September 21, 2010

Ramblings on Penances

Being a priest shifts one's relationship to the sacraments in ways that go way beyond simply coming into a new role or function in the sacramental encounter. (Some of those who talk about priests as "presiders" at Mass wish to flatten this sacramental reality by making the priesthood into a mere function or the priest into a facilitator.) Even though these graces have come to be revealed to me in mysterious and sometimes unexpected ways, I have found them to be consistently encouraging and confirming of my vocation.

One of the most practical set of shifts comes in confession. I have found that trying to be a thoughtful and thorough penitent is the best way to try to become a thoughtful and attentive confessor. Being a confessor, in turn, has helped me to become a better penitent.

I was thinking about this yesterday after I received a simple but challenging penance. The priest gave me a decade of the rosary. There's nothing unusual about that. But then he said that I should reflect on which of the mysteries of the rosary suited my spiritual condition, or which one best spoke to the graces I was seeking. I was then to offer that particular decade of the rosary as my penance.

I liked the idea, so now I will probably use it myself. Not that you can give every penitent a whole decade of the rosary, but some would really appreciate it. That's another of the funny things about imposing penances; sometimes people think that the "size" of the penance corresponds to the gravity of the confession. Therefore, when I say that the biggest penance I ever received was to 'say fifteen Our Fathers and then go home and say Evening Prayer with great devotion' those to whom I tell this story presume that my confession must have been pretty serious. But this is not always the case. I think that the most objectively grave confession I ever made got me a single Hail Mary.

For me, the amount of penance I give to a penitent depends on what I can guess about his or her spiritual condition. Sometimes I give the most religious people the smallest penances as an opportunity to combat spiritual pride or Pelagianism. Sometimes I give the least devout a larger penance so as to get them to sit still for a moment and perhaps listen to the Holy Spirit. I often ask penitents not just to say prayers, but to offer them for someone. Many times I ask them to pray for the victims of the sort of sin they have confessed, particularly in the cases of sins that are wrongly viewed by the world as victimless. In this, though, one has to be careful. For example, someone who confesses to having procured or performed an abortion may not be emotionally ready to pray for the dead child, particularly if the penitent is the mother. In other cases such an invitation may be exactly what the penitent needs to release emotion and hurt and begin to repair the relationship with the deceased. So you have to be careful. But as every penitent knows, the inspired confessor who gives us just the right penance is a great spiritual gift, so I pray for the graces I need to be that guy when I can.


Benjamen said...

I'm still not sure why I am amazed everytime I read about a different way God works his graces through his sacraments, but I am. I enjoyed reading this and am excited to discover in what way this will affect my life.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes a good confessor is not recognized until long after the confession. I once was gingerly led into confession by a priest whom I thought I was having a secular discussion with. Confession was the last place I wanted to be! To this day I am in awe at how he managed to unveil the past 20 years of my life under the light of truth. My penance was to say the rosary, somthing I had not done since I was a child, and he referred me to a website where I would be instructed on how to say the rosary. Needless to say, once linked-in, my curiousity was aroused and the rest is history. I credit this priest for bringing me back into the Church.

Sara said...

Sometimes when I get a small penance I worry that the priest thinks I am spiritually proud.

I honestly have no concept of how "serious" my sins are relative to anything else, and I don't think I want to know.

Rae said...

I am very thankful that you've put so much thought into this! Most priests that I have encountered seem to have a set penance that they always give. I long ago learned that there is absolutely no correlation between what I confess and the penance given.

On the negative side, by far the worst penances have been the vague ones: "do something nice for someone this season" where it is not at all clear when it has been completed.

And I have never had a priest tell me to pray on behalf of my victims (ouch, it hurts just to type that!) but I have found it helpful when instructed to offer it for a specific intention as that helps me to focus on something/one other than myself.

Brother Charles said...

One of the things they taught us in school was to always give penances such that the penitent could be sure when they were completed.

Lee Gilbert said...

When living in our old parish, it was a standard joke between my wife and me when either of us did something nice for the other- especially if it was done with a great big smile. "Wait a minute!!! Did you go to confession to Fr. Tom?"

From Ignatius Press we have gotten a dvd of an Italian mystery series called "Don Matteo," an Italian "Fr. Brown." A few times he has given penances such as forty Hail Marys or fifty Our Fathers, and since this evinces no laughter or chagrin, I wonder if that is standard practice in Italy...

Recently I had a penance to meditate on Sunday's Gospel, a penance I only remembered when I was examining my conscience for my next confession. The best I could do was look up the gospel from two weeks ago and read it two or three times. Meditate on it for how long? What is "meditate"? When am I done?

One of the best and most useful penances I have ever gotten was to stay before the Blessed Sacrament for fifteen minutes thinking about my sins and the mercy of God.

This, by the way, was from an Indian priest who after giving me a long and helpful exhortation repeated all my sins back to me, ALL of them, told me that God forgave me all of them, and then gave me absolution. Completely. Stunning.

pennyante said...

I have an excellent confessor (who knows me well) who gives penances related to the sins I confess. It might be one of the psalms or a particular chapter from an Epistle... Once he told me to look up St. Margaret Mary Alocoque and read what she said about the Sacred Heart. These kinds of penances are particularly helpful to me and I appreciate them.

Karen said...

I do not even remember the penance I got for my "worst" confession. I just remember the feeling of warmth and peace. Life changing.

My previous pastor gave "one Our Father" as his standard penance. Once I had taken my boys to confession, and after a few minutes, I leaned over and asked my 11 year old if he was ready to go. He whispered back, "I think I have about 58 more minutes, mom." Apparently he had gotten the "One Hour Father" penance.

My current confessor never gives rote prayers for a penance. My penance is almost always "connected" to what I confess, though they are sometimes a little "open-ended". Once - "go enjoy the quiet before Mass and let Jesus speak to you". More than once - to give something up for a day and offer it in thanksgiving or for a particular person. No doubt that the Holy Spirit works through confessors.

Brother Charles said...

"One Hour Father." Priceless!