From a reader…
I went to confession the other day to get back into the state of grace with the plan to get my spiritual life back in order after slacking and falling into habitual mortal sin during the pandemic restrictions on churches and not being able to receive communion for over a year. It’s been a real struggle and I’m not feeling particularly hopeful I can get back to where I was before. I feel very weak willed.
Anyways, I had to go to a parish where the priest, well meaning and traditionally minded, gives out non-conventional penances that take a long time to complete. Last time it was to pray for everyone I came into contact with the following day (I work in fast food. I come into contact with 1000 people a day). This time it was, “starting [the next day] fast from unnecessary use of the internet for two days. Spend the extra time I would have used for internet to spend in prayer of my choosing.” I failed my penance within 5 minutes of waking up the next day when I habitually did a quick check of Instagram as part of my daily morning routine. I usually spend the first 30 minutes of my morning eating breakfast and enjoying my morning coffee while watching personal development videos before going off to my crap job that I hate with a passion, but can’t seem to get myself out of.
Long story short, I failed my penance. I thought I could do it, but it was more onerous and disruptive to my daily routines than I thought (I motivate myself to do house work by listening to podcasts and vlogs while I work as a reward for myself, but my penance prevented me from doing so).
Firstly, your sins are still forgiven. They were forgiven the moment you received absolution. You don’t snap back into a state of mortal sin if you fail to do your penance. The penance is something that should be done (and it seems you tried, so don’t worry) out of justice and for your own good in view of, perhaps, future Purgatory.
Next, if you are ever unsure about being able to do the penance assigned, ask for something else, something doable.
Explanation: All penances assigned are arbitrary and have little or no real proportion to the effects of mortal sin. Mortal sin opens a gap between us and God who is infinite. Hence, no penance is ever enough. It is not nothing and that is the best we can do.
Sometimes priests get the idea that the penances they assign should be “meaningful”. Okay. Nothing wrong with that. However, they get, at times, a little dreamy or idealistic, especially if they don’t know the circumstances of the penitents’ lives.
In ongoing spiritual direction a case can be made for tailoring penances to the penitent. However, in my humble opinion, it is best, in most cases of anonymous auricular confession to give something simple, memorable and doable in a brief period of time.
I never want a penitent to walk out and think, “What was that again?” because I wasn’t clear. I never want a penitent to wonder “When and how am I going to do this?”
It might be thought that a standard, “3 Hail Marys and 3 Our Fathers” seems a little bland. Well, okay. But, the penance can be performed quickly, usually on the spot, and the sense of having performed it works wonders. Also, when I give rather standard penances, I do them myself as well. Some priests do that. Not all, some.
So, advice to penitents: If you are not sure about a penance, don’t leave scratching your head. Ask for a clarification or for something else.
Advice to young priests: Don’t get all dreamy and meaningful. If you know the penitent very well, it could be possible to come up with an “unconventional” penance. Remember that all penances are arbitrary and none of them are “adequate”. There are times when you sense that a longer penance, such as a chaplet of the Rosary could be in order. In that case, you might just ask, “Do you think you can do that?”
I think one of the worst things we priests can do to people is leave them in doubt about the validity of a sacrament or what their part is in it. So, sound instruction for children and converts about making a confession is of critical importance. There is nothing worse, in my experience, than a terrified child who know deep down that this is an important moment but who doesn’t know what to do or even how to start. Sure, they lock up sometimes, but normally with a slight prompt to get them into the groove of the form they learned, they go along just fine. A priest can really tell who was taught and how.
Make sure children or converts – or YOU – know by heart an Act of Contrition. To my mind, the classic can’t be surpassed in clarity and content. There are variations. This is what I learned:
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee,
and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell, [attrition]
but most of all, because they offend Thee, my God,
Who art all-good and deserving of all my love. [contrition]
I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more
to do my penance and to amend my life. Amen.
All the elements are there that the priest needs to hear so that he can give absolution.
Remember that confessional is a “tribunal” in which you are your own prosecutor. Not the priest. Not God. You are the prosecution of yourself. The priest, as judge, exercises justice and mercy. To do so, he has to hear that a) you are sufficiently sorry (at least attrition) and that b) you will amend your life. In a pinch the expression of sorrow for sin, even imperfect attrition, is sufficient. That’s why some priests, having been taught that, once they are sure of the penitent’s disposition, are not to delay absolution, start the form of absolution even before the penitent is done with the Act of Contrition.
Your job, as penitent prosecutor, is to examine your case, your evidence, thoroughly and then expose it all to the merciful judge.
I like the tribunal imagery. Many old confessionals even have carved on them juridical sounding phrases. It’s far better than the image of some grinning therapist who wants to hold your hand and braid your hair. Blech. Let’s get serious.
Examine your consciences daily. And remember, if you sweep a room and you don’t move things out of the way, but go around things in a half-assed job, you are doing a half-assed job of it. In examining your conscience, go into the dark places. Get serious. Usually this is something that takes practice, just like playing the piano, learning a language, or even cleaning a house. Repetita iuvant.
No matter what else, when you go to confession, don’t hold mortal sins back. If you are unsure about something, ask. But don’t hide them from nervousness or embarrassment. Priests have heard it all and, usually, we almost immediately forget what we’ve heard! True!
GO TO CONFESSION!