ASK FATHER: Penance given in confession was too vague

italian confessional pilgrimsFrom a reader…


In line with your recent ASK FATHER postings on Confession, I have a question about vague penance given in Confession. We attend the local TLM and it is difficult to make it to Confession because the lines are always so long. My wife really wanted to make sure she made it to Confession, so she went to the nearest Novus Ordo parish where there is hardly anyone in line. She came back and told me the penance she was given was “to follow her heart” in a certain matter. Neither of us could figure out how to determine the fulfillment of such a penance. Is the absolution she received valid even though she could not be sure she completed her penance? She was so frustrated by this situation that she was nearly in tears.

I get this a lot and I have written about it before.  No wonder there is a difference in the length of lines.  Too bad.

FIRST: The absolution was valid.

Remember, every penance is arbitrary and cannot possibly be commensurate with offending God.

Contrary to some of the evidence, not all priests who give these sloppy, syrupy vague “penances” are nitwits.  They mean well.  They simply haven’t a) learned much about the confessional, or b) thought much about what they are doing.  They think they are being “nice”, or “pastoral” or… whatever.

I would ask them: Why risk leaving penitents confused and anxious about their confession and their penance?  Is that being “nice”?  Is that “pastoral”?

Wanna know what’s pastoral?  CLARITY.

To review, priests must give penances to penitents and penitents are obliged to fulfill penances themselves (can. 981 – they can’t pay someone else to do the penance for them, for example).  The penance should be clear, reasonable and doable in a reasonable period of time.  Common sense, right?

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 X… Obtain and watch this movie which I like and watch it….”

All of those theoretical penances are problematic.

Fathers… especially you NEW priests… assign/suggest something the penitent can complete before leaving the church.  Thus, short prayers are good penances.

And remember, validity of absolution is not contingent on the penance that is assigned.  Yes, we penitents must do our best to do some penance and we have a strong motivation to take the penance that the priest assigns seriously.  But sometimes these well-meaning nitwits suggest something incomprehensible or undoable.  So, we get out of the box, scratch our heads, and do something else that’s meaningful.  Or, if there is time and opportunity, go to a different confessor, explain the situation, and get guidance about what to do.  Not everyone has that option.

But, if you get one of these dopey penances, like “be nice to someone” or “think a happy thought”, go ahead and think a happy thought (“I’m happy when I go to confession somewhere else!”, or choose to be nice (“I’ll be nice, and not ‘penny’ the door to the confessional!”).

Then go be serious and pleased that you received absolution.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    I have heard from a JCL friend of mine that a penance of some sort must be issued and accepted for the validity of the sacrament. Have you heard of this? Kinda hoping Ed Peters can chime in if he sees this too.

    [Well… no. That’s not right. I’ve written about this before.]

  2. Absit invidia says:

    This is pretty much the story for most of us in diocesan world . . . I wouldn’t mind vague penances so much had they been accompanied with some solid practical approaches to root out the sins confessed, but they are rarely addressed in confession. It’s more like “trust in God’s mercy and be on your way now . . . ” or something similar.

  3. Greg Smisek says:

    As I’m pretty sure Fr. Z has said elsewhere, if you recognize at the time that the penance proposed is unclear, unreasonable, or unnecessarily protracted, you don’t have to accept it. You can ask your confessor for a different penance. I’ve told a confessor before, “I’m sorry, Father, I’m not sure what that means. Can you give me a more concrete penance?” [Exactly.]

  4. Kent Wendler says:

    I had something like that happen to me once – in my one and only confession in St. Peter’s Basilica, no less. And not by a “junior” priest. (I think I may have missed a papal Mass for this confession. While I was waiting the Basilica organ seemed to be playing for a Mass at the main altar.)

    It wasn’t until my next confession, to my pastor back home, that I got that straightened out.

  5. Mrs. Amen says:

    Thank you for this excellent advice, Father Z. I go to Confession once a month (or more often if needed) and I take my young son with me when I go as well (plus whenever he asks to go). There is a nearby parish that has a regular TLM twice a week and that is my preferred parish for both Confession & Mass. I prefer it because the waiting lines are easily identified, the confessionals are sufficiently soundproof, and the priests there seem to read your blog and take your advice. I’ve never had a bad experience there and my young son loves going to confession there as well.

