“Ask a Priest: What If a Penance Seems Too Harsh?”

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Q: Yesterday I received a penance from a priest, to go two weeks without going to my fiancé’s apartment. It seemed a bit harsh to me. I have never received one like that. Is that a legitimate penance? Also, if I find it unfair or unjust, can I challenge it? Will I still be forgiven for my sins if I do not complete my penance? -N.F.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: In principle, you could “challenge” the penance. Preferably, if you do this, you should return to the same priest and speak with him. Before you do that, however, you might want to consider some points.

A penance, ideally, is aimed at helping the penitent. The priest who hears a confession is sitting, so to speak, in the place of Christ. He and the penitent enjoy a certain grace within the sacrament. The Holy Spirit is working through the priest.

I mention this because it helps to see this particular penance with the eyes of faith. Why do you think the priest assigned this penance? Might it be a penance that could help you greatly in the long term? What might Jesus be trying to tell you through this penance?

In principle, a penance can take many forms — prayers, sacrifices, pilgrimages, etc. In this case the penance could certainly be legitimate if, for instance, its aim is to help you avoid a near occasion of sin with your fiancé.

Also, to challenge a penance could be a sign of spiritual pride — a penitent could think he is a better judge of his own case than the priest. Experience teaches, in fact, that we aren’t always the best judge of our own actions.

As to your other question: Your sins are probably already forgiven. So long as you had a spirit of contrition, a sufficient resolve to avoid sin in the future, and the intention of doing the penance — all this when you were in the confessional — then the absolution takes away the sin.

If a penitent later refuses to do the penance, that would constitute a new sin.

It seems as if you are at a crossroads. If you fulfill the penance, you might find a great grace in all this. It might help you in your spiritual life, which would help make you a better wife in the future. Remember: a big part of being a wife involves helping your husband grow in holiness and reach heaven.

If you don’t fulfill the penance, not only do you risk offending God, but you might be throwing away graces that might not return easily. It is one thing to sin in a moment of weakness. It is quite another to sin after careful deliberation.

Think about it. Pray about it. I will pray, too — that you make the best decision, for your own sake, for your fiancé’s sake, and for the glory of God.

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