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.