the New Testament.” I thought it unusual. But I went ahead and read the entire New Testament (Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition). I guess I could have just read through it quickly in a reasonable time, however I ended up analyzing and underlining all verses I considered important (over half?), as well as taking copious notes in the margins. It took a long time, but I did it, and it was the best “little book” I ever read. Thank you for the penance, Father.

  14. Imrahil says:

    For what it’s worth to this discussion, I confessed once that I wanted to outdo one certain specific person A at school. I did so not out of egoism (it was my precise point that I didn’t want to outdo anyone else of my classmates), because I held (and still hold) my attitude objectively (at least I think so) preferable to A’s. Still, it may have been a bit sinful, which is why I confessed it.

    I got the penance to pray that God make A happier than I am; and while I of course do wish for A to have all happiness in this world and the next, including above mine, I ever asked myself whether I could footnote my prayer with “in so far as it can be achieved by making A happier and not by making me less happy”… for A is not of the happy type. Or if such a footnote meant shying away from the penance.

  15. VexillaRegis says:

    Imrahil, hilarious story, but it must have been scary for you! Waiting for a depression?!
    I once got the penance to give money to a certain charity organisation, which I did. The problem was, that they considered every contribution to be a membership fee, and it took me several years to get out of that organisation!

  16. St-Polycarp says:

    I went to confession a few years ago with an elderly, very solid priest. When he was about to give me the penance, he paused, and then said, “I want you to go spend time in prayer with God, and He will tell you what your penance is.”

    He finished with absolution, I went back to my pew to pray, and I said, “God? What do you want me to do?” Instantly, this image of what God wanted me to do flashed through my mind, and I know it wasn’t me, because it wasn’t something that I wanted to do. Also, it wasn’t a penance that the priest would have known about to give me.

    I had gone to this priest other times and he always gave me your normal penances (Hail Mary’s, Our Father’s, etc.). In thinking about it, maybe God wanted me to do a certain penance, God knew that the priest didn’t know about it, and didn’t need to know about it, so he moved the priest to say what he did. Who knows? All I know is that it was a very good and needed penance.

    [That’s interesting. It isn’t, however, good GENERAL confessional practice.]

  17. bys says:

    I was given a penance of reading a specific book on prayer (about 300 pages) over a year ago. No matter what I do, I just can’t seem to finish it! With four little kids, I am interrupted or fall asleep just about every time I sit down to read it.

  18. agnus says:

    Two memorable penances: one to give away something I would rather keep, and the other to make a pot of soup for the rectory to be given out to the poor.

  19. michael de cupertino says:

    Mightn’t the strange movie in question be The Shack, with its questionable trinitarian theology? About the second week of Lent a priest exhorted us during his (weekday) homily to see it before Easter. I didn’t, but the request was in the context of a homily, not confession. It still made me uncomfortable. If I’d heard that in confession, I’d confess again next chance I got and confess not doing it!

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