From a reader…
I went to Confession yesterday, and the priest asked me to suggest a good penance for myself. I was completely taken aback. I hate vague penances like “give to the poor,” so I suggested three Hail Marys because this was the first form of prayer that popped into my head. Then the priest asked for which intention I should offer the Hail Marys. I was clueless; I had no idea what to say.
He pressed me for a response, however. I suggested they be offered for the Poor Souls in Purgatory, but the priest said that the Poor Souls had done nothing to me.
Finally, I said, “I’m sorry, Father, but I’ve never been asked to make my own penance before, and I don’t feel that I can.”
He then gave me an intention.
I think he wanted me to do some active learning or something, but I was so thrown and felt so completely inadequate for the task that I’ve resolved to seek out other priests for Confession.
I’m not sure if anyone else has ever had this experience. I hope not.
I am sorry that you had a confusing situation in the confessional. I don’t think that is the moment to broadside a penitent. Don’t let it keep you away from going to confession.
However, now that you are not in the confessional consider this.
When we commit a mortal sin, we limited mortals open up a breach with God who is infinite. We cannot do adequate penance on our own to close the breach. God closes the breach. We have to do something, of course, because of the virtues of justice and religion, by which we render to persons and Persons what is due. Sometimes (especially in the case of God) what is due is penance and reparation. But, again, we are dealing with an infinite God and we are not proportioned to the task on our own.
Here’s the deal. No matter what penance a priest gives, say 1000 Rosaries a day, it wouldn’t ever be enough. God is the one who makes us whole, and it is pure unmerited grace. We do our part and God does … everything else.
A priest may as well give you one Our Father as give you anything else. For your part, your business is to pray it sincerely and earnestly. You can always do more.
So, the priest is sort of on track in wanting to find something he can assign to stir you to remorse and to make reparation (as tiny as it is). It wasn’t, perhaps, the best moment to surprise you.
Priests need to be directive in the confessional, when the penitent is open, docile, even vulnerable, and not trying to be “in charge”. The irony is that as a penitent, YOU are in charge. You are your own prosecuting attorney. But we all do remain vulnerable in the confessional. So, the merciful judge has to take over and be in charge after the declaration of guilt.
So, you penitents out there… that means ALL OF YOU… you might consider what additional things to do as penance in addition to the three Hail Marys and three Our Fathers which the priest suggests.
Also, remember that you can reject a penance and ask for something else, particularly when the penance is dopey.
GO TO CONFESSION!
All of you.
GO TO CONFESSION!