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Why is Prayer Sometimes Given as a Penance?

A listener asks Father Dave a question about penance during the Sacrament of Reconciliation. James wonders, “How did something as wonderful as prayer become a Confession punishment?”

Father Dave first explains that this Sacrament is not transactional, though it may feel that way. “Reconciliation is not, first and foremost, an adjudication of punishment and is not finding a way in which you can work off the wrongs that you’ve done,” he says, and goes on to define its broader purpose.

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“In Baptism, we experience God washing us from the stain of original sin that we believe has been the case since there’s been humanity…but we also know that as life goes on, we continue to unfortunately make transgressions, fall short of the glory of God, harm one another – all of this we call sin,” Father Dave says. “The Sacrament of Reconciliation is our opportunity for us to not have those sins count against us too and prevent us from entering eternal life with God.”

“Probably the best synonym we could come up with for sin is selfishness, because Christ calls us to be other-centered,” he continues. “There are lots of ways in which we’re selfish, but there are certain things that are so grave that they actually cut us off from the unconditional love of God and from the support of our community. We cut ourselves off from God when we choose a grave sin.”

He then addresses the different parts of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and James’ question regarding penance. While it seems like penance means the priest is handing down a punishment, Father Dave clarifies this misconception saying. “The actual rite of penance says that the priest and the penitent should agree on what the penance is, primarily so that [the penance] is feasible.” As James points out, prayer is a common penance.

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Father Dave illustrates the true purpose of penance through the Gospel story of Zacchaeus. Though he is a known sinner and shunned from the community, Zacchaeus climbs a tree to see Jesus, who then asks to dine in his house. “That’s what we’re talking about [when we talk about] sin; Sin separates us from God and the community. Zacchaeus was ostracized, he wouldn’t be invited to anybody’s house. By Jesus saying, ‘I want to dine in your house,’ that is Jesus essentially saying, ‘I forgive you for your sins,” Father Dave explains. “After that, Zacchaeus says, ‘You know what? I’m going to give back everything I’ve ever stolen.’” He notes how it was not Jesus telling Zacchaeus to do these things, but the other way around. 

“Penance is Zacchaeus coming up with this idea, because he has experienced the forgiveness of God for things that he didn’t deserve to be forgiven for. He then is moved to something positive, some charitable action, something good. Penance in no way works off our sins,” Father Dave reiterates. “So to your question, James, if something as wonderful as prayer had become a Confession punishment, that would be weird…but it is not a punishment.”

He continues, “Prayer is always good. Prayer is always drawing its relationship with God. It would be like saying, ‘As a penance, go home and spend some extra time with your wife.’ This week, you’re spending extra time with God; prayer is spending extra time with God. So we hope it’s not a punishment. Even if it’s three Hail Marys, prayer of any kind is us moving deeper into our relationship with God.”