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Penance after Reconciliation: Implications of not fulfilling it!

Dear Father Edward, a couple of months ago, I went to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. After I confessed my sins the priest asked me whether I could say the Angelus for my penance. He also asked me if I knew the Angelus. I very hesitatingly affirmed, for post on penancethinking that if I concentrated enough (I had not said the Angelus in a long time), the words would come. However, on returning to the pew and put myself to the test, I could recollect most (not all) words, but the flow of the prayer was not there. Try as much as I could, I could not recite the entire Angelus. As such I “completed” the penance and then went on to receive Communion. I also said to myself that I would source the Angelus prayer form the Internet and say it the next day. This “next day” has only occurred today. Already I have availed of the sacrament of reconciliation a couple of times as well as received Communion every time I heard Mass. Not really knowing the implications/effects of this act, I did not even mention this at the subsequent confessions. But this keeps nagging at the back of my head. Please help me understand the role of penance, if it is a must and if it is to be “complied” with to the fullest.

It is good to hear that you are trying to avail yourself of the sacrament of reconciliation on a regular basis. The glossary of the Catechism describes the sacrament as “The liturgical celebration of God's forgiveness of the sins of the penitent, who is thus reconciled with God and with the Church.” It remits and forgives those sins committed after baptism. The sacrament of reconciliation (also known simply as confession or the sacrament of penance) is one of the most comforting treasures that the Almighty has given to the Church. Countless souls over the centuries have approached the sacrament with heavy hearts ? and then came away with a renewed outlook on life. Years, even decades, of sin can be absolved in one good confession. The essential elements of the sacrament comprise the acts of the penitent along with the prayer of absolution by the priest. The acts of the penitent are: contrition, the confession of sins, and accepting the penance imposed in satisfaction or reparation. (The temporal punishment that lingers for sins can be remitted through indulgences as well as prayer and acts of charity.)

Now let's turn to your specific situation. Your first confession was certainly valid, provided that you had the proper contrition, that is, the proper sorrow for your sins. Contrition can be imperfect, meaning that it is motivated more by a fear of punishment. Then there is perfect contrition, which is motivated by sorrow for having offended God; this suffices before the sacrament when one has the intention to go to confession. Let's assume, too, that you confessed any and all mortal sins that you were aware of, including sins previously unconfessed (for instance, if you didn't realize that they were mortal sins at the time you committed them). It is also “recommended to the Christian faithful that they also confess venial sins” (Canon law No. 988.2). Let's further assume that you had the intention to fulfill the penance. You did the best you could at the moment, and eventually did find the text of the Angelus and prayed it. In the meantime and assuming that you remained in a state of grace you could receive Communion and even return to the sacrament of confession before having completed the first penance perfectly. In other words, your first and subsequent confessions were valid (if you fulfilled all other requirements) and your communions were OK too. So you can breathe easier.

The ideal, of course, would have been for you to pray the Angelus well the first time. If you knew the bulk of the Angelus by memory and prayed it, that would have fulfilled the obligation. If you had a reasonable doubt, you would have done well to get a copy of the Angelus as soon as possible. It would have helpful, but not necessary, to mention your tardiness in a subsequent confession; this might have prompted you to fulfill the penance sooner. This in turn helps us not to take the sacrament for granted.

A few other points are worth noting. An unfulfilled penance is a sin but does not invalidate the confession. If, after accepting a penance, the penitent finds it to be burdensome or very difficult to fulfill, he can ask the same or another confessor to change the penance. The Catechism in No. 1460 says that a penance “must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed. It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear. Such penances help configure us to Christ, who alone expiated our sins once for all.” Fulfilling the penance, by the way, doesn't take away all the temporal punishment linked to our sins even one sin against an infinitely good God is beyond our ability to make up for it fully on our own but it does help to ensure the full benefits of the sacrament.

God bestows his mercy generously, but penitents need to have the right disposition. Tragic it is that relatively few Catholics avail themselves of this rich sacrament.

Yours in Christ, Father Edward McIlmail, LC

Father McIlmail is a theology instructor at Mater Ecclesiae College in Greenville, RI.

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Art for this post on penance: Interior Scene [Confession], Jean Alphonse Roehn (1799-1864), unknown date, PD-Worldwide; all Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Norm

    Thanks, I’ve often had this question too!

  • Mary

    Father, I would love to see a follow-up that might address how the penitant can deal with a situation when the priest is very vague in giving the penance. I find it difficult to “correct” or even “question” a priest, but for the last couple years, all I have gotten is “say some prayers” or “do something nice for someone”. So far, I have tried to immediately (after leaving the confessional) make a concrete designation for myself, so that I will follow up and be sure to do it. If it is “say some prayers”–I say them then. I have had one where he said “say a prayer each day for patience”–uhh, for the rest of my life? I do try, and I know it would be a good thing to pray for patience each day, but I don’t know if I’m truly “bound” by this penance for life, or not.

