Reflection: About Confession and the 'Penance' Given

by Father Don Thomas

Scenario: Someone asks: "How on earth do three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys make up for murder, adultery, drunkenness, and other sins?


Response: Over the years, this is a frequently asked question that deserves an answer that satisfies the curiosity of those who ask it. In defense of the church's position in this matter, I challenge anyone to show me where the church has ever taught that these or any other few prayers would offset any sins such as the ones listed above. On the other hand, I feel that false impressions about various aspects of religion are a reality, and so the above-written question is definitely a very good and important one. Let us now deal with it.

After an individual confesses his or her sins and tells God that they are truly sorry for having offended Him or others, the priest or confessor gives to the penitent what is called a "penance" This penance may consist of some prayers to say afterwards or it may be some kind of a charitable or religious action to perform, such as giving an alms to the poor, reading some scripture, or visiting the sick. Usually, the penance may vary, depending on the gravity of the sins confessed.

Let me state clearly that no one intends to teach that this so-called penance makes up for the sins confessed. What it is intended to do is express a willingness on the part of the sinner to make reparation for his or her sins, and this penance of a few prayers is simply the beginning of doing penance in the future.

We have no way of really understanding how much our sins offend God, but our faith does teach us that very often the dignity of the person offended has a lot to do with the determination of how serious an offense or transgression may be. What this means is that it does make a big difference whether we attack our brother or sister, or a judge or a cop, or the mayor or the president.

The dignity of the person offended is normally taken Into consideration. Well, if God has what is called an "infinite dignity", we would have no way of judging how serious our offenses are. These few prayers or good works that are suggested as a "penance" in confession would in no way "make up for"' the sins we confess.

Joined to other sacrifices, prayers, good works, almsgiving, fasting, supporting the poor and needy and so forth—all of these contribute to a life of penance and express our honest efforts and desire to atone for our sins. In no way, I repeat, is the small penance given in confession intended to satisfy our debt to God. As I said above, in accepting the penance in confession, we are actually expressing a willingness to atone for our sinfulness by uniting these few prayers to many other forms of penance we perform in our daily lives, in ways that we mentioned above.

Penance for sin can be classified as positive or negative. By negative penance we simply mean denying ourselves In a way that something is denied or taken away from our lives. Notice how we deprive ourselves when we say: I will not eat candy, or ice cream, or smoke or watch TV. Something is taken away. With positive penance, we add something to our lives. For example, today I am going to read the bible for 15 minutes, or I am going to say the rosary every day, or I am going to visit my aunt in the hospital at least once a week, or visit the nursing home every week, etc. Both forms of penance are good and supernatural. Christ gave us many examples of penance in His life, and the importance of penance was made known by Christ when He said "unless you do penance, you shall all likewise perish".


The End


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