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What is Penance?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Penance is an important part of Christian religious practice, especially in the Catholic tradition. It involves feeling genuine remorse for sins and accepting an appropriate punishment from a designated church official. Traditional forms of penance included corporal mortification and humiliation, but modern penance usually includes less extreme punishments, such as prayer. Penance allows people to reflect on their sins while they endure the punishment, allowing them to be absolved by a priest.

There are several stages to penance in Catholic tradition. In the first place, the penitent must feel contrition, and approach a priest to make confession. After confession, the priest determines an appropriate punishment, and absolves the penitent. Contrition and the punishment are both crucial aspects; a penitent who feigns contrition is not genuinely sorrowful about committing the sin, making prayer or other punishments somewhat pointless.

Often, the punishment takes the form of a set number of Hail Marys or Our Fathers. A Hail Mary is a Christian prayer used in many traditions to call upon the grace of Mary, Mother of Christ. An Our Father refers to God Himself, and it is also known as the Lord's Prayer or Pater Noster. The penitent may choose to say these prayers in church, entering to pray when services are not in session, or he or she may pray at home. Prayer may also be accompanied by a recitation of the rosary, a traditional Catholic prayer and meditation which is said over a string of sacred beads. While saying the rosary, Catholics also meditate on the mysteries, important themes in Christian faith.

Punishments for penance may also include restrictions like fasting or wearing modest clothing. These punishments are decided upon at the discretion of the priest, who makes the judgment on the basis of the sin and sometimes on the history of the penitent as well. A punishment may also be adjusted for a penitent with physical limitations; for example, fasting would not be recommended for penitent with a history of eating disorders.

Many religions include some form of penance, allowing the faithful to atone for sins that they have committed as part of their religious faith. The tradition of penance acknowledges that all people commit mistakes at some point, and that these mistakes should be considered and then absolved so that the penitent can move on. Penance is separate from other acts of prayer and faith, which can be carried out at any time by the devout.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By anon321661 — On Feb 23, 2013

How is penance important in the catholic tradition?

By anon230807 — On Nov 21, 2011

Why are they punishing people for their sins when the Father himself is forgiving us through his son? Humans don't atone for their own sins anymore like our Jewish ancestors who used to do animal sacrifices to atone for their sins. The old sacrificial system is out. The Messiah makes atonement.

Read Hebrews 8 in your scriptures. The messiah became and still is the high priest of the new covenant, atoning for our sins in heaven. Humans "condemning" (deciding punishment) or absolving sin completely negates the role of our Messiah.

By anon161018 — On Mar 17, 2011

get out of bad luck if you don't believe in it. just stop thinking about bad luck and it will go away.

By anon81542 — On May 02, 2010

what does confirmation, penance and reconciliation, anointing of the sick, holy orders and matrimony mean?

By anon71084 — On Mar 17, 2010

Do you think I can escape from bad luck?

By anon12529 — On May 08, 2008

I have been reading a lot on this site and I do have one question. Do people who believe in Buddhism believe that Jesus Christ lived, died and rose again for our sins?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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