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Penance is a form of expressing regret, sorrow or contrition for having done wrong, usually in the form of carrying out some action. Most specifically it is a religious expression of regret towards God for having broken His rules, or sinned. OED defines it as: "The performance of some act of self-mortification or the undergoing of some penalty as an expression of sorrow for sin or wrongdoing; religious discipline, either imposed by ecclesiastical authority or voluntarily undertaken, as a token of repentance and as a means of satisfaction for sin; (also) such discipline or observance imposed by a priest upon a penitent after confession, as an integral part of the sacrament of penance."

Religious penance is regarded as a sacrament in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. In Protestant churches, it is not seen as sacramental - although the Church of England recognizes it as an act that may be performed voluntarily. In the Roman Catholic church, where its preferred name now is Reconciliation, the full act of Penance is seen as having three parts:

  • contrition is the feeling of sorrow or regret by a sinner, or repentance - the desire to make amends to God for the pain that the sin has caused Him, linked with "a firm purpose of amendment" (the fixed intention not to commit [this] sin again);
  • confession - confessing, or reporting the sins and desire of repentance, to a priest, under the seal of confession (or seal of the confessional: the kiosk, or closed box, in which a priest, separated by a grill or screen from the penitent, hears a confession), which is the duty of absolute confidentiality enjoined upon a priest;
  • satisfaction - normally follows. This is the technical theological term for the most everyday meaning of penance, "The performance by a penitent of the penal and meritorious acts enjoined by his confessor as payment of the temporal punishment due to his sin" OED.

The sacrament performed by the penitent is completed by the priest who has "the power to forgive all sins 'in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.'" (Roman Catholic catechism. This is known as absolution.

Outside religion, penance (usually non-count) is used figuratively to mean 'an unpleasant duty', 'a chore', or, most weakly, 'something unpleasant'.

Penance may share the root of 'punishment', 'penalty', 'penal', 'pain', 'penitence' and 'repentance': all may come from, or be agnate with, Latin poena, 'punishment', 'penalty' (via punire 'to punish' and its French equivalent punir). For an etymological note, go to Pain - penal - penalty - penance - penitence - penitent - punish - repent - repentance - repentant.