“Ask a Priest: Is a Light Penance Normal?”

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Q: I’m a 51-year-old male who went to a Catholic elementary school but for more than 40 years didn’t attend Mass. During the pandemic I felt a need to re-establish a relationship with the Church. I became confirmed. I spent a lot of time thinking about my sins over four decades in preparation for a doozie of a confession. I went and started at a real high level, expecting the priest to ask for more information. He didn’t, so I kept going. At the end, he just assigned me to read Psalm 32. I feel like my penance should have been more. Is this normal? – T.B.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It’s great to hear that you received confirmation and got to confession after so many years away from the practice of the faith. That was a great grace.

As for what you perceive as a light penance: On one hand, yes, it seems light.

On the other hand, no penance we do can ever fully make restitution for our sins. It is Jesus’ passion and death that paid the price of our sins and won our redemption. (Note: “Winning our redemption” doesn’t mean our salvation is automatic; we have to do our part, too.)

I won’t try to double-guess the particular penance you received. Perhaps this particular confessor chose not to impose a heavier penance because he didn’t want your first experience of the sacrament after 40 years to be onerous.

In principle, confessors should to assign a penance that will help the penitent. Sure, some confessors tend to assign tougher penances than others. That is a separate issue.

In any case, penances are only one part of making restitution. Sins also bring a temporal punishment that needs to be paid off, so to speak.

An analogy might help: Imagine that you break your neighbor’s kitchen window due to negligence. You ask for forgiveness from your neighbor; and let’s say he forgives you. That’s like getting absolved from sin within the sacrament of confession.

There is still the matter of the broken window, however. You need to replace it or at least contribute to its replacement. This is like temporal punishment.

By sinning we break a window; but even after receiving absolution and doing a penance, we need to try to replace that window.

This we can do through prayers, worthy reception of the sacraments, almsgiving, fasting, and various acts of piety such as Scripture reading and Eucharistic adoration.

I hope that this helps.


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