Assigned Penance: An Integral Part of Confession
by Father John A. Hardon, S.J.
The penance assigned by the priest is an integral part of the Sacrament of Confession. According to the Church’s Code of Canon Law, “the confessor is to enjoin salutary and suitable penances in keeping with the quality and number of the sins, but with attention to the condition of the penitent; the penitent is obliged to perform the penances personally” (Canon 98).
Over the centuries of the Church’s teaching, Christ requires three duties of those who receive the Sacrament of Penance.
- They must be truly sorry for their sins, at least out of fear of God’s punishments.
- They must confess their grave sins, or (if there are no mortal sins) at least some venial sin(s) from their past life.
- They must perform the penance called satisfaction, which the confessor gives them.
This assigned penance should be consistent with the gravity and number of sins confessed. Nor should the priest, out of human respect, be afraid to assign a more demanding penance if the confessed sin deserves it.
Early Church Practice
We get some idea of how seriously the early Church viewed these penances from what were called the Penitential Books. The following examples are from the Penitential of St. Columban about the year 600 AD.
“If any layman…commits an act of homosexuality, he shall do penance for seven years, in the first three on bread and water and salt and dry fruit of the garden; in the four remaining years, he shall abstain from wine and meats; and thus, his guilt shall be cancelled and the priest shall pray for him, and so he shall be joined to the altar (On Capital Offenses, 13).
“If any layman commits perjury, if it is through cupidity he shall do this: he shall sell all his goods and give them to the poor and…giving up everything in the world, and serve God in a monastery until death” (20).
So the litany of penances goes on. The early Church did not hesitate to impose severe penalties on those who confessed grave sins. For lesser offenses, there were lighter penalties.
It was assumed, however, that the Sacrament of Confession was also the Sacrament of Satisfaction. This meant that sinners had to do penance to expiate their wrongdoing.
Gradually the Church modified her penitential discipline by introducing what we now call indulgences. The main reason for this was the growing realization that sins could be expiated, not only by the sinner, but by others; indeed that the whole Church, militant, suffering and triumphant cooperates in the expiation of sins.
The practice of allowing prayers and practices of piety to replace the severe penances of former days goes back to the early Middle Ages. But even as late as the 1960’s, when Pope Paul VI authorized the new “Norms and Grants on Indulgences,” the Catholic faithful would earn partial indulgences of “seven years,” or “forty days.” This meant that, through the merits of the Church, a person expiated as much temporal punishment as in the early days would be atoned by performing the severe penalties imposed, say, for seven years or forty days.
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of performing the penance assigned by the priest in confession.
Why is this so important?
- The penance which the confessor imposes partakes of the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance. This means that at least some of the temporal punishment incurred by the sinner is infallibly removed by performing the assigned penance.
- The prescribed penance is a sobering reminder that where there was sin, there must be voluntary acceptance of pain, at least the recitation of certain prescribed prayers.
- The assigned penance tells the sinner that he owes God the sacrifice of his own will to make reparation for disobeying the Divine Will. And the more we have sinned, the more we must love God in the future for giving in to self-love in the past.
Every pain we experience is a gift of God’s mercy. We should join these gifts with the penance we receive in Confession. This will make our whole life on earth a life of reparation for sin. It is the best preparation for eternity.
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica. Used with permission.