    When I have gone to a different local parish for Confession…well, the penances doled out have been vague to the extreme. The worst, but not by far, was when a priest told me each time I am tempted by a certain sin to say a very particular mental prayer. How can I ever comply with such an open-ended penance? I’ll be saying this mental prayer for the rest of my life! I asked for something more concrete/definite so I would know when I had fulfilled my penance, but the priest insisted that this is what he gives everyone. At least now I know to avoid him in the confessional.

    This same priest has cut off my son during his confession by telling him that none of his sins were mortal and he wastes his time if he only has venial sins to confess. He’s only 8 years old! I should hope he doesn’t have many mortal sins to confess at this point in his life. We are trying to instill in him the good habit of confessing his sins regularly. The child had made a list based on his examination of conscience (which he takes very seriously, spending almost 45 minutes gathering his thoughts and writing out his list before we left; he tears it into teeny tiny pieces and throws it away after he leaves the confessional and completes his penance). Why discourage a child who is taking sin seriously? That was the only time, so far, he wasn’t excited after completing his penance. He was so excited after his first Confession, that upon completing his penance, he walked briskly across the church to me and pumped his fist in the air saying, “I feel so clean and free now! All those sins aren’t weighing my heart down anymore. Jesus forgave me!”

  6. Philmont237 says:

    I remember my very first Confession in second grade. The priest handed me a piece of paper with a prayer printed on it and said, “pray this every day.”
    I have never fulfilled, and can never fulfill, my first penance.

  7. Animadversor says:

    Perhaps it is in her heart to pray for confessors in genere and for Father Hallmark in specie.

  8. Glennonite says:

    ‘Penny’ the Confessional door(!); takes me back to my middle school days. :) I was a smart kid who saw the ultimate futility, due to the need to then have to confess the penny. It was a tar-baby.

    Could a penitent not ask for a different (concrete) penance? [Of course… which I have often recommended on this blog.] I completely understand the need for a succinct penance, but the best penance that I was ever given (by an excellent priest and confessor) was a Novena to St. Joseph. While being the “harshest” penance of my life, it really was the best medicine for me, and the priest knew that. BTW, it wasn’t any more harsh than having to take a course of antibiotics lasting ten days; it was what I needed.

  9. iamlucky13 says:

    “I’ll be nice, and not ‘penny’ the door to the confessional!”

    You just led me to a terrible idea related to a parish near where I work that listed an hour-long window for confessions. I arrived 15 minutes into that period to an empty church, and was informed by a staff member who eventually happened by that Father had already finished.

    Of course, I know I could have arrived a bit earlier and not left Father wondering if anybody would be needing his services, but further circumstances that day left me inappropriately amenable to considering additional methods to ensure others have access to the sacrament.

    [Look at my 20 Tips.]

  10. We had a young priest at our parish. Great guy. Wonderful homilist. Took the Mass very seriously. His penances drove me crazy, though. Usually I was told to “do something loving” for my wife. Once a week had gone by before I decided I had done something loving enough to fulfill it. Finally, the last time I went to him before he left for a new assignment, I spoke up. He had assigned another vague penance, and I piped up and asked if I could have a different one that I could complete before Mass started. He gave me a couple of prayers. I thanked him, did my penance and received the Lord with a clear conscience.

  11. Fr. ACEGC says:

    I’ve been ordained a little over a year. I was blessed to be assigned to a very large parish, over 5000 families, in my first year, and one where there were 16 hours of scheduled confessions per week. It was great experience for a new priest. In assigning penances, I tried to use the advice of my scoutmaster from long ago about setting goals: they should be SMART.

    Specific: you should know what it is.
    Measurable: you should know when you’ve done it
    Attainable: you should be able to do it
    Relevant: it should be related to your overall vision
    Timely: you should be able to do it in a reasonable amount of time.

    I think that many priests try to make penances too “relevant” to the particular penitent and his situation without regard for these other points. I see relevant as meaning it should be relevant to the overall goal of attaining salvation, meaning the other four points become essential. Does that mean my penances get much more creative than a few prayers or even a decade of the rosary or a chaplet? No, but it isn’t about me or my personality or my creativity. I have other avenues for those things. Confession is about the salvation of souls. I suggest being helpful there in small ways, since the Lord has given so powerful a remedy that’s so easy to receive. In short,I assign definite penances that the penitent can complete within five minutes of leaving the box, so there is no doubt.

