ASK FATHER: Am I still forgiven if I don’t to my assigned penance?

From a reader…


I saw a tweet about a question on confession.  The person said the penance she got from the priest in confession was hard but she didn’t completely do it.  She wanted to know if she was forgiven her sins.  A priest answered and linked to an answer that didn’t seem right.  Can you help? I’ve done this, too, and I’ve sometimes forgotten to do it when it was something hard or had to be done later.

The tweet in question was included HERE.   The questioner was directed to another website which almost got it right.

This question, in one form or another, has come up before.

Sometimes people run into these priests who given “deferred” penances or “vague” penances (“Do something nice for someone later today.”).   How the heck do you know if you did it?  Something “nice”?

Priests should give penances that are clear so that people know when they have done them.  Don’t leave people scratching their heads, Fathers!  Also, people have lives to live and, often, they want to go to Communion very soon after going to confession.  Put them at ease and give them something they can do right away, after getting out of the confessional.

Let’s drill in now.

It is clear that “satisfaction” is a necessary part of the process of being absolved and reconciled with God, Church and self.  The Council of Trent makes this clear.  Can. 981 makes this clear.   Priests are to give penances and people are, personally, to fulfill them.  They can’t have someone else do them.    It is a Protestant error and an attack on the Sacrament of Penance to claim that some satisfaction for sin is unnecessary, because Christ fulfilled all satisfaction (which, in itself is true… more below).  Trent makes it clear that satisfaction is not for the remission of the eternal penalty of separation from God, which is absolved along with guilt through sacramental absolution, but rather for the temporal penalty which is not forgiven through absolution.  See the difference?

Validity of the absolution – removal of guilt and the future punishment of Hell – does not depend on whether or not the penitent does the penance assigned.   The penance assigned has to do with the temporal punishment due to sin.  The Sacrament of Baptism forgives also that, but Penance does not.

The reliable source The Catholic Encyclopedia states a good summary of the matter (my emphases):

In theological language, this penance is called satisfaction and is defined, in the words of St. Thomas: “The payment of the temporal punishment due on account of the offence committed against God by sin” (Summa Theologicæ Supplement.12.3). It is an act of justice whereby the injury done to the honour of God is required, so far at least as the sinner is able to make reparation (poena vindicativa); it is also a preventive remedy, inasmuch as it is meant to hinder the further commission of sin (poena medicinalis). Satisfaction is not, like contrition and confession, an essential part of the sacrament, because the primary effect, i.e., remission of guilt and eternal punishment — is obtained without satisfaction; [NB] but it is an integral part, because it is requisite for obtaining the secondary effect — i.e., remission of the temporal punishment. The Catholic doctrine on this point is set forth by the Council of Trent, which condemns the proposition: “That the entire punishment is always remitted by God together with the guilt, and the satisfaction required of penitents is no other than faith whereby they believe that Christ has satisfied for them”; ….. (Can. “de Sac. poenit.”, 12, 15; Denzinger, “Enchir.”, 922, 925).

See what’s going on here?  There are two effects.  The first effect requires confession of all mortal sins in kind and number, true sorrow and firm purpose of amendment with penance, satisfaction.  Absolution is given and BAM! Your sins are gone and you are in the state of grace.

However, because our sins did harm, in justice we have to deal with the other issue of reparation, satisfaction for the temporal punishment due to sin.  This is necessary but it is not essential for absolution.

I’ll repeat in another way, in case this is hard.

When you are absolved, you are absolved.  You have a firm purpose of amendment and you intend to do your penance.  If you don’t intend to do the penance, that’s a problem.  That’s an indication that you aren’t really sorry, which would make the absolution invalid.

But … if you are sorry for your sins and you intend to do penance and amend your life, you are absolved.  In a sense, all penances are deferred: you aren’t doing them on the spot in the confessional before absolution: you do them afterward.   You do not cease to be absolved if you forget or are unsure about whether or not you did the (sometimes vague) thing the priest said to do.

The hinge here is “satisfaction”.  We do penance out of justice for the damage done, and for the good of our souls and, hopefully, to help us avoid sin in the future.  Satisfaction is necessary.  But we have to keep in mind that all penances, all satisfaction that we can do are not proportioned to the damage that our mortal sins cause.  By sinning mortally, we open a chasm that we humans cannot close on our own.  Christ closed it and continues to close the breeches we open up after baptism.  Christ perfectly fulfilled the satisfaction for sins through His Sacrifice on the Cross.  We cannot by our own efforts add to that or perfect it.  Hence, in a sense, every penance assigned in confession is arbitrary and ridiculously disproportional when it comes to “satisfaction for sins”.

Whether the priest assigns one Our Father or 500 Rosaries while kneeling on glass in salt water, Christ is the one who perfectly performed the ultimate penance and satisfaction for our sins.

But we avoid the error of Protestants and we indeed condemn it: we have to do penance for the temporal punishment due to sin out of justice.   This is also why a priest confessor is obliged to give a penance and why he should give one that people understand and can do in a reasonable time and way.  This is also why we should make use of indulgences for the sake of the deceased who did not do adequate penance in life and are being purified in Purgatory.

