Through the centuries of the Church few things have seen more evolution than the actual practice of the Sacrament of Penance. In this beautiful sacrament, the penitent brings three things: interior repentance, the verbal confession of sins, and satisfaction (a penance). The Church, in the ministry of a priest with proper jurisdiction, offers mercy through the verbal absolution of sins. These are what St. Thomas Aquinas called the matter and form of the sacrament — the elements brought by the penitent being the matter, and the absolution of the priest being the form.
In the first few centuries of the Church, confession and absolution were separated by time, and often by a considerable amount of time. Confession of sins was a rare occurrence and, in fact, some opinions stated it could be done only once during a person’s lifetime. After confessing one’s sins, a person fulfilled the penance given (often publicly) and then returned to the priest for absolution once that penance was completed.
Much has changed in how we celebrate the Sacrament of Penance today, but the need remains for a penitent to offer some satisfaction for sins as a means of self-denial and of positive action to repair harm resulting from personal sin. In the majority of situations we no longer need to return to the priest after completing our penance in order to ask for absolution. The priest does not withhold absolution until our penance is completed. It is understood that we will complete our assigned penance in a reasonable time after confessing our sins, unless we are truly prevented from doing so by illness or other reason.
Absolution, the forgiveness of our sins in the sacrament, is not given on condition that we fulfill the assigned penance. The effects of absolution are immediate and not dependent on completion of our penance or satisfaction. Even if we never complete the penance, our sins have been forgiven by God through the ministry of the priest. If a person simply forgets to complete the assigned penance, or cannot complete it for a good reason, there is no harm that results, and the person need not refrain from receiving holy Communion on that account alone. However, it would seem that someone who willfully refuses to offer satisfaction for sins through the assigned penance may be withholding an important element of the sacrament and ought to confess that a previous penance was never satisfied.
Msgr. William J. King is a priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg,