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John Palmer wrote:

Dear Sirs,

I am writing a novel in which a career criminal is hired to steal a part of a very sacred relic of Christ. He has a bout of conscience and, having not attended church since he was a boy, goes to Confession. I have no idea what sort of penance would be required of him.

  • Could you help me?


John Palmer

  { Can you help me with my novel by telling me what priestly penance would be set for this criminal? }

Mary Ann replied:

Hi John,

It would be best if you consulted a priest or canon lawyer.

Mary Ann

Eric replied:

Hi John,

Penances vary greatly among priests. They are entirely at the priest's discretion. I expect, at a minimum, the priest would require him to return the relic to its owner. Generally today, penances tend to be light, though I've never committed this sin so I don't have personal experience of what the penance would be. While I wouldn't necessarily disagree with my colleague's encouragement to ask a priest, and while your attempt to be accurate is praiseworthy, there really isn't one answer here and I'd encourage you to be creative and pick something that augments the story.

For example, he might require him to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where he experiences a deep conversion and turns his life around. OK, so maybe this is wishful thinking on my part. :-)

In reality, I doubt such a severe penance would likely be issued because:

  • one, the guy was accustomed to stealing and
  • two, he presumably didn't understand or appreciate what he was stealing and how wrong it was to steal it

but it might provide grist for the plot.

  1. You could have him pray a Rosary for the conversion of the person who hired him.
    By today's standards, a whole Rosary is a relatively severe penance.
  2. You could have him read and meditate on a Scripture passage and choose one that has some relevance to your plot.
  3. Or just pick Psalm 51, which was written by David after he committed adultery and had his lover's husband killed.
  4. Here's another story, you could have him read: 2 Samuel 6:1-7, where Uzzah is killed by God because he touched a holy thing irreverently, the Ark of the Covenant.

There is also a passage, although I can't readily find it, perhaps one of my colleagues will know where it is, where God commanded the Israelites to attack a city, but not to plunder it. Some of them did, however, and God dealt severely with them.

Just some ideas, if you can't find a priest or don't get a good idea from him.


John replied:

Mr. Palmer,

Adding to what Eric has said, if the criminal was making his first Confession in a long time, there would be more to his Confession than this one sin.

When one enters the Confessional, one states when their last Confession was. In order to give absolution and penance, the priest would ask some questions in order to help the penitent recall other sins. The priest should and would most likely want to deal with how and why this man chose a life of crime.

I would say that typically, when a person has been away from the Church for a while, the priest does welcome him back with charity. He might quote the parable of the prodigal son or of the one lost sheep. The focus, in such cases, is on reconciliation and forgiveness. The focus is more on the long absence from the sacraments and root causes of the life of crime chosen by the man, rather than the specific sins committed. Yes, the specific sins, as best they can be recalled, are important and need to be dealt with but the emphasis is on the change of heart and turning over a new leaf, hence the penance given is medicine for the soul more than anything else.

The intent being that the prescribed prayers or actions assist the penitent in his struggle with sin and aid him in the process of sanctification.

Penance is not simply some arbitrary punishment meant to extract justice for a sin committed.

If you want to accurately represent what happens in the Confessional in your novel, you ought to take these things into account.  You could actually use the scene as vehicle to further develop and reveal the protagonist for your readers.

Good luck with your novel.

John DiMascio

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