This morning, something funny happened during my confession. I was crying may or may not have been a little hard of hearing and the priest had a very thick accent. I was confessing in English (not my mother tongue) and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the priest’s either. Long story short, the priest absolved me of my sins and gave me my penance. Problem is, I didn’t hear what the priest gave me as my penance and before I had a chance to ask him, he left the confessional!

I recited a dozen of Hail Marys immediately after, unsure what to do and then attended Mass, but did not receive communion. I didn’t know at that point whether I was in a state of grace and if I could receive our Lord. After Mass I prayed the Holy Rosary as well (I have a tendency to be scrupulous and was freaking about whether I’d been really absolved of my sins and if my confession was valid pending on the completion of my penance). Then I found this blog post by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf and felt SO MUCH BETTER. Here’s an extract from his post:

In normal circumstances, when you are not sure about the penance and you and the confessor are communicating reasonably well. You can always ask for a clarification when in doubt. “Father, I didn’t understand the penance. Could you repeat it, please?”

But that’s water under the bridge at this point.

People will, once in a while, forget the penance that was assigned. This can happen when some well-meaning priest assigns one of those loopy, long, open-ended penances, such as, “Read the seventh chapter of the Second Book of Kings and spend some time under an elm tree counting ladybugs* while you think about the impact your use of fossil fuels has on the environment.”

I’m going to bring this penance incident up in my next confession, but I won’t let my scruples get in the way of me and baby J** being in communion at the next Mass I attend, no sir-y! In another post by Fr. John he makes it quite clear:

The validity of the absolution and the efficacy of the sacrament do not depend on whether you do your assigned penance. (…)  

Can. 959: In the sacrament of penance the faithful who confess their sins to a legitimate minister, are sorry for them, and intend to reform themselves obtain from God through the absolution imparted by the same minister forgiveness for the sins they have committed after baptism and, at the same, time are reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by sinning. 

Can. 981 The confessor is to impose salutary and appropriate penances, in proportion to the kind and number of sins confessed, taking into account, however, the condition of the penitent. The penitent is bound personally to fulfil these penances.

In other words, penances are to be given, and the penitent is to do them, not some one else. You cannot pay another person to do them. But this obligation to give and do penances does not affect the validity of the absolution or the efficacy of the sacrament. If the penitent hasn’t done the assigned penance before going to Communion, he is still forgiven and can still go to Communion.

I have so much to learn about my faith. Catholocism is so incredibly rich and beautiful. I’m certain I’ll be on my death bed and still feeling like I know so little. I give thanks to God for opportunities like this morning to grow in understanding of my faith. If we’re to share the Gospel and the beauty of the Church, then we, as Catholics, need to be well informed!

*This made me laugh so much! DO PRIEST ACTUALLY DO THIS? I know penance is quite a personal matter, but I’m curious to know whether someone has ever really been told by a priest to count ladybugs 😛
**Jesus and I speak gangsta to eachother, deal with it

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