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.
7 thoughts on “What’s The Purpose of Penance?”
Thanks for posting. That was very helpful. I was a fundamentalist for many years and was told that when I “became a Christian” that all of my sins were forgiven, past, present and future. When I asked them how they understood what the Apsotle John said about forgiveness of sins committed by Christians they didn’t have a good answer. “If” you confess your sins, he is faithful and just to forgive yoursins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. John says that for the Christian who sins that forgiveness is contingent upon confession. So I asked them why I was told it is not necessary to confess my sins. I asked. They had various answers. Some said that John was talking about initial confession of sin when you entered God’s Kingdom. But the passage is very clear that John is talking to Christians. Often they would start saying that the Catholics were talking about confession to a Priest and that is not what John is talking about. And then I would ask them “What kind of confession is John talking about?” They said “Well just confession to God.” I said, well if that kind of confession is necessary then why was I told that no confession is necessary because all of my sins, past present and future were forgiven at conversion? Then usually they would start to get nervous. One time I asked a guy who thought he was an expert on the Bible and who was always railing against Catholics about it. I asked him to tell me what the passage meant in his own words. His reply was “Confession of sins or of sin tendencies to a trusted brother is therapeutic.” I am sorry but I laughed. Suddenly what John said about confession being necessary for forgiveness was changed. It had suddenly became merely “a therapy.” God forgive me for laughing. He was a guy who always prided himself on literal interpretation on every subject except confession and communion.
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What you describe was part of the process for me becoming Catholic. I couldn’t find the depth or logical consistency anywhere else. The Catholic beliefs are so rooted and cross checked with Scripture and the Traditions of our faith. Nothing else comes close.
The penance, also, as any other action on our part, has spiritual value when in union with Crucified Christ. These theological things are better understood through analogies, as the comparison with medicine made by Lorelei. I also like to think of my penances as the gifts that my little children used to give me to express they were sorry (a “drawing” for Dady, usually). And if this seems too infantile an analogy, remember the Lord’s advice is that we should make ourselves as children.
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Yes. That’s beautiful. My husband is a scientist and his ‘childish’ analogies help me better understand what he does for a living :). They help us understand and relate to sometimes otherwise complex or abstract concepts.
Your definition was both clarifying and refreshing! One thought: could it be that the doctrine of penance is most often misused/misunderstood because it ought not be applied by marginal/nominal Catholics? As healing a balm as it is, if it is mixed up with the doctrine of forgiveness – it does more damage than good as well-meaning Catholics, ridden by guilt, will either degrade themselves further or turn penance into a work, feeling like they are helping in their own justification through penance.
Penance seems like a very respectable idea for a mature believer who knows the mechanics of how salvation works and, after sinning, shedding their guilt, are looking to get back to the heart of God quickly.
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Thank you very much!
You have made my work easier😊