22 September 2015

A Guide to Confession

What is Confession?

Confession, also called the Sacrament of Penance, is the sacrament by which one is forgiven his sins after confessing them with true sorrow and receiving absolution from a priest. The penitent must be truly sorry and intend to avoid sin in the future. Now, this may be quite the mouthful for some readers, but I'll go through it (as always, feel free to ask questions below!). I should first say that I know there is sometimes confusion when it comes to Confession. How can Catholics seek forgiveness from another sinner? What difference does confessing one's sins aloud to a priest make when we can simply turn to God in private? What if someone doesn't mean it? How can they be forgiven? These and other questions can be answered here (the Catholic Encyclopedia is one of my favorite sources when I'm doing a bit of research, so consider bookmarking this website!).

Scripture References:

We see Christ speak of confessing sins multiple times in the New Testament. Here are some of the most popular passages:
  • "[W]hatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven." (Matthew 16:19)
  • "Confess, therefore, your sins to one another: and pray for one another, that you may be saved. For the continual prayer of a just man availeth much." (James 5:16)
  • "As the Father hath sent me, I also send you.' When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: 'Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained'" (John 20:21-23)

History in the Church:

We also see Confession encouraged throughout Church history from the Didache (a writing from people in the early church), St Augustine and St John Chrysostom, both of whom lived in the first few centuries. St Athanasius writes:
"As the man whom the priest baptizes is enlightened by the grace of the Holy Ghost, so does he who in penance confesses his sins, receive through the priest forgiveness in virtue of the grace of Christ." [my emphasis added]
"But this was all ages ago. Surely, time must have changed things," someone might say. Well, if you want a contemporary source, Pope Francis has said that he tries to go to Confession every fifteen or twenty days. Outdated practice? Methinks not. As long as people continue sin, that is as long as Confession will be relevant and important.
So here is something Christ told us to do, something that was practiced and encouraged by the early church, something that we still see is important. It's good for us to know how to do it, right? A couple of things first:
  • One of the Precepts of the Church is to go to Confession at least once per year (usually during Lent). You can certainly go more frequently, and you are encouraged to do so if you have mortal sins on your conscience. It is also good practice to confess venial sins.
  • If one has mortal sins on their soul, he is not to receive Holy Communion. We are to be in as clean a state as possible when we receive the Eucharist. Imagine going to meet a world leader after having just committed treason in that country. We would think that crazy, wouldn't we? So we must make ourselves right before God before we receive Our Lord in the Eucharist.

I. Before Confession

Before Confession, you should take time to examine your conscience (in fact, you should examine your conscience each day). I usually use an app on my phone (Mea Culpa: it's rigorous in its detail, but probably needs an update) and go through the Commandments in detail. Parishes will often leave out pamphlets or handouts to guide you