True confessions of a confessor: Everything you ever wanted to know about penances
For Catholics who frequent the sacrament of penance, it might seem a familiar scenario - Saturday afternoon in the confession line. Multiple priests hearing confessions, but people in line are trying their best to avoid one of the priests.
Because he has a reputation for giving harsh penances.
What exactly constitutes a harsh penance? And are there rules surrounding the penances priests assign? Can you ever turn down a penance that a priest gives you?
The Pillar talked with three priest confessors to see what we could learn.
Fr. Roch Kereszty, a Cistercian monk at Our Lady of Dallas Abbey told The Pillar that to understand the concept of penance, you have to understand the nature of sin.
“Sin has two basic aspects. One is that I offend God. In the case of a mortal sin, I disrupt my relationship with God because I don't want to obey him. I put my will above the will of God. I want to be my own God,” Kereszty explained.
“The relationship with God is immediately restored in a good confession when the priest gives me absolution, but the wound on my nature can be healed only in a longer process,” he added.
Penance, therefore, has the goal of “helping the relationship of the person with himself, and with the world, with people, because that's where the wound and hurt has taken place [from sinning],” he said.
Penance is one of the four elements of the sacrament of penance, along with contrition, confession, and absolution.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that in addition to harming others, “sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must ‘make satisfaction for’ or ‘expiate’ his sins. This satisfaction is also called ‘penance’.”
The penance assigned by the priest “must take into account the penitent's personal situation and must seek his spiritual good,” the Catechism continues. “It 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.”
Penances are not one-size-fits-all, Kereszty explained, and it is not right to give everyone the same penance. Many variables bring a penitent into the confessional—since each person’s habits, formation of conscience, and culpability is varied—and so different circumstances call for different penances.
Fr. Deogratias Ekisa, a vice rector of formation and professor at Notre Dame Seminary in Louisiana, said priests must ensure that the penances they give do good for penitents, and are neither too lax nor too punitive.
“There can be too harsh a penance; there can be a case of hitting a fly with an axe,” he told The Pillar. “Or you could have the opposite, just a slap on the wrist.”
To decide whether a penance is appropriate, a priest should consider whether it serves the purposes of restitution and renewal of life, is able to be accomplished, and is proportionate to the gravity of the sin, he said.
Beyond those basic principles, priests have a great deal of flexibility in assigning penances to those confessing their sins.
Ekisa said he often requests that those who confess sins against other people pray for those they have harmed or offended.
“I link the prayer to the relationship the prayer is supposed to help repair,” he said.
The priest likened confession to a hip replacement: Absolution restores our relationship with God, essentially granting us a “new hip.” But we need rehabilitation to continue with a healthy life, and this is the role that penance plays.
Fr. Thomas Esposito, also of Our Lady of Dallas Abbey, told The Pillar he often gives Psalms as penances, encouraging those with contrite consciences to adopt a first-person perspective, reading the narrative of the psalmist as their own.
“I want the person who has confessed their sins to see the book of Psalms as a treasured prayer book that they can turn to at any time,” Esposito said. “The Word of God is a fine complement to the sacrament of confession.”
Esposito, who has been a priest for 10 years, began the practice of giving Psalms as penances about five years ago.
“There is a group of Psalms known as the ‘Penitential Psalms,’ highlighted in particular by Psalm 51 (the ‘Miserere’),” he said. “[But] I tend not to give the penitential Psalms as penances, oddly enough, especially when I know that the penitent falls into scrupulosity.”
Instead, his go-to Psalms for confession are Psalm 16 ("Preserve me, God, I take refuge in you"), Psalm 27 ("The Lord is my light and my salvation"), and Psalm 91 ("He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High").
“Perhaps the primary reason I give Psalms as penances now is because they are such a neglected treasure of the Church's prayer tradition, and I want people to fall in love with them and pray more with them,” Esposito reflected. “My doctorate is in Scripture...One of my life goals is to increase biblical literacy among Catholics, and the Psalms make a great pairing with the sacrament of Confession.”
In addition to assigning a penance, Kereszty said that if a confessor comes across someone who is really struggling, the priest himself can offer something for the penitent, engaging in prayer or even fasting on their person’s behalf.
“A good priest definitely prays for his penitents, especially for those who come back (repeatedly). For those, he has more responsibility because he is guiding them out of sin and towards virtue,” he said.
He added that in his 60 years of priesthood, he has grown in the way he assigns penances, learning to determine more concrete actions to counter specific sins.
Kereszty noted that penitents are forgiven of their sins when the priest says the prayer of absolution, so failing to complete a penance does not hinder sacramental reconciliation. But one should still complete his or her penance, he said, as it is a sin to do otherwise.
Ekisa added that forgetting to complete a sacramental assignment affects penitents’ “continuing to grow in grace,” as the penance is for the purpose of helping them amend their life and the relationships damaged by their sin.
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Both Kereszty and Ekisa try to make sure their penitents are able to complete their penances.
When he hears confessions, Kereszty said he makes sure to ask each individual if they are able to complete their penance before they leave the church, so as to confirm that it seems fair to them, and is able to be completed.
If a penitent feels that the assigned penance is sinful, impossible to accomplish, or inappropriate - either too lax or severe - he or she may ask for a new one, Ekisa said.
He gave the example of an over-scrupulous penitent who may not feel that he or she completed the penance well enough to be forgiven. In these situations, he helps the individual pray the penance in the confessional, offering assurance that the penance has been completed before the person departs.
“Have compassion on people who are scrupulous,” Fr. Ekisa said. “Don't dismiss them... Just help them to understand the mercy and love of God.”
Above all, Kereszty said that in confession, the priest “should be the hands of mercy.”