  • faithful123

    Suppose we do the prescribed penance One Father and One or Two Hail Mary’s and we wish to do a bit more ‘sacrificial offering up’ for our offense?
    Can’t we do something ‘extra’ for another … without saying why; and stating
    to God…it is to make amends for when …………..? Or must we stick only
    to the prescribed penance? or IS IT …what we do ‘as extra’ should ALWAYS be the way we do live…so it’s not a penance at all? Hope you understand the quesion.

    Then too, sometimes I’ve asked myself…why is it a ‘penance’ to say the Hail Mary or Our Father? Penance would mean a form of penal discipline…is it
    good to equate these prayers with sort of a form of punishment for sin?
    Again, hope you understand my question.

  • Thanks, Father Edward! I appreciated your illumination on this issues. I have to admit, though, that you gave me chuckle at the end when you said “Tragic it is that relatively few Catholics…etc). I completely agree with the point, but that kind of phrasing immediately made me hear Yoda’s voice in my head. 🙂

  • Guest

    Thank you, Father Edward. Your explanation is so comforting. I have no doubt my beloved Catholics who have been fearing going for Confession because they had stopped living their Faith and now feel the load of sins crushing them, will take courage and approach Christ in this – His Tribunal of Mercy – as He calls it in the Diary of St. Faustina, His Secetary of the Eucharistic Apostolate of the Divine Mercy. How I wish subscribers in this Website would access information about this Devotion and prepare themselves to celebrate this year’s Feast of the Divine Mercy – the 1st Sunday after Easter – that is, the 1st of May. The promises Christ gave to those who will prepare for this Feast by praying the Novena He dictated to St. Faustina, starting on Good Friday, got to Confession during this period, attend the Holy Mass on the Feast Day, receive the Holy Communion and venerate His Divine Mercy Image, shall have all their sins and punishments therof forgiven . This is the greatest Gift Christ will bestow on those who will celebrate this Feast as He decreed. That is, on this Feast of the Divine Mercy, Christ will restore the souls of those who will celebrate this Feast as He requested, to the condition the souls obtained on the day of Baptism.

    Last month, during our 3rd Saturday Prayer Day, Our Spiritual Director of the Eucharistic Apostles of Divine Mercy, gave us the reason why Christ requested, through St. Faustina way back in 1931, that this Feast be instituted for the Universal Catholic Church and be solemnly celebrated. He told us Jesus has now given us the Annual Day of Atonement which God had instituted for the Israelites as recorded in Leviticus Chapter 16. This year’s Feast is also very special in that Venerable Pope John Paul II, whom God decreed would fulfil Christ’s wish to institute this Feast, did so in the Year 200 and on this Feast Day, this year, he shall be be Beatified. I urge all my Spiritual Family on this Webste to prepare to celebrate this Feast and receive the avalance of Christ’s Merciful Graces and forginess of all their sins and punishment..

    • Donald

      Thank you for your suggestion re:Novena. For those who would like to pray this novena, it can be found at #1209 (p 435) in my copy of the Diary of St. Maria Faustina by Marian Press, 3rd edition. Web address is : www. marian.org
      I can testify to the power of this novena. Donald True, Sr. +

  • Just Me

    Sometimes I’m not able to do my penance prayers right after confession, and I then forget exactly what I was supposed to do. Was it 3 Hail Marys, or 5? Or was it 4 Our Fathers?? And sometimes the priest at confession has a thick accent and I’m not sure what he even said. So I just make something up, and ask the Lord to please accept it as my penance. Is this OK?

    Also, I read somewhere, I think, that receiving Communion will wipe out venial sins. So, for example, if I catch myself gossiping one evening, then go to daily Mass the next morning but ask the Lord’s forgiveness prior to Communion, is this about the same as going to confession? Does the Communion then wipe out the venial sin? I always feel better, anyway.

    Thank you.

    • Dear Friend: What do you mean when you say “I’m not able to do my penance prayers right after confession.”

      • Just Me

        Due to my schedule, I have to leave church right after confession. I don’t pray well while I’m driving, so I wait until later, sometimes until before the next Mass I attend. And by then sometimes I’ve forgotten what the penance was.

        • What penance do you most frequently receive?

