Should priests try to emulate Ko-Ko, and ‘make the punishment fit the crime’, or is the use of token penances appropriate and sufficient. After all, in the early Church we know that penances were substantial, and often lengthy : nowadays (as The Crescat remarked recently) it seems that you have to kill someone to get more than three Hail Marys !
Well, it seems to me that there are several points here.
The first is that the Sacrament of Penance works by your open admission of your sins, and your sinfulness. Nothing you can do can actually undo what you have done wrong – unless, of course, restitution is possible – so both the confession, and the penance, are merely ‘outward and visible signs’ of the effect of it all on your soul. Consequently, what matters is your contrition, and your willingness to accept whatever penance you are given in expiation for your sins.
At the same time, giving someone a ‘clever’ penance may be counterproductive. If, for example, the penance given is one which will go on for some time, it may be that circumstances prevent its completion, which can in turn lead to scruples . . . or the penance itself may, in an attempt to make it ‘appropriate’, be so mysterious as to make it un-performable. (I remember one Anglo-Catholic at Oxford who was more than a little bewildered to be told to ‘make himself a living sacrifice’ for his penance. Fortunately, when he referred the matter to another priest, he was promptly told ‘nonsense; say three Hail Marys’, which solved his problem . . . but it does lead one to ponder the question of what exactly ‘making oneself a living sacrifice’ might possibly involve !
One priest I know basically uses two penances in alternation, changing them week by week : both are sensible, and involve the saying of a important (but not overlong) form of words . . . and both are followed by the direction ‘and then stay just a few minutes very quietly in the presence of Our Blessed Lord on the altar’. It’s not for me to say what the experts on Moral Theology would say about these penances; but I do know that the direction to spend a little time quietly before Our Lord is, for me, usually the most important part of the penance; because instead of just exchanging the repetition of a few words for the calming of my conscience, I have to have a few minutes of actual thought about what I have just done . . . and that, I think, is a valuable tool in moving forward with dealing, however slowly, with my sins.
May I suggest that, even if it is just ‘three Hail Marys’ this Saturday, you also add that ‘few minutes very quietly in the presence of Our Blessed Lord on the altar’ as a matter of devotion, and during it, express your gratitude for the absolution which you don’t deserve, but which Our Blessed Lord has so freely given you through His priest ?