ASK FATHER: A priest gave me a penance in confession that was too hard

From a reader…


Long ago I went to confession and was given and reluctantly agreed to\ a rather onerous penance not required by justice. I didn’t end up doing it after thinking about it for a while and went to a different priest and asked for a new penance and reconfessed. I told the new priest that I figured he had the power to release me from my older penance. He seemed unsure what to do and just did what I asked. He agreed the penance was extreme. My question: was this legitimate and legal per cannon law or moral theology? Ideally I probably should have gone back to the same priest but did not.

You did the right thing.   First, you didn’t just blow it off, as it were, for being too hard to do.  You checked with another confessor.  In the confessional a confessor can commute another confessor’s suggested penance.

Priests must give penances to penitents and penitents are obliged to fulfill penances themselves (can. 981).  Penances ought to be doable.

People should understand that they can ask the priest for a different penance.  This can be done when in a couple situations.

First, if the penance is so vague that you don’t know if you’ve done it or not.  “Be nice to someone today.”  That’s too vague.   Get a penance that is concrete and doable in a reasonable amount of time after you’ve made your confession.

Second, if the penance is so onerous that you are not sure you can do it.  “Say 200 chaplets of the Rosary while crawling around the outside of the church in the rain with hands and legs tied up with cinctures.”    Nope.  “Not gonna do that.   How about 1 chaplet, while kneeling in the church?”

What is a reasonable amount of time?  Hard to say.  If forced to take a stab at it, I’d say… before Communion of the next Mass scheduled in that place.

Another thing people have to be clear about.  Our mortal sins open up a vast gap between us and God.  Nothing that we can do on our own is proportioned to what it takes to close that gap.  God does it, we don’t.  Hence, every act of penance that the confessor assigns is arbitrary.   We need to do penance, out of justice, but our penance isn’t what bridges the divide.

Furthermore, while we are obliged to do penance as part of our reception of the Sacrament of PENANCE, the validity of the absolution is not dependent on the penance.  We must have a firm purpose of amendment and a desire to do the penance.   But when you are absolved, you are absolved.  You don’t become absolved after doing your penance (i.e., some time later, soon or not).  If you, during your confession did not intend to do the assigned penance and didn’t pipe up, that would be a problem.

And for you priests out there: Don’t be dopes.  Give reasonable penances and use the FORM of Absolution exactly as it is published.  Consider using Latin.

I hope that helps.

And I hope, as we begin a new year, this also helps everyone….


Get this year off to a good start.


How long has it been?


This could be not only your last year, but your last DAY breathing.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. There is also the question of penances that seem to be way too lenient. In this connection, I figure that the reparation we make in doing the prescribed penance is not only in the act prescribed, but also in the obedience to the prescription, and surrendering our self-will.

  2. Suudy says:

    A recently ordained priest has been at our parish about 18mo. Since his arrival, we now have confessions before (nearly) every mass. His homilies are full of calls to conversion, penance, and devotion to Christ and His mother (his Jan 1 homily was strong on this point, invoking Fatima and Guadalupe).

    I pray all the newer priests are so inclined. It has reinvigorated others, but mostly me.

  3. BrionyB says:

    I was once given the penance of praying for a precise number of minutes in front of the Blessed Sacrament. This was not excessive or difficult in itself – but it did mean I spent those minutes anxiously checking my watch to make sure I’d fulfilled the penance correctly (it was only once the allotted minutes were done that I was able to actually pray without distraction…).

  4. Cafea Fruor says:

    I was given a very vague penance once (i.e., whenever I was tempted to x, I was supposed to meditate on y in order to stir myself into fighting temptation to x), and I knew immediately that this was vague and thus asked for clarity. I said to Father, “How am I supposed to know when I’ve finished my penance? Can I have some clarity?” He literally gave me a curt, “No,” and said nothing more other than absolution. So I left the confessional with the intention of trying to satisfy the penance, but then I later realized it was more vague than I’d originally thought. How long was I to mediate on y? A minute? Half an hour? If I was to do it every time, what if I were in a place where that wasn’t feasible? For example, when I was tempted to x during the work day, how could I drop everything and mediate for a while without stealing time from my employer, especially if I was tempted repeatedly throughout the day? And if it was to be done every time, for how long should that go–a week, a month, for the rest of my life? It was so confusing. So I mentioned it in my next confession to a different priest, and he agreed about the vagueness and gave me a different penance.

    My question is, if you question the confessor about a penance and are shot down, can you continue to negotiate? Could I have, after the first confessor denied me clarity, still said, “I can’t do this; it’s too confusing. Please give me another penance.” And if I could have done that, what if he said, “No,” again? If I seriously doubt the ability to do the penance, does that mean I’m walking out without the intention to complete it?

  5. sggreener says:

    This has probably been asked.

    If a penitent confessed to child abuse, would it be appropriate to tell him, for his penance, to hand himself in to the police?

  6. Imrahil says:

    What if the priest gives no penance?

    Of course, we would ask for one; but we might not yet be sufficiently acquainted with Confession*; or we might have just confessed a rather troubling sin and the expectation to be absolved from it and the little satisfaction that we have brought it over ourself to speak about it drives the thought from our minds; or we want not to make the confession-father even more angry about our supposed nitpicking if he has given such hints; or we might be shy; or we might be momentarily distracted.

    I think the Confession is still valid, though the priest did wrong? [That is correct. The priest did wrong not to assign some penance. However, validity does not depend on that, provided that you had the intention to receive a penance and perform it.]

    – And what if, as has happened to me once, the priest says “do this and that” – in itself quite a sensible, concise and doable penance – and then adds “but don’t do that as a penance?” (I think I settled on doing it as a penance.)

    (As an off-topic aside, I once got the penance in the likeness of: “go to the benches in front of the altar over there. Spend some five minutes in prayer. Do it sitting. Do not kneel.” Well, I obeyed and knelt down [briefly] after the five minutes were over.)

    [* On another matter which may perhaps serve as illustrating the “acquaintance with confession”, I would consider myself so. But while I know and do express repantance, “for these and all my sins I am sorry and ask our Lord humbly and contritely for forgiveness” or the like, I’m still regularly startled if in EF and non-German settings the confession-father expects a formal act of contrition from me. I know that this is a good and customary thing, and I can make an act of contrition with a bit of thinking and putting-the-words together, but just have never really been brought up that way.]

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  9. chuckharold says:

    When I was a kid, the school made us go to confession weekly. For most of us third and fourth graders the “near occasion of sin” was the worse thing we did. For that, the penance was three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys. Was I supposed to learn that praying was penalty?

    [Frankly, you might consider including that comment, and its insinuation, in your next confession.]

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