Why a Penance? by Paul Turner
After we confess our sins it is customary for the priest to recommend an act of penance or some "satisfaction" for the offenses. This has several purposes. It helps amend the past. It makes reparation for injury. It puts us on the road to a new life. And it offers "medicine" to keep us from the same "sickness." The act of penance reminds us that sin and forgiveness have a social aspect.
Priests may impose whatever penance they wish. It should correspond to the seriousness and the nature of the sins.
Traditionally, priests assign prayer, often three Our Fathers and/or three Hail Marys. That penance can help us experience God's ever-ready mercy. But the unrepentant may consider the tradeoff worth the sin.
The point of the sacrament of reconciliation is conversion of heart. We confess our sins to experience God's forgiveness and to change or way of thinking and behaving. The confession of sins is about reconciliation, about taking the steps to change what was wrong. It's not about getting cheap grace so we can go forth and sin some more.
The burden of conversion does not lie completely with the act of penance, but that is a place to begin.
The priest may request a penance of prayer, self-denial, or service to one's neighbor. For example, if your sin is impatience, you might be asked to do some act of kindness toward those you've offended. If your sin is overindulgence in food or drink or the abuse of substances, you might accept a penance of fast and abstinence. You could also suggest to the priest a penance you think would help you.
The act of penance does not have to make up for all that we've done wrong. It couldn't. Only Christ could do (and has done) that. Rather, the act of penance has a simpler goal.
It helps us turn away from the past and turn toward the future with the equipment we need to make the journey well.