When a penitent confesses his sins in the sacrament of Reconciliation, the priest assigns a penance, something that the absolved sinner has to perform as an act of atonement. The grace of the sacrament is not complete until the penance is performed. Long ago, penances could be quite severe and public. In modern practice, penance is private and typically light, the emphasis being upon the mercy of God.
I am often tempted to think that the penance is too easy. I am unburdened of the same sins yet again, and all that I have to do is say a few Our Fathers and Hail Marys? God indeed is merciful, for the penance that I truly deserve would be harsh. If the penance truly was just, according to our worldly thinking, I might be more readily dissuaded from committing the sin, or I might just as likely be dissuaded from seeking forgiveness (or putting it off for as long as possible).
At my last confession, I was given the usual penance of Our Fathers and Hail Marys. As I kneeled before the tabernacle, saying the prayers, I let the words enter into my consciousness, and I realized that these two prayers are, in fact, good penance for the absolved sinner.
In the Our Father we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It brings to mind the parable that Jesus told of the man who was unable to repay a huge debt. He pleaded for mercy and was granted it, but then refused to show mercy to another man who owed him much less. The absolved sinner has been forgiven a debt that he cannot possibly repay. Praying the Our Father reminds us that we have been shown great mercy, and must “pay it forward” to those who have wronged or will wrong us.
Furthermore, we add, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Another of the requirements for absolution in the sacrament is a resolution not to repeat the sins just confessed. Contrition, or sorrow for our sins, cannot be genuine if we intend to continue sinning. Sometimes the resolution lasts less than a full day. If we find that we are repeatedly going to confession and repeating the same sins, then maybe we need to make a change in our life to avoid the occasion of sin. In other words, avoid temptation. The Our Father is a gentle reminder that we need to avoid temptation, and God’s grace makes it possible. We must be faithful in the small things if we are to have any hope of being faithful in the really big things.
In the Hail Mary we ask the Mother of God to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” Again, we acknowledge our sinfulness and ask Jesus’ own mother to intercede for us on our behalf. She is our loving mother, given to us by Christ himself from the cross. She wants us to be received into heaven, and for that, we must avoid a life of sin. When we fail in our resolutions to avoid sin, her prayers can obtain for us the grace of repentance and contrition.
Now, the next time that I hear the priest utter the words “for you penance say four Our Fathers and four Hail Marys,” I will have an increased appreciation for the penance that I am to perform, and with every prayer, I will remember that I have been shown a great mercy.