Sin, Confession and Penance
As a sinner, I find myself confessing the same sins repeatedly. I have discovered that the priest gives a variety of penances for the same sin. This makes me wonder. Sin is an act of disobedience to God and any human penance offered in reparation for sin will always be disproportionately inadequate. Can you give me a deeper understanding of the need for me to do the penance imposed on me by the priest? “Joe Bloggs”
Even when our priests absolve us from sin in the sacrament of reconciliation, the harm done by sin remains.
When we steal something or hurt someone by our unkindness, we know we are forgiven — but those who bore the brunt of our sinful act have not always got over what we have done to them.
From practical experience, apologising to someone whom we have offended is usually a very satisfying way of getting back that feeling of reconciliation. But it is not easy to find ways of apologising or making up for every injury we have done to others.
In the Church’s tradition, our offences must be expiated not only to God who is offended but also to the community of the faithful. The early Church therefore practised ways for sinners to make restitution to the community.
These are known as temporal punishment, that is, penalties in the present moment rather than after death, which had to be publicly undergone for the sinner to be reconciled to the community.
Sacramental absolution was given only after this, usually on Holy Thursday, and then the bishop would admit the sinner to the Eucharist again at Easter.
In the 7th century, when sins such as apostasy and idolatry had become less frequent, the custom grew of confessing sins privately in the confessional as we know it today, rather than in public.
The penance was then also performed in private.
You would like to have a deeper understanding of the penance the priest gives you in the privacy of the confessional.
The priest is not simply a sympathetic listener. It is up to him to judge the gravity of the sin and impose the appropriate penance, because he has been ordained for this (Jn 20:22).
As a minister of Christ, who sacrificed his life to win for us forgiveness and eternal life, the priest knows that no simply human repentance can make up to God for sin. When you do your penance, saying prayers or performing acts of reparation, always be aware that you are sincerely making up to the community of the faithful for your offences, while Christ has already absolved you from your sin.
Your penance is a real act of reuniting yourself with our Lord and his Church. Do it as devoutly as you can.