When a Catholic goes to Confession, several things happen. We come with contrition and confess our sins. We receive the absolution. Then, the Priest assigns us our penance. But while we may know what to expect, it’s also immensely important to understand why we are doing these things.
I’ve written extensively about why I absolutely Love Confession, but I haven’t written in-depth about penance and its purpose and value. This post is an attempt to do just that.
What is Sin?
At its core, sin is turning away from God. It’s an active decision on our part. It’s us saying “No, God, I won’t do things your way. I know better than you.” Sin can happen in big ways (mortal sin, which breaks our relationship with God) and in small ways (venial sin, which wounds it).
All sin is sickness for our souls.
What is Penance?
Penance is something for the confessor to do after Confession ends, on their own, and hopefully as soon as possible. Sometimes it’s a prayer or a series of prayers. Sometimes it’s something related to an issue the confessor struggles with. It could look many different ways, and could take varying amounts of time. Some of my personal favorite penances have been ones that directly related to an area where I struggle.
But, regardless of what penance looks like it is always, always, a way to repair the harm that sin has caused in our lives.
It is meant to help us turn our hearts back to God. Just as our sin was an active choice turning away from God, penance is an active choice turning back to God.
Do I have to do penance to be forgiven?
This is something that is often misunderstood, even by Catholics. Once the Priest offers absolution during Confession, we are forgiven. The grace is there because of Jesus. Not because of anything we can do. So, no, penance is not required for forgiveness to occur.
But then, if we’re already forgiven, why do we need it?
Medicine For The Soul
Just as sin wounds (or breaks) our relationship with God and makes our souls sick, penance is medicine that helps us turn our hearts back towards our Creator. Confession removes that sin from our shoulders. Penance helps us move towards a more holy future.
As such, whether our penance is prayer, or something specific to an area we struggle, we should not approach penance with the attitude of simply ‘checking something off a list.’
If we do penance with a disengaged heart, the purpose of penance isn’t served. Penance is a way to turn our hearts back to God, it’s a prescription for healing, and, much like any other medication, it’s up to us to use it. If we’ve gone to Confession with a truly contrite heart, it follows that we would want to continue on that path of obedience and progression towards holiness by following through on our penance as soon as possible, and by using that as a springboard to help spur us on towards a closer walk with God.
It’s a beautiful medicine we are offered, and it is to the benefit of our souls to take it.