Friday, February 22, 2019 - Updated: 4:16 pm
QUESTION: When we say the Act of Contrition, we promise to “do penance,” yet those few prayers that the priest assigns seem inadequate to make up for the sins that have been committed. What are we really supposed to be doing?
ANSWER: In the sacrament of reconciliation, sins are forgiven because of God’s mercy and the contrition of the penitent. However, a good deal more than a “few prayers” is expected of the penitent. The Catholic Church’s Rite of Penance says: “True conversion is completed by acts of penance or satisfaction for sins committed, by amendment of conduct and by the reparation of injury.”
By “true conversion” the church has always inferred a genuine turning back to God. It is to be a redirection of our lives. This is not just turning away from sin, but must include how we intend to rebuild the relationships that were weakened or destroyed by our sins. The way to begin that task is the “penance” that involves turning from the things leading us to sin. Separating ourselves from our old habits is necessary or we will find ourselves in the same place again and again.
Part of that “conversion” the church envisions includes “reparation of injury.” The sacrament of reconciliation assumes that every sin in some way disturbs a “right order” that should be part of our human lives. That “right order” entails a respect for the value and dignity of every human person. When we sin, we most often offend the value and dignity of another.
Therefore, it is necessary that the “penance” not only be a remedy for sin and a help to renewal of life, but also a plan to address the damaging results of our sins.
Most priests will admit that penance is not easy to give. We are aware of all that is expected to be accomplished by the penance. At the same time, we are all conscious of the church’s caution that penances must be realistic and respectful of the penitent. Thus, I believe it is inappropriate to say to a penitent: “Now go home and tell everyone what you have done.” It is also not helpful to suggest something as nebulous as “Now go home and be nice to everyone.”
Mindful that the penances are to be helpful to us and part of an expected renewal, we are not bound to perform only what is asked of us by the priest. We know our own lives better than anyone else. What do we need to do to be a better disciple of Jesus? What do we need to do to avoid doing what we have just confessed? The answer to those questions is what we should be adding to whatever penance the priest might have given.
In any case, it is good to remember that while that matter of penance is important, the real focus of the sacrament of reconciliation is precisely that — the reconciliation that occurs because of the tremendous love God has for you, and the attempts you make to maintain that relationship of love of God and neighbor.
Father Bober is administrator of the grouping that includes St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry townships and Holy Sepulcher in Glade Mills.