Q: Dear Father Edward, a couple of months ago, I went to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. After I confessed my sins the priest asked me whether I could say the Angelus for my penance. He also asked me if I knew the Angelus. I very hesitatingly affirmed, thinking that if I concentrated enough (I had not said the Angelus in a long time), the words would come. However, on returning to the pew and put myself to the test, I could recollect most (not all) words, but the flow of the prayer was not there. Try as much as I could, I could not recite the entire Angelus. As such I “completed” the penance and then went on to receive Communion. I also said to myself that I would source the Angelus prayer form the Internet and say it the next day. This “next day” has only occurred today. Already I have availed of the sacrament of reconciliation a couple of times as well as received Communion every time I heard Mass. Not really knowing the implications/effects of this act, I did not even mention this at the subsequent confessions. But this keeps nagging at the back of my head. Please help me understand the role of penance, if it is a must and if it is to be “complied” with to the fullest.
A: It is good to hear that you are trying to avail yourself of the sacrament of reconciliation on a regular basis. The glossary of the Catechism describes the sacrament as “The liturgical celebration of God’s forgiveness of the sins of the penitent, who is thus reconciled with God and with the Church.” It remits and forgives those sins committed after baptism. The sacrament of reconciliation (also known simply as confession or the sacrament of penance) is one of the most comforting treasures that the Almighty has given to the Church. Countless souls over the centuries have approached the sacrament with heavy hearts ? and then came away with a renewed outlook on life. Years, even decades, of sin can be absolved in one good confession. The essential elements of the sacrament comprise the acts of the penitent along with the prayer of absolution by the priest. The acts of the penitent are: contrition, the confession of sins, and accepting the penance imposed in satisfaction or reparation. (The temporal punishment that lingers for sins can be remitted through indulgences as well as prayer and acts of charity.)
Now let’s turn to your specific situation. Your first confession was certainly valid, provided that you had the proper contrition, that is, the proper sorrow for your sins. Contrition can be imperfect, meaning that it is motivated more by a fear of punishment. Then there is perfect contrition, which is motivated by sorrow for having offended God; this suffices before the sacrament when one has the intention to go to confession. Let’s assume, too, that you confessed any and all mortal sins that you were aware of, including sins previously unconfessed (for instance, if you didn’t realize that they were mortal sins at the time you committed them). It is also “recommended to the Christian faithful that they also confess venial sins” (Canon law No. 988.2). Let’s further assume that you had the intention to fulfill the penance. You did the best you could at the moment, and eventually did find the text of the Angelus and prayed it. In the meantime ? and assuming that you remained in a state of grace ? you could receive Communion and even return to the sacrament of confession before having completed the first penance perfectly. In other words, your first and subsequent confessions were valid (if you fulfilled all other requirements) and your communions were OK too. So you can breathe easier.
The ideal, of course, would have been for you to pray the Angelus well the first time. If you knew the bulk of the Angelus by memory and prayed it, that would have fulfilled the obligation. If you had a reasonable doubt, you would have done well to get a copy of the Angelus as soon as possible. It would have helpful, but not necessary, to mention your tardiness in a subsequent confession; this might have prompted you to fulfill the penance sooner. This in turn helps us not to take the sacrament for granted.
A few other points are worth noting. An unfulfilled penance is a sin but does not invalidate the confession. If, after accepting a penance, the penitent finds it to be burdensome or very difficult to fulfill, he can ask the same or another confessor to change the penance. The Catechism in No. 1460 says that a penance “must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed. It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear. Such penances help configure us to Christ, who alone expiated our sins once for all.” Fulfilling the penance, by the way, doesn’t take away all the temporal punishment linked to our sins ? even one sin against an infinitely good God is beyond our ability to make up for it fully on our own ? but it does help to ensure the full benefits of the sacrament.
God bestows his mercy generously, but penitents need to have the right disposition. Tragic it is that relatively few Catholics avail themselves of this rich sacrament.
Yours in Christ, Father Edward McIlmail, LC
Father McIlmail is a theology instructor at Mater Ecclesiae College in Greenville, RI.