Penance after Confession

Satisfaction for sins, or what is sometimes called “penance,” is distinct from sorrow. Few dwell sufficiently on the difference between being forgiven and atoning for the sin which was forgiven.

Suppose I stole your purse in the course of a conversation, and then I said to myself: “What a scandal I am to this person. I am supposed to bring justice and the love of God, and here I violate God’s law of justice, impugn His mercy, and nail Him to the Cross by stealing the purse.” So I say to you, “Will you forgive me?” In your kindness, you would certainly say: “I forgive you.” But you would also say something else, would you not? Would you not say, “Give me back my purse?” Could I really say that I was sorry unless I returned the purse?

There is a story told, which is sheer imagination with no basis in fact, about a man who came to confession to a priest. During the course of the confession, he stole the priest’s watch. At the end of the confession, he said to the priest: “Oh, Father, I forgot to tell you. I stole a watch.” The priest, emphasizing the necessity of satisfaction, said: “You must return the watch to the owner.” The penitent said: “I’ll give it to you, Father.” The priest said: “No, I don’t want it. Return it to the owner.” The penitent said: “The owner doesn’t want it.” The priest said to him: “Well, in that case, you can keep it.”

Immediately one can see some of the fallacies. First, there was no real sorrow in confession; otherwise, he would not have added a sin while confessing others. Second, there was deceit in his satisfaction. There must always be satisfaction for sin, because every sin disturbs the order of God. Sin upsets a balance. It is to no purpose to say, “Don’t cry over spilled milk,” just because we happen to have spilled someone else’s milk. If we cannot gather up the spilled milk, we can at least pay for the bottle, or buy some more milk.

At the end of the confession, the priest gives to the penitent what is called a “penance,” a certain number of prayers to say, or fasting, or the giving of alms, or acts of mortification, or a way of the Cross, or a rosary. All of these are to “make up” for the sin, and to prove that the sorrow was sincere. This is what Catholics call “saying my penance” or “doing my penance.”