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Appropriate Penances

Interpreting liturgical norms.
by Father Edward McNamara, LC | Source:

ROME, ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Question: Could you please comment on what appropriate and adequate penances might be in the sacrament of reconciliation. I tend to stay to the traditional Our Fathers and Hail Marys, but I feel at times they are inadequate. A colleague gives much more "difficult" penances: e.g., the Stations of the Cross, two or three rosaries, reading certain psalms or other Scripture texts. Many of his penitents come back later not having been able to complete their penance and are troubled. As a young priest I was instructed to give a penance that can be completed before the penitent leaves the church. -- H.J., Peabody, Massachusetts

Answer: Perhaps it should first be observed that all penances are intrinsically inadequate in order to make true satisfaction for sin. The gravity involved in any sin far outweighs our possibility to repair the lack of love toward God. The wonder of confession is God’s generosity toward us in offering us reconciliation and restoring us to his friendship.

The Church limits itself to instructing priests to impose adequate penances corresponding to the nature of each case. The custom of imposing prayer as penance is no mere formula; rather, precisely because it is prayer, it is a sign of the renewal of grace in the soul that makes authentic prayer possible and meritorious.

In imposing a suitable penance there are several things to be taken into account.

First of all, the nature of the sin must be considered as penances seek to be remedial, and graver sins need more severe penances so as to awaken the conscience to their gravity, especially if repeated often. Sins of injustice such as stealing or calumny must also be remedied through some form of restitution of goods or good name.

Just as important, however, is the nature of the penitent as there is no automatic tariff corresponding to certain sins.

As far as possible a priest has to judge the spiritual weight of his penitent before imposing a suitable penance. This usually becomes clear through the manner of the confession itself. A person who has a strong spiritual resonance as well as a solid Catholic formation is more likely to benefit from penances such as reading Scripture, reciting psalms, or performing pious practices.

When a person has less knowledge of the faith and is not habituated to certain practices such as the rosary, Via Crucis, or fasting, it is probably better not to impose such penances as it is likely to lead to frustration.

The rule that the penance should be able to be fulfilled before leaving the church applies above all to this class of penitent. If the priest thinks that the customary Hail Marys and Our Fathers are inadequate in particular cases, then he could impose a doable but less formal penance. For example, he could tell the penitent to visit the Blessed Sacrament, or an altar dedicated to Our Lady, for a certain amount of time and, in this climate of intimacy, to give thanks for the pardon received and to ask help in overcoming a particular fault.

This last form of penance is often very beneficial to souls who have been away from confession for a long time and have been moved by a particular grace to seek the sacrament.

Sometimes the penance itself can be a source of conversion. There is an old anecdote of a priest who overheard a group of lighthearted young men making a wager in which the loser had to go to confession. With this knowledge the priest took his seat in the confessional and when the youth came to confess, the cleric imposed as a penance that the boy go before the church’s large crucifix and repeat 20 times: “You did this for me and I couldn’t care less.” At first the youth repeated it nonchalantly, and then more slowly and finally finished in tears. For this young man this confession was the beginning of a journey of conversion that eventually led to his becoming archbishop of Paris.

* * *

Follow-up: Interpreting Liturgical Norms

Related to our commentary on the interpretation of liturgical laws
there were other questions regarding legal documents. A reader from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, asked:

"Is 'Liturgiam Authenticam' a doctrine of the Church, or just a changing opinion of the Vatican bureaucrats?

"After hearing so much about how 'Liturgiam Authenticam' called for a return to authentic liturgy and banned inclusive language, I was very much surprised that Pope Benedict XVI approved a revision of the Byzantine Mass that uses inclusive language. I was reading on their Web site at about people upset because Christ no longer becomes 'man' but becomes 'like us' and how words like 'mankind' are changed to 'all of us.' They also seem to have made positive changes to improve the Byzantine liturgy and make it more like the Roman Mass.

"What does this mean for regular Catholics? Was this reworking of the translation of the Roman Catholic Mass to be more authentic that we've been hearing about, all for nothing? If not, how can some Catholics have one standard and other Catholics have a totally different standard? Can a pope change this type of doctrine whenever he wants? I'm surprised at this because I thought Pope Benedict XVI was going to keep 'Liturgiam Authenticam.'"

First of all, "
Liturgiam Authenticam" is neither the mere opinion of some officials nor, strictly speaking, a doctrinal document. It is an "instruction," a technical legal document that establishes binding rules regarding how to translate liturgical texts from Latin into any other language.

It is an authoritative document because it was expressly approved by the Pope as a law of the Church, and its provisions can only be abrogated or modified by another similar document duly approved by the present or a future pontiff. Thus far no such document has been published, and the norms of "Liturgiam Authenticam" are being rigorously applied for the translation of the liturgy into English and other modern languages.

Proof of this is the new, much improved English translation of the ordinary of the Mass that was recently approved by the Holy See. It is hoped that Catholics will be able to hear it in their parishes within two years or so, once the translation and approval of the entire missal is finished.

As we said, it is not a doctrinal document as such, although its provisions do touch upon some doctrinal questions such as the need to preserve certain theological nuances in translations. Thus, for example, after the document was published it became necessary for translators to avoid some uses of so-called inclusive language in English which could obscure the Christological references in some Old Testament or liturgical texts.

The document did not condemn the use of inclusive language per se, although this style could be considered as inflicting cruel and unusual punishment upon the syntax of the English tongue.

Second, "Liturgiam Authenticam" is a document that refers exclusively to the Latin liturgy. Therefore its norms have no legal force with respect to the translation of any Eastern liturgy. An Eastern translator would be wise to take its common-sense provisos into account but would not be legally bound to do so.

According to Canon 657.2 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, the authority that approves the translation of texts for liturgical use in those Eastern Churches that have patriarchs or major archbishops is the principal authority of each respective Church. All that he is required to do is to send a report to the Holy See.

Therefore it is possible (but not certain) that the translations of the Byzantine liturgy that reportedly upset some members of the faithful were actually never revised in Rome at all.

It is almost certain that they were not revised by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, the Vatican dicastery that issued "Liturgiam Authenticam," as this congregation deals almost exclusively with the Latin liturgy.

A reader from Dublin, Ireland, asked: "Now that the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal has been published, does this mean that adaptations approved to the old GIRM are abrogated? Specifically, some issues related to posture were the subject of approved adaptations here in Ireland; are these now done away with unless and until the bishops apply again for the same permissions? Liturgists I have consulted here are divided over the question, and we wish to start teaching people how to behave at Mass as there is widespread confusion and multiple practices on place."

I would say that the answer is yes and that any special permission would have to be asked for again.

If we see the example of the approval of the translation of the new GIRM in the United States, we can get an idea of the process involved. The U.S. bishops presented two documents to the Holy See: the translation of the GIRM and a request for approved adaptations for use in the United States.

The Holy See approved most of the proposed adaptations and modified some others. It also stipulated that rather than publishing them as a separate document, they were to be incorporated into the text of the GIRM itself.

As a result, some articles of the GIRM for use in the U.S. have the translation from the Latin and then an indication of the approved adaptation with the phrase: "In the dioceses of the United States …"

This would also be the likely procedure involved if the bishops in Ireland had wished to incorporate any former or new adaptations when approving the translation.

* * *

Readers may send questions to Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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