ASK FATHER: The priest asked me what my penance should be

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.


All of you.





About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Bthompson says:

    As a penitent I too really hate “creative” penances, especially ones that can aggravate scruples. E.g. “do # nice things for non-family members” Do acts of charity taken without thinking count? Do kindnesses done in the course of my duties count? How great a charitable act counts? Etc.

    As a priest, I have more or less settled into a certain set of penances from which I rarely deviate, and only do so when I feel particularly/intensely moved to do so (hoping it is the Holy Spirit, and not a prideful pretense at wisdom). Even then, I try to be very careful with “unique” penances, and effectively never assign anything that cannot be completed before the penitent leaves the church, and also am cautious to make sure the medicine of penance might not accidentally become poison (e.g. I am especially weary now about sonething I once did frequently: asking a penitent to pray for accomplices or victims. Upon reflection, I realized that such could stir up occasions of sin by way of memory).

  2. carn says:


    I am not sure whether never assigning anything that cannot be finished before leaving Church is good.

    I got assigned something for 3 weeks, daily, though only short; it is fitting and it helps.

  3. Lurker 59 says:

    Let me recommend the very short book “A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven” by Fr. Schall s.j.

    Fr. Z mentioned that in the face of dopy or excessively light penances, one can always do more. There can be a tendency to look at Confession in terms of the receiving and doing penance. However, it is not in the receiving or doing of penances that we are forgiven. Rather it is in our self-accusals and in the receiving of absolution. Keeping this in mind will help individuals move on from dopy “advice” and dopy penances.

    If I might, a reminder: The Confessional is not a place for psychotherapy. Penitants, the priest isn’t your therapist and priests, you are not a therapist. Please stop.

    @Bthompson — Yes, it is not good to assign penances like that. I am very glad that you brought up the danger of assigning penances that turn into poison. This ties into what I just mentioned about priests thinking they are therapists. Most priests don’t have the training and the confessional is an inappropriate place to be doing such, anyway.

  4. Cafea Fruor says:

    A priest once gave me the penance of meditating on how awful a certain sin is every time I was tempted to that sin. Say what? Does that mean I’m bound to that penance for life, because I’m sure I’ll be tempted by this until I’m dead, so it follows that I’ll basically never finish this penance. Or was this supposed to be for a certain amount of time? And was I supposed to meditate on it the entire time I was tempted, which can be impossible when you’re working or interacting with people, or when the temptation lasts and lasts? Or was it supposed to be for maybe a few minutes each time? Incredibly vague. So I specifically asked, “Can I have some clarity here, like how am I supposed to know when I’m done with my penance?” He flat out said, “No.” And this was on a Divine Mercy Sunday. I struggled for the next week with what the ramifications of such an open-ended, vague penance would be. In retrospect, I should have asked for a different penance, but that only occurred to me after I’d left the confessional. So I brought it up during my next confession, and that confessor gave me a different penance and said that the penance I’d been given was unreasonable. The creative penances can really place a burden of confusion or anguish on the penitent, which seems contrary to mercy. I’m fine with heavy penances, so long as they’re clear and clearly doable.

  5. Rob in Maine says:

    I went to confession this Saturday and received what I thought was a lame penance: pray “Jesus I trust in You” five times.

    After the first couple of recitations, I slowed down and began to interpose why I trusted Our Lord. I said many more than five. So, in the end it was a pretty good penance having me pray on all that Christ has done and does for me and what I schmuck I was for the sins I committed.

  6. APX says:

    I went to confession this Saturday and received what I thought was a lame penance: pray “Jesus I trust in You” five times.

    Yes, I got something similar once that was completely out of left field from my confessor’s usual, “5 Our Fathers, 5 Hail Marys, and 5 Glory Bes for the Holy Souls in Purgatory”. I was told to spend 15 minutes in front the Tabernacle before leaving (my confessor knew I would be there for at least the next 45 minutes) saying to myself, “Thank-you, God, for creating me.” I distinctly remember setting my timer on my phone for 15 minutes and thinking to myself, “this is the stupidest penance everrrr. Whyyyy?!” and started to settle in for a long and painfully boring 15 minutes of saying over and over again to myself, “Thank-you God for creating me”. By the end I got it and realized it wasn’t such a stupid penance after all.

  7. THREEHEARTS says:

    mike hurcum writes,
    First of all there some priests give silly penances. Right out of disney world. We have a Cardinal Virtue called charity. A priest who asks for us to do a random act of charity is a foolish man. Charity is not a random act it is embedded in our genes. A priest who is not certain of the depth of repentance in our confession is quite entitled to ask , to search for how sorry we are. What kind of penance we tell him we need is very indicative of how we view our sins. I ask before I go in to a priest for the first time for the Miserere as a penance and in recent times going back 10 years only 3 times have I received this prayer and once a psalm that glorifies the church. Lo and behold this Saturday a different priest from many before and I use the gave me, and I use Fr Haydock’s Bible translation, Psalms 50, 17 and 5. So from my experiences in the dark prison cell, the judge gives us what we deserve or should do. For me 3 Hail Mary’s are insufficient for my sins. We should all see that we are sinners who kill grace in our souls and commit self homicide regularly.

  8. LeeGilbert says:

    This reminds me of a penance Padre Pio once gave. After giving absolution he asked the penitent, who had just returned to the sacraments after decades, “Do you pray, my little son?” “Not really, father.” “Alright, then pray 90 Padres, 90 Aves and 90 Glorias, every day for the next three months.”

    The penitent reported that this established him in habits of prayer, so that 15 of each became his daily habit well into old age.

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