The Power in a Penance

About six or seven years ago, I participated in the sacrament of reconciliation. (By the way, that was not my last time.) At the heart of my confession was the fact that I had recently been responding to my wife with “irritation” or “anger.” When it came time for my penance, the priest said to me, “For your penance, I’d like you to think of someone that you care about a lot, and I’d like you to do something special for that person.” He then said, “Can you and Jesus figure out who that person should be, and what you should do for them?” Let me quickly add here that his approach was perfect for me. The grace of God was palpable, as our heavenly Father knows exactly what we need, for this was not a face-to-face confession, and since I was then participating in a grandson’s first confession in preparation for his first communion, I was obviously going to confession with a priest whom I had never met, and did not know.

At any rate, I quickly responded, “Yes, Father, I’m sure that Jesus and I can figure this out.” I took one step out of the confessional, and I knew what it was—I proceeded to go home and I thoroughly cleaned all the bathrooms. My wife hates cleaning bathrooms. Her distaste for bathroom duty probably stems from all those years cleaning up after five sons, as boys are notorious for shooting at- and not necessarily in-. Well, as it turns out, my wife has not cleaned a bathroom since; and, as you might suspect, my wife loves it when I go to confession. For me, this has been the penance that keeps on giving—and it has become an explicit opportunity for me to grow in virtue.

Let me explain. One of my sons e-mailed me after he had been married for about eight months—he wanted to know if we could have lunch someday soon. I gladly said “yes,” and we got together a few days later. We started out by talking about work and “general life stuff,” and then he got to the point. He wanted to talk about his marriage. In a nutshell, he said, “Dad, this is really hard. I never knew I was going to have to give up so much, to sacrifice in so many ways, in order to make this work.” We talked for quite a while, and somewhere in the middle of it all, I referred to the passage in the Gospel of John: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it bears little fruit; but if it falls to the ground and dies, then it will bear a rich harvest (Jn 12:24).” I asked my son, “Do you want a rich harvest for your wife, and someday, for your children; or are you willing to settle for puny, little fruit?”

My son proceeded to go home, and apparently told his wife: “Dad said that I need to die.” As one might imagine, my daughter-in-law did not know how to feel about such imagery—that for my son, marriage to his wife was akin to death! The next time I saw her, she let me have it! So, while I don’t recall exactly what she said, the gist of her comments were: “John, this shouldn’t be a death. This should be something that he wants to do.”

Some people might be offended by such a response, but I was not. In fact, what she said led me to think about the movie, “The Break-Up” (which, by the way, I am not recommending). In the movie, Jennifer Aniston says to her live-in boyfriend, “I don’t want you to just do the dishes. I want you to want to do the dishes.” This is at the heart of virtue—that we not only do what we need to do, but that we also allow ourselves to be changed by the Holy Spirit so that we want to do those things which we need to do. For the Christian Tradition has always seen the Gifts of the Holy Spirit as the means by which true Catholic holiness becomes, not only possible, but also, almost pleasant. Instead of rowing through the choppy waters of virtue, advancing somewhat, but usually with sweat and stress, the Holy Spirit alive in our lives makes the moral life like sailing smoothly, with joy and obvious gains.

This was my challenge. Like my wife, I have never been a big fan of cleaning bathrooms, but the past several years have given me an opportunity for growth. I know that I am not always acting and loving as Jesus wants, but I can see movement—cleaning the bathrooms has become less onerous than it was seven years ago—and my hope is in gaining virtue, and with that virtue, gaining greater joy. As we know, the less the distance between what we ought to do, and what we want to do, the more joyful we will be.

And this all started with a simple penance in the confessional. This experience has led me to reflect on the potential power that is available in a “mere” penance. I was talking with a friend of mine who told me of a similar experience he had with the power of a penance he had received. He had confessed to the priest his struggles with pornography, and from what this friend shared, the priest was very understanding and compassionate, and in the end, the penance given to him by the priest was to spend five to ten minutes in front of the Blessed Sacrament in the Eucharistic Adoration chapel. Furthermore, while he was before the Blessed Sacrament, the priest encouraged him to reflect on the purity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. My friend told me that, at the time, this was a very difficult thing for him to do—but he did it. And this experience ended up planting seeds in his heart that were instrumental in a growing devotion to Mary, and a growing contempt for his use of pornography.

In talking with other solid Catholic men, I have discovered a variety of other “unique” penances they have received. One man who confessed marriage struggles was given the penance of inviting his wife to go with him on a romantic, evening date. He took her to one of their favorite spots, which they hadn’t been to in years. He has never told his wife what prompted him to initiate that date, and that evening has led to many more dates, and a revived marriage. Another man who confessed his frequent anger with his wife and his children, was encouraged to do for his penance fasting for his family. The priest explained to him that it didn’t need to be a big fast, but simply intentionally giving up one thing (e.g., a cup of coffee, dessert at a business lunch, one beer). This man, with his family in mind, gave up coffee the next morning. This led him to a regular exercise of fasting for his wife and his children.

So to close, let me invite all you ordained priests, whom the Lord Jesus Christ has commissioned to absolve his people’s sins, pray about what penance you might give during any one confession. We are all different people, we all have different approaches to God, but we all stand in need of the same mercy. Give us that mercy by giving us a penance that might be more than just a few rote prayers—give us a Psalm to meditate over, ask us to pray for those people we have wronged, ask us to become more loving and attentive to others in the ways you hear us failing. Obviously, such examples of “unorthodox” penances will not work for everyone. There are those individuals who “go to confession,” but who are not devoted to the faith that lies behind the confession—they simply want absolution. Challenge them! But for those who are more obviously devoted to their Catholic faith, and who desire to participate fully in the sacrament of reconciliation, they want an opportunity. Rich may be the fruit of a well-placed penance.

Dr. John Buri About Dr. John Buri

Dr. John Buri is a psychology professor at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Dr. Buri is active in the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and Saint Paul in their marriage preparation and marriage enrichment programs. He has been married (to his high school sweetheart) for 45 years, and he and his wife have six children, and 14 grandchildren.


  1. Avatar JOHN GRONDELSKI says:

    A wonderful priest, the late Fr. Anthony Dandry, gave me the penance of the Divine Mercy Chaplet, which I did not know at the time, then explained to me how to do it. (He also had a little brochure he handed me). God bless him for a devotion to which I have stayed committed since 1992. Priests, give it to your penitents.

  2. Avatar Donna Miller says:

    Actually NO to the question. I have changed and not because of a penance, and sometimes in spite of it!


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