|After we confess our sins it is customary for the priest
to recommend an act of penance or some “satisfaction” for the offenses.This
has several purposes. It helps amend the past. It makes reparation for
injury. It puts us on the road to a new life. And it offers “medicine”to
keep us from the same “sickness.” The act of penance reminds us that sin
and forgiveness have a social aspect.
Priests may impose whatever penance they wish. It should correspond
to the seriousness and the nature of the sins. Traditionally, priests assign
prayer, often three Our Fathers and/or three Hail Marys. That penance can
help us experience God’s ever-ready mercy. But the unrepentant may consider
the tradeoff worth the sin.
The point of the sacrament of reconciliation is conversion of heart.We
confess our sins to experience God’s forgiveness and to change our way
of thinking and behaving. The confession of sins is about reconciliation,
about taking the steps to change what was wrong. It’s not about getting
cheap grace so we can go forth and sin some more.
The burden of conversion does not lie completely with the act of penance,
but that is a place to begin. The priest may request a penance of prayer,
self-denial, or service to one’s neighbor. For example, if your sin is
impatience, you might be asked to do some act of kindness toward those
you’ve offended. If your sin is overindulgence in food or drink or the
abuse of substances, you might accept a penance of fast and abstinence.You
could also suggest to the priest a penance you think would help you.
The act of penance does not have to make up for all that we’ve done
wrong. It couldn’t. Only Christ could do (and has done) that. Rather, the
act of penance has a simpler goal. It helps us turn away from the past
and turn toward the future with the equipment we need to make the journey
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Turner, pastor of St. Munchin Parish in Cameron, MO, holds a doctorate
in sacramental theology from Sant' Anselmo University in Rome.