One of the blessings of working in downtown Cincinnati, and living only three miles away, is lots of options for confession.
It being a nice day, and I being overdue to go to confession, I took a walk a few blocks away. There was a short line (I'm glad there was a line! And I'm glad, for selfish reasons, that it was short!).
I made my confession, and listened closely to the priest. He mentioned the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and encouraged me to reflect on several in particular. Then he asked me to make my act of contrition--and as I began it, I realized I didn't know what my penance was. Before he imposed absolution, I asked, "I'm sorry Father, what's my penance?"
"Pray for the Gifts of the Holy Spirit."
"Yes Father, thank you."
Outside the confessional--grateful for the inestimable gift of absolution for my sins, I went over to sit near the tabernacle; however, I saw candles lit at the altar, and realized Mass was probably going to begin soon. Sure enough, the server and the priest emerged just then from the sacristy.
I didn't want to remain and pray my own prayers while Mass was underway, particularly in clerical attire; it's not the worst thing, but it might give a bad example, and someone might wonder why I was attending Mass in that fashion.So I got up and headed back to the office, weighing the question I had coming out of the confessional:
"How do I do that penance?"
I write about this because I know this sort of thing happens to lots of us; and some folks will find a vague penance particularly difficult, if they are susceptible to scruples.
You might wonder, why do priests go down this road?
A penance has two objectives: first, the penitent commits himself to making some (albeit slight and--objectively speaking, insufficient) satisfaction or offering for her own sins; and, second, to assist the healing work of the sacrament. So while the first objective involves an obligation, the second, I think, does not.
So for example, suppose a priest says, "offer a decade of the rosary for spiritual growth in the parish." On one level, the offering of a prayer is the penitent's concrete response to God's mercy. It doesn't "pay" for our sins, Christ did that; but it keeps us from being entirely passive. It is just that we offer something, however truly insignificant it is; and it is generous of God to treat our meager offering as if it really were something; and--here is the marvelous part--when it is offered, God's grace does make it something wonderful: because it is united to God's work, and is thus transformed.
But insofar as this is a "sacrament of healing," the confessor may well want to suggest a penance that in some way facilitates that--and makes that element more meaningful to the penitent. This is why many priests will say, "pray three Our Fathers for such-and-such an intention." This is also why a priest might suggest a penance involving some gesture toward a particular person--perhaps someone the penitent wronged or neglected.
And this, of course, is where a penance goes from being concrete--thus enabling the penitent to know she's completed it--to being vague, and thus maddening to many of us.
So what's my solution?
I would argue that whenever there is an obligation binding on us, the Church deems that obligation to be satisfied my minimum reasonable observance. So, for example, tomorrow is a holy day of obligation. The obligation to attend Mass is satisfied if you attend Mass once, either on the vigil or the day; you don't have to understand the homily, or even the language in which the Mass is offered; you don't have to receive communion, you don't have to sing or say any of the prayers out loud. You don't have to be enthusiastic or perky. As good as all those things might be, those exceed the obligation.
So when the priest gives you a penance, you've completed your penance when you've done a reasonable minimum. If he says, "do a good deed," then even a small good deed counts. If he says--as he did to me--"pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit," then I would have satisfied the obligation when I had (a) actually prayed, and (b) for all the Gifts.
So: as I walked back, I prayed a Hail Mary for God to increase in me each of the seven gifts.
Of course I know that Father intended me to make it more fruitful; and in that spirit, I'm going to reflect, later, more deeply on the gifts. But that goes beyond the obligation. And it is entirely right for me, and for any penitent, to move quickly to fulfill ones commitments. I accepted the obligation of that penance and it isn't right to delay fulfilling it.
If this is not sufficiently helpful--as I can imagine it might not be, given some of the vague penances priests sometimes give--there are two other bits of advice I will now give:
1. You can always seek out the same priest, or any priest, and ask him to "commute" your penance. In that case, the priest simply gives you a different penance. The reason would be that you didn't understand the penance, didn't know how to do what was asked, or found it too difficult to do. I don't know for sure, but I am utterly confident any priest will help you in this regard.
2. (Notice I put this in bold type.) Remember that your absolution is NOT contingent on you completing your penance! (Stop! Re-read that!) When the priest gives you absolution, you are absolved. Period. Full stop. (The only exception would be if you engaged in an essentially fraudulent confession--you deliberately, knowingly, consciously withheld what you know, and are certain, without doubt, was a mortal sin. Stop and read that carefully so you notice the qualifying language.)
So when you go to confession, you do your best, you accept your penance even without understanding it--and, OK, maybe you should have asked about it, but sometimes you don't think to do it, that's not a sin--and there you are, wondering how to do the penance...
I'll make it even clearer. Let's say you walk out, and you have a very clear idea of your penance. Yet your phone rings, or a friend waves at you, or you have to use the bathroom--whatever it is, you fail to do your penance; and you forget, or neglect it, whatever...
Nevertheless, you were and remain absolved.
Should you have done your penance? Yes.
If you go to confession again, and still didn't do your penance, should you mention it? Yes.
Should you consider yourself not to have been absolved? NO!
The point being, no matter in what way the penance part gets messed up--your neglect, your confusion, or the priest's vagueness...you are still forgiven.
When I reflect later on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, I'll offer that time up for all priests who give vague penances, and for the penitents who wrestle with that.