ASK FATHER: Confessor gave a penance I could not do. Was the absolution invalid?

From a reader…


A few weeks ago I went to confession, and after some words of consolation and admonition, Father gave me my penance. He said I had to pray to the Holy Spirit during Lauds and Vespers for a week (I’m a layperson, but I pray parts of the Breviary as my daily routine).

Problem is: I wasn’t able to fulfill this obligation because one day I simply didn’t have the time to pray Lauds/Vespers.

Does this make my confession invalid?

I’ve answered this question many times in these electronic pages.  But, since it keeps coming up, let’s go at it again!  Repetita iuvant.

FIRST: The absolution was valid.

Your doing the penance afterward or not doing the penance does not in any way alter the validity of the absolution.

Remember, every penance is arbitrary and cannot possibly be commensurate with offending God!  Big and hard penances, small and easy penances… none of them are proportionate to offending our infinite God.  We just do our best.

However, 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.

Update your coffee ordering link!

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 movie ….”

This last point – reasonable time frame – was your situation.  You are not obliged to say the Office.  You sometimes don’t have time to do it in your state in life.  So, don’t worry about it.

That said, doing penance for sins is an obligation we have out of justice.  Penance is a necessary part of the sacrament of penance.

The next time you make your confession, tell the confessor that you are not sure you adequately performed the penance you were given last time, but add that the penance was complicated and drawn out over many days.

Ask for a clear penance you can perform right away.  If you don’t think you can do something that the priest suggests, ask for something else.


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  1. NBW says:

    Many years ago the confessor at a church I visited gave me the penance of buying a Henri Nouwen book. [OUCH! That IS a tough penance!] Trying to read that book was disturbing and a penance. Another priest told me that the confessor should never ever obligate you to buy something. [Correct.]

  2. Amante de los Manuales says:

    As for requesting a different penance, it’s good for some to remember that doing this can also help in battling their scrupulosity. When I’m now told to perform one of these “more meaningful” penances, I politely explain my history (i.e., nightmare) with scrupulosity and request something different.

    Sometimes this is met with a quick alternative; other times offense, as though my request were tantamount to ingratitude for all the time, energy, and creativity that Father just put into devising his penance for me. (If only this latter type of priest could understand what hell it can be for scrupulous people when they sincerely try to perform murky and vague penances—despite their earnest efforts to avoid scrupulosity.) [Ehem… 999/1000 priests are well aware of scruples and they know how hard it can be for people. Most confessors are kind and patient men. They deserve being spoken of well, lest people get the wrong idea and hesitate to go to confession.]

    Regardless, I have never regretted asking for a different penance, though I do regret the times I failed to do this.

  3. Amante de los Manuales says:

    “Most confessors are kind and patient men. They deserve being spoken of well.” — Absolutely. My apologies for my comment suggesting anything different.

  4. Fr Richard Duncan CO says:

    I hear an average of 3,000 confessions every year, and it is morally impossible to give a different penance each time. So I invariably give three Hail Marys as the penance, unless circumstances suggest otherwise, as, for example, when people confess to using the Holy Name irreverently, when I suggest the Our Father, with particular emphasis on “Hallowed by Thy Name”.

    I really do think that confessors have an obligation to make the experience of the sacrament as easy as possible, especially for those returning after a period away, or for those suffering from scruples. Some might stigmatize this approach as lax, but I take my cue from Our Holy Father St Philip. On one occasion, he was approached by a penitent who fell every day into the same sin and was in despair about ever being able to break the habit. The only penance St Philip gave was to return to confession each time the sin was committed. By this means he won the penitent’s confidence and was able to help him overcome the habit of sin and to live a virtuous life. Giving a “hard” penance may seem as though it is taking the sin seriously, but what it fails to take into account is that no amount of penance we do can ever be commensurate with the offence caused to Almighty God by our sins. That’s where the prayer from the old ritual (Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi, merita Beata Maria Virgine, et omnium sanctorum, quidquid boni feceris et mali sustinueris etc. etc.) is so helpful. It emphasises the fact that the penances we undertake are undertaken in union with the merits of our Saviour, those of his blessed Mother and all the saints, and derive their value from them. The contrary view resembles that of Mrs Slipslop in Fielding’s Joseph Andrews who “imagined that by so long a self-denial she had not only made amends for the small slip of her youth above hinted at, but had likewise laid up a quantity of merit to excuse any future failings.”

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  5. Sword40 says:

    Guess I am fortunate. Our two priests have always asked me after giving me my penance, “can you do this?”

  6. frmh says:

    If penance is a tribunal then I think there ought to be some proportionality between the crime and the punishment, that’s why I can’t agree with “3 Hail Marys fits all”. 3 Hail Marys if there is no mortal sin, fair enough, or for children, fine.

    If there is something mortal there it seems right that you have to go up, in terms of decades or a rosaries.

    I really liked the point from St Philip though, about coming back to confession if you do this sin again, that is very important.

    In many ways this is the most important thing, and I would humbly add, and make sure you do NOT receive holy communion until you have returned to confession.

    [NB: There really is no proportionality between the offense we offer to God in sin and our penance.]

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