When the priest talks in Confession about making a penance, what is that all about?
The official Rite for the Sacrament of Penance is a helpful beginning to respond to this question. “True conversion is completed by acts of penance or satisfaction for sins committed, by amendment of conduct and also by the reparation of injury.” (Article 6)
The big picture of this Sacrament rightly begins with the notion of conversion. This best seen as the lifelong process whereby each of us turns our lives more completely over to Christ. While we would like to apply the “one and done” approach, is it not completed until we stand before the gate of eternity.
In that context, then, sin is a detour on our journey. It may also involve a complete abandonment of the effort. When we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we renew our resolve to embrace that attempt toward complete integration of our lives with that of Christ.
The forgiveness of sin, which takes place in the Sacrament of Confession (Reconciliation), originates in God’s love for us. Our part, however, is also important and consists of two aspects: a change of heart (and conduct), and reparation for sin. The penance, which is part of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, touches both of these aspects.
Therefore, the Rite goes on to say, “…penance should be suited to the personal condition of each penitent so that each one may restore the order which has been disrupted.” It is necessary, then, that the act of penance really be a remedy for sin and a help to renewal of spiritual life. Thus, the penitent, “…forgetting the things which are behind” (Phil. 3:13), again becomes a “fully active part of the mystery of salvation and turns once again toward an eternal future.” (Article 6)
The penance given in the sacrament, therefore, should in some way touch the area of sin that has been confessed. Thus, for example, if one confesses hatred for a neighbor, the penance might ask that the penitent pray for that neighbor. In doing so, the penitent not only begins a reparation for the sin committed but is also on the road to a renewal of conduct.
Because of human nature and the complexity of sin, it will always be a challenge to arrive at an appropriate penance that can be both reparation for sin and lead to a true change of heart. The confessor must always be mindful that the penance assigned should be challenging but always realistic and respectful of the penitent.
In any case, one is also always free to add to the penance given by the priest. If, after performing the penance assigned, one still feels that more is needed, there is of course no law against doing more to effect reparation for sin and a change of heart.
What must always be remembered is that this Sacrament is one of reconciliation—a restoration of a relationship rooted in the tremendous love God has for us. It should assist us in the conversion necessary to leave this world and enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Photo by Dena Koenig Photography