Taking into account penitents’ personalities — not just the sins they confess — is the model one local priest-confessor finds most effective in deciding what to recommend to people as penances.
"I try to figure out where the penitent is coming from," remarked Father George Heyman, sacramental minister at Church of the Resurrection in Fairport.
Such a system works best with face-to-face confessions, he said, because this form of the sacrament affords "more of a chance to get it right. I can see their eyes and they can see me. You get more deeply into the beauty of the sacrament if you see them."
For someone who is accustomed to receiving a traditional penance such as reciting the Our Father or Hail Mary, he said he may suggest going into the church and reviewing upcoming readings in the missalette.
Assigning traditional prayers like the Hail Mary as a penance may be useful for a person who may be struggling with being humble, for example, said Father Bill Coffas, director of Becket Hall, a residential discernment program for men considering priesthood.
"I point to the fact that Mary is a great teacher and example in the school of humility," he added.
For a penitent with more specific needs, Father Heyman said he may ask the person to set small goals to work on the areas of sinfulness in their lives. Such a goal-oriented penance allows the person to have a sense of progress in their lives "and bring a sense of peace and reconciliation," said Father Heyman, who also is director of certification and professional development and an associate professor of Biblical studies at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry.
"The priest has to determine what the comfort level is of that person in terms of penance," he added.
Regardless of how successful penitents’ are in carrying out penances, all leave the confessional absolved of the sins for which they seek forgiveness, he said.
"The operative word is try. All you can do is try. What they accomplish is between them and the Lord. We give them absolution before we give a penance," he pointed out.
Father Coffas said if he notices some reluctance from a penitent in completing a certain action as penance, he may choose a different penance. For example, if he asked a penitent to be kind to a person mentioned during confession but the two people won’t see each other for awhile, he would talk to the penitent and offer another penance, he said.
"There is give and take," he said.
Father Heyman explained that this current practice of giving absolution before a penance differs dramatically from what was done in the early church. Centuries ago, he said, penitents first had to demonstrate their penance through actions in the community, before coming to their church and bishop for absolution.
"(Penance) is a constantly evolving sacrament to try to meet people’s needs where they are in their prayer," Father Heyman noted.