ASK FATHER: I failed to do my confession penance. Now what?

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!



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. mo7 says:

    One year, the cathedral in my city established a ‘holy door’. So my usual confessor, as a penance, would ask you to go over there and walk through the holy door. It was about a mile away. And I thought it was a doable yet unique penance. And yes, he did ask if I was able to get there though.

  2. Josephus Corvus says:

    Unfortunately, I’ve got a bit of a “legalese” streak, so with respect to the writer….

    Penance: Pray for everyone you meet
    Time: 10:30 PM
    Part of Regular Nightly Prayers: “For everyone I came in contact with today, Hail Mary….”

    Penance: Abstain from unnecessary Internet
    Time: First thing in the morning
    Checking Instagram (and of course Fr. Z’s blog): It’s necessary to have a bit of enjoyment so I am in the proper state of mind to be able to handle “my crap job that I hate with a passion, but can’t seem to get myself out of.”

  3. Not says:

    In your autumn years, for me at least , a lot of my sins are sins of thought. I ask Father in the confessional if he could give me selective memory. He replied, Wouldn’t that be nice.

  4. Son of Saint Alphonsus says:

    As a confessor, even when giving a standard 3 or 5 Our Fathers and Hail Marys, I try to remember to ask if that’s okay, doable. I rarely get a “no” in response but it has happened, and when it has, it’s with good reasons I would never have thought of. At times I will even say the penance with them in the confessional if it will help. This is especially helpful when you can sense great nervousness or anxiety. Then they leave the confessional and it’s over and done.

  5. Antonia D says:

    For the original questioner, looking at Instagram at breakfast is not sinful in itself. You could just try again to do the penance before you go to Communion. Here are some ideas.

    You might set a reminder on your phone (even put on a sticky note covering it) the night before, and plan it out beforehand. Set a few things you could do to distract yourself from unnecessary use of the internet for a couple of days and change up your habits… like pray the Rosary, read the Bible for 30 minutes, go to Adoration (even if Jesus is hidden in the tabernacle), read a book, clear out a disorganized room, visit a friend or someone in need, etc. If you try hard but can’t seem to do it at this stage, you can always go back to confession, maybe to a more “conventional penance” priest, tell him what happened briefly, and ask for a different, simpler penance. Then you can go back to Communion (as often as possible!).

    Just take things one very small step at a time. The massive graces you will receive from our merciful Lord from Confession and the Eucharist (try to go as often as possible) will strengthen You along the way. Look how Bilbo Baggins was changed and strengthened on his journey in The Hobbit. We are all Bilbo Baggins, especially me. :) You CAN do this! God bless you and yours!

  6. Antonia D says:

    I wanted to add for the original questioner: about your horrible job that you hate, first, I’m so sorry that you hate your job! I sincerely hope you can figure out some way to get a different one (I’ll pray for you!).

    Second, while you’re still there at this job, you can gain enormous merits by enduring this work that you detest “with a smile” and without complaining — much more merit than someone who has an easy, cushy job they really enjoy. Not that there’s anything wrong with easy jobs or enjoying your work, but you can usually gain more merit in Heaven for yourself and those you love, or just any souls in need, through patience in suffering. Just remember to offer all your prayers, works, joys, and suffering up to Jesus each day for the salvation of souls. A Morning Offering prayer is great for this.

    Don’t let the devil separate you from the Church and the spectacular graces of the sacraments any longer. We need you in the Church!

    I hope you’ll pray for my family. Thanks in advance, and very best wishes in your job and in getting back to the sacraments.

  7. Bosco says:

    In the late 1950s when we were instructed by the Benedictine nuns in preparation for our First Confession we were taught to end each confession of our remembered sins with this formula:
    “I am sorry for these and all the sins of my past life especially for sins against the (name Commandment, etc.).”
    We were told this expression of intention was sufficient to cover sins forgotten.
    Bless those Benedictines. As a class we would go to confession at least once a month and before which we would lie our heads down on our desks while the Sisters would read aloud an examination of conscience for us to reflect on.

  8. redneckpride4ever says:

    Since my conversion in 1993 I have used that form of the Act of Contrition. I never used the one for “in the confessional” since “because of Thy just punishments”, although true, lacks the depth IMO.

    A couple years ago I realized my Act in the confessional had me proclaim I would “confess my sins” after I confessed them, so I made a slight alteration. Turns out what you shared with us here is word for word what I speak in the confessional when prompted to do my Act.

    (I considered shortening ‘Act of Contrition’ to AoC, but then I remembered an ultra liberal congresswoman…I should probably confess that soon :0)

  9. APX says:

    I really struggle with saying “aren’t ” instead of “art”. Leading the rosary before Mass, “Our Father who aren’t in Heaven” *sigh*

  10. @APX: it’s easier to imagine you’re in Boston…it’s pronounced ‘Aht’. No way would be confused with the negative of are (“ah”)

    Have to remember to be conscious of the differences in lingo when I visit friends in the central Atlantic states…and not describe my uncle’s wife as a small 6-legged insect instead of the proper pronunciation of a word beginning in ‘au***’.

    Regardless, pretty sure the Father supplies what our poor fallen nature verbally messes up if done in innocence.

  11. Antonia D says:

    APX, that’s hilarious! Thanks for your humble self-disclosure. I really needed that laugh. :)

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  13. Good that the writer feels compunction for doing the given penance.
    I get it. Flaky priests, although maybe well-meaning and devout, can put unnecessary burdens on the penitent, while assuming themselves doing otherwise.
    I too have gotten ensnarled by strange penances, though mostly penances are standard, measurable, and achievable. While in the confessional one might not recognize how hard an unconventional penance will be, and can miss the opportunity to get it tweaked.

    Sometimes you DO need to “think inside the box” and be conventional. Tradition is often a good and proven practice. Thinking outside the box can be good, but some people get lost LOL.

    Confession forgives us our sins so that we aren’t blocked from heaven, but we always must make reparation for sins, including forgiven sins.
    Consider Mary Magdalene who was forgiven and subsequently lived a saintly life but did penance to the end.
    Penance that is given to us sacramentally is more efficacious than suffering that we choose for ourselves, so please dear priests, do give us penances.

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