  • Julie

    Fr. Edward, It has been my understanding, and confirmed by a few priests, that one cannot be under the burden of a mortal sin if one does not know that the sin is mortal. Could you please comment?
    Thanks you, Julie

    • Catechism #1859 “Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.”

  • LizEst

    Thank you Father Edward. Such a necessary post!

    A few questions for you:

    What happens when you can’t remember the penance? Let’s say someone is in the beginning stages of Alzheimers or, for another reason, just can’t remember the penance prescribed no matter how attentive they were to what the priest said. What then?

    Also, I’m a little confused by this statement, “Let’s assume, too, that you confessed any and all mortal sins that you were aware of, including sins previously unconfessed (for instance, if you didn’t realize that they were mortal sins at the time you committed them)…” It has always been my understanding that, as long as you made a complete and integral confession, to the best of your recollection and understanding, and expressed true contrition for all the sins of your past life, that those sins (those forgotten and those committed without the realization that they were mortal) would also be forgiven, meaning that if you had recalled them or understood them to be mortal at the time you committed them, you certainly would have confessed them. The intention was certainly there to confess all and my understanding is that they were absolved. Would you please say a little bit more about this?

    Also, it was my understanding that, as per the catechism #1859, “Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent” and per #1860, “Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove that imputability of a grave offense,” even though “no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law,” written on the human heart but, “the promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders.” So, again, would you please explain a little bit more about your statement re “if you didn’t realize that they were mortal sins at the time you committed them,” as I find this a little confusing with regards to this aspect of it?

    Also, in perhaps some other post, would you please address the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and the forgiveness of sins through that sacrament?

    Thank you so much for your time in advance in answering these questions and for your patience in doing so.

    God bless you this Lent and always.

    • Mark S.

      I too had the same questions after reading Father’s pastoral and comforting answer. I didn’t have the Catechism available here so I am so grateful for your citing the passages. I look forward to Hearing more from Father about this. Thanks for your excellent post.

  • joan

    The “Prayer for Daily Neglects” is a nice daily prayer for between confessions. I often say it on behalf of others too, especially my family.

    Eternal Father,
    I offer Thee the Sacred Heart of Jesus,
    with all its love, all its sufferings and all its merits.
    First — To expiate all the sins
    I have committed this day and during all my life.
    Gloria Patri.
    Second — To purify the good I have done poorly this day
    and during all my life.
    Gloria Patri.
    Third — To supply for the good I ought to have done,
    and that I have neglected this day and all my life.
    Gloria Patri.

  • faithful123

    May I jump into this discussion with a question? Is it better to rush thru a penance of a few Hail Mary’s? Or should it be said in a reflective mode, thinking about the words. One more question, I always thought of penance as something done to ‘correct’ one’s actions…ie: as in ‘penal-ty’ penance…the penalty for speeding might be to pay a fine. So…I sort of wonder why a penance for sin is to say the Hail Mary … wouldn’t it put in someone’s mind that
    the Hail Mary prayer is something said IF BAD
    when in fact …it should be said because one
    wants to ‘talk’ (pray) to Mary? Penance is
    to bring us BACK to thinking about God, I know;
    which again brings up the question…would we be
    thinking of Him if we ‘rush thru’ just to get it
    done. I don’t mean to contradict or argue the point but, do you think it can be rushed?

    • Dan Burke

      Your concerns are legitimate – my issue was simply to draw reflection to the “no time and I forget” challenge. It is better to do the penance faster rather than failing to do it. In the end, it is a matter of picking your battles. If there are only two hail mary’s required, why not spend a few minutes in reflection? No argument with that…

  • rustyrusticator

    So, are you saying that if we’re not really sure about the penance, we should ask and get it clarified?

    Years ago, after years of being away from the Church, I was assigned the penance of studying the Gospel of St. John. I thought I understood what the priest was saying, made my act of contrition, and went home, dusted off my Bible, and read the gospel. And, like the old joke goes, that’s when the trouble started…

    Two “crib books” and a Bible study class later, I’m still not sure I understand the gospel of John! Worse yet, I’m not sure what Father wanted me to observe, or to extract from that study of the gospel! And still worse, it’s starting to really bother me.

    Yes, I do know the story of salvation via Jesus Christ (I could hardly be called Catholic if I didn’t,) but what is bothering me is this–specifically, what was it about the Gospel of John that I got assigned the penance of “studying” it (in other words, why not Matthew, why not Mark or Luke?,) and how much “studying” constituted completing this penance? I think I completed it worthily enough to be able to fulfill the penance, but keep thinking I missed something in what Father was getting at.

    And yes, it’s annoying me enough to go read the gospel of John. Again.

  • joe khaled

    Can one make his or her penance the next day after confession

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