LIBERA ME, Domine, Iesu Christe, ab omnibus iniquitatis meis et universis malis,
fac me tuis semper inhærere mandatis et a te numquam separari permittas. Amen.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

What do you mean – ‘Three Hail Marys’ ?

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 ?


  1. Another excellent post DM. I do agree with you about the time before the Blessed Sacrament. I think most of us probably do that automatically after Confession. I find it almost impossible not to contemplate the Blessed Sacrament when I kneel to say my penance in church. Although I suppose it might not be as obvious if you are in a larger church where the Blessed Sacrament is hidden away in a side chapel somewhere. That's one of the advantages of a small church with only one altar - Our Lord's presence in the tabernacle is glaringly obvious at all times.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with the first part of your post.

    I do, however, disagree with the idea of a priest telling a penitent to spend "some time" before the Blessed Sacrament, basically because, in someone who is perhaps just returning to regular use of the Sacrament, it can lead to scruples about how much time is "enough".

    By giving three Hail Mary's (for example) the priest is giving a set time to make for a penance. It's the same reasoning that's behind the 10 Hail Marys in a decade of the Rosary - one meditates for that time on the Mystery being considered.

    An alternative is to give the instruction "spend five minutes before the Blessed Sacrament."

  3. I believe in the bad old days priests would regularly use manuals of penance that would suggest what penances to set for the common mortal and venial sins.

    I find the whole "spend some time before the Blessed Sacrament and tell God how much you love him" rather unhelpful because I usually recite my penances before the Blessed Sacrament anyway. The best penances I have ever received were ones which made use of the psalms: but obviously this cannot be applied in all circumstances and to all penitents.