This is also why penitents can ask for a different penance!  If you don’t get what the confessor is talking about, or you think you cannot do something, ask for a different penance!

And, there is nothing to prevent you from doing more if you want to!   “Be truly sorry for your sins and for your penance say ONE Our Father.”  Want to say TEN?  Go ahead.    If you forget even the ONE Our Father because your lunch break was over 5 minutes ago and the guy ahead of you took up nearly the whole time you had?   You are still good to go.  You are absolved.  You still have penance to do, but you are forgiven.

Do NOT under any circumstances attempt to conclude that penance is not necessary.  I believe it was St. Teresa of Avila who appeared to a sister and said that she had had about a minute of Purgatory because she had once said an Our Father in a negligent way and that that minute was the worst of her existence.  Ponder that.

Ponder that and do your penances.

If you don’t do your penances, for one reason or another, confess that the next time you go to confession.  That’s how important it is to do the assigned penance.

We must make an effort.  Then, as St. Augustine says, Christ crowns His own merits in us, in what we do.

We receive something beautiful and awesome in absolution.  We should respond with our whole person in gratitude, in heart, mind, and body.



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    she had had about a minute of Purgatory because she had once said an Our Father in a negligent way and that that minute was the worst of her existence.

    Ponder that I did.

    Father, in all seriousness, I am truly terrified. If a nun receives that kind of punishment for what is seemingly a small venial sin … I am terrified. Really. And now how does one go from a sorrow for sin due to the fear of God’s just punishments to a sorrow for sin purely based on the fear of offending God, out of a great love for God rather than for any other punishments that can befall us?
    Serious question.

  2. Gaby Carmel says:

    I’m afraid that St Teresa’s remark, if it is true, sends me into fits of discouragement! I tend to think, like Chesterton, that if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly! Often, I can’t do anything except badly, but that is better than not doing it at all… And in general, my beef with penances in confession is that so many priests seem to despise it. They will never say anything else except: “Say a Hail Mary”, even after a penitent has talked about some heavy stuff, etc…

  3. William says:

    If a priest gives you a vague penance, just start singing, “I can’t get no satisfaction! I can’t get no satisfaction! ‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try! I can’t get no, I can’t get no..”

  4. gloriamary says:

    I understand that priests have bad days just like anyone else. One time, in a period of intense scrupolsity, I went to confession. The priest actually yelled at me. I slumped off of the kneeler and cried. My penance was to find a spiritual director. When I called the parish office to inquire about one, they didnt know what I was talking about. I went back to the priest again and told him I couldn’t find one. (I’ve been looking for years) That’s the short version. In my experience priests do not like dealing with people suffering from scrupolsity. I guess my point is, please Fathers, please give penitents a penance that we can reasonably perform.

  5. gloriamary says:

    Sorry. I misspelled scrupulosity.

  6. Geoffrey says:

    I once received a penance to recite a specific psalm each day for a week, and then a specific chapter from one of St Paul’s letters. After the second day I forgot all about it.

  7. Suburbanbanshee says:

    St. Teresa was an advanced student and a living saint on earth, so of course she was graded more harshly once she got that far.

    Because believe me, she did some slovenly slovenly prayers in her life, before she hit middle age and started getting serious about her nun career being a prayer career. She’s pretty open about this in her early autobiography. If God was always grading slovenly prayers, and if Confession didn’t exist, she would have been doing a lot more Purgatory than one minute!!

    God knows what counts as a good try or a good Confession, for each of us personally, at the particular moment. Being a little worried is respectful and wise; but we shouldn’t get scared in a way that holds us back instead of urging us on.

  8. Mariana2 says:

    Our pp always gives reading of Epistles, or other substantial chunks of text that can’t be done until one gets home, as penance.

    But, like Gab, I’m terrified. I’d love to hear replies to his question.

  9. andia says:

    I once had a priest tell me to read the Summa Theologica- I am still working on it Fun, but hard book. How is one supposed to finish that before communion?

  10. jameeka says:

    andia: for a penance?
    “How is one supposed to finish that before communion?”

    Thanks, made me laugh out loud after a tough week.

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  12. docet.omnibus says:

    I try and do my penance immediately but sometimes I honestly forget, especially when it is not something easy to do right away, but if upon examination in preparation for my next confession I remember I will confess it AND do the penance I forgot in addition to the new penance. I must admit I have had some challenging penances. I spent four years in formation with a contemplative community of Benedictine nuns and unfortunately we did not always have a regular confessor. The diocesan priests who would hear our confessions sometimes would give particularly creative or challenging penances. When I was a novice I was once was given the penance to read the entire book of Exodus and another time I was told to carry a rock around in my hand for 24hrs straight. I doubt these penances would have been given in a parish! Although the earlier comment that said they were given reading the entire Summa Theologica as a penance seems to have had an even more difficult penance!

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