  12. The Masked Chicken says:

    Priests have the ability to commute a penance given by another priest. The few times I have had vague penances, I have explained the situation to the next confessor and they gave me a substitute penance. Giving vague penances creates uncertainty and uncertainty breeds fear, which exactly contradicts the pardon and peace prayed for in the introduction to the absolution. Vague penances, while not invalidating the confession, undercut it.

    The Chicken

  13. hwriggles4 says:

    Years ago, Fr. Wade Menezes, CPM, told a great story concerning clarity in the confessional. Fr. Wade was hearing confessions, and a young boy between 7 and 10 was confessing his sins. Fr. Wade issued a penance to the boy to pray five Hail Mary’s. The boy piped up and said in a whining voice, “Pray for five hours?”

    A great point that Fr. Wade Menezes made about clarifying penance in the confessional.

  14. I was once given the penance of saying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. For “cradle Catholics” of a certain age, especially those whose practice has been on the traditional side, it is unlikely that they would ever see fit to adopt that practice, and for me, I didn’t even know how. I told this to the priest, but he insisted I do it anyway. (Did I mention that I didn’t know how?)

    So I didn’t do the penance. But I did mention this omission to another priest at a subsequent confession. He suggested that I might want to learn it anyway. I suppose I will … eventually.

    That scoutmaster’s advice (to Father AGEGC) comes in handy in this case, and for other areas of life, for that matter.

  15. majuscule says:

    Our parish has recently cut back to the old 45 minutes on Saturday afternoon or “by appointment only”. We used to have confession available nearly every day but the priest who spent many hours in the confessional has gone on to another assignment. At his recommendation I have found an excellent confessor at another parish. He gives good counsel and specific penances. He happens to be very Traditional with a capital T, though it’s a NO parish.

    Yesterday, for the holy day of obligation, I was able to get to a mid day TLM at an ICKSP oratory. I arrived early enough to see the priest enter the confessional and then see the line of people quickly form–people of all ages! How wonderful to see the younger ones go without prodding from their parents. Confessions were being heard throughout the Mass.

  16. Nan says:

    I was confirmed as an adult, flung into the middle of RCIA because CCD through second grade was deemed insufficient religious education.

    I joined on rosary night with a favorite priest, and didn’t know the rosary. About a week later, I went to confession, receiving the most difficult penance I’ve ever endured, a decade of the rosary.

  17. Cafea Fruor says:

    This reminds me of the time when a confessor gave me a penance of praying a certain prayer three days in a row. Pretty clear, but the problem was, I was in the throes of severe Lyme disease and its accompanying memory problems, so I forgot to pray the prayer on day 2, but realized it on day 4 and said the prayer that day. So when I went to confession the next time, I mentioned this to the confessor and explained that I was actually terrible with novenas and other prayers said once a day on a short term basis (i.e., as opposed to a morning offering said every day of the year and thus a habit) and explained the reason. And then he proceeded to give me the exact same penance.

    Could I have told the priest that I couldn’t do that penance and asked for another one?


  18. Andrew1054 says:

    Can a priest cancel the penance of one priest and give you another? I once went to confession and the priest gave me the penance of reading the entire Bible. I asked the priest to clarify himself and he told me that was my penance. To read the entire Bible over the next month (and no I had done nothing to warrant that level of penance). I left the confessional truly distraught. I’m not against reading the bible but that was a steep penance. I also didn’t want to argue with the priest. I didn’t know the priest as I went to a church in a big city I was visiting so I couldn’t go back to him.

    When I got home and told my pastor he said that was a ridiculous penance. He re-heard my confession and gave me something much more manageable (1 decade of the rosary). Is what my pastor did “kosher”?

    [Sort of… they can commute penances from one thing to another. It isn’t common, however. Happily, it doesn’t have to be.]

  19. acardnal says:

    I like penances that are specific and have intentions assigned, e.g., “five Hail Mary’s for the poor souls.” Or “five Hail Mary’s for the conversion of someone you know.”

  20. acardnal says:

    If I ask another priest for a replacement penance, do I have to repeat my original confession of sins to the new priest as Andrew1054 above did? I may not remember what I confessed.

    [Your sins were already absolved. Repeat them if you wish. It may be that the other confessor will need a sense of what’s up.]

  21. Kukla65th says:

    What about a penance in which one is told to go to Confession even more often? I loved it because I believed it was something I should do.

    [No. That’s not a penance.]

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  23. Sieber says:

    Our visiting priest announced as part of a homily that he always gives the following penance: Have a hot fudge sundae with whipped cream and cherry on top to rejoice in god’s mercy…….no really!

  24. KateD says:

    I am so grateful for all priests, for the Mass and the ability to confess my sins and receive absolution….over and over again. I know there are a lot of priests who read this blog so to all of you…THANK YOU!!!

    And I wanted to share with you something my 16, 10 and 9 year olds said recently after confession.

    “What a great confessor Father is! He was brutally honest. Very direct. That’s so rare. He actually was listening and didn’t just give me absolution and a penance of three Hail Marys”. The 10 year old interjected. “‘Forgive me Father I told a white lie’. ‘For your penance say three Hail Marys’. Next guy goes in ‘Forgive me Father, I murdered someone.’ ‘For YOUR penance say FOUR Hail Marys! Next!'” Then the littlest chummed in, “Yeah, last time I went to confession, that’s exactly what Father said to me! I was like, ‘really? Were you even listening to what I said I did?’ But I didn’t actually say that…I just finished confession and said my three Hail Marys, but even I felt like it wasn’t a good penance for what I did.” The kids went on to explain that this most recent and excellent confessor had a conversation somewhat like this with them:

    “Forgive me Father, I told a half truth.”
    “Come on. Was it a lie or not? I mean either you lied or you didn’t. Which was it”
    “It was a lie, Father”
    “Then that’s what you should confess, not a half truth”

    The next kid said when he confessed lying. Father asked. ‘How would you feel if someone you loved did that to you?’ When my son admitted he wouldn’t like it, Farther said, “Then do t do it to someone you love.”

    It’s not rocket science. It’s just truth.

    Father may have been more comfortable being brutally honest, knowing me and that we are traditional leaning and kind of brass tacs types. But I think it’s important to hear how earnestly young people want to be held to account for their actions, that they want sincerely to amend the situation and be just in their debt to their Heavenly Father when they have transgressed. I believe older grown children of the Father are also inclined to feel the same. I remember once being given the penance of a whole rosary. I was so happy! It was a somewhat minor transgression, but I was happy to be able to dig in and have a more substantial penance than a quick three and out the door.

    I realize there are people who may not pray often, and for them it may be more difficult…but for us, saying a rosary is a welcomed thing…we do it all the time. We love the rosary. And I want to spend time reflecting on what I’ve done and spend that time with God getting my relationship with Him right.

    I’m not saying we need to have a net full of heavy Portugese armor strapped to our backs as we scale the face of a South American waterfall….but maybe even if it’s just three Hail Marys, call us on our BS, challenge us.

  25. hwriggles4 says:

    Years ago, I had a roommate who was a practicing Catholic (Many of us from our Young Adult group roomed together – to this day, he is like a brother – and rooming was healthy and saved money) and sometimes we would attend Confession on Saturday morning. An old Jesuit priest gave a penance to help someone that week.

    I recall one time on the way home stopping at 7-11 for coffee and one guy with his young son) had trouble with his car. My roommate and I helped him get home. It wasn’t a dead battery – i had to tap the starter with a hammer, which started his Jeep Cherokee right up. (I did warn him in advance that his starter was dead, and I told him just to drive straight home, because I knew the Jeep Cherokee would not start up again.)

  26. KateD says:

    *chimmed in

  27. KateD says:

    Ok. I can’t find a good clip to share….but this would be a perfect place to insert the confessional scene from the horribly offensive, misinformed and inappropriate movie “Priest”.

  28. truthfinder says:

    It seems that a lot of well-meaning priests get advice mixed up with penance. The FSSP priests all seem to be very clear in my experience: they’ll give advice, and one in particular would very clearly say, “now for your penance…”. They’ll often even ask if you know how to say a specific prayer outside anything that isn’t a decade of the rosary.
    But my complaint extends to some priests who say the Latin Mass, but yet give the smallest penances -like one Hail Mary (as if they’ve haven’t actually just heard my confession). Can one go about asking for more, or just accept it in obedience (as a penance in itself)?

  29. Nan says:

    My priest friend gives one Hail Mary because it’s clearly defined, people know it and can accomplish it. He says Penance is about obedience, not about creating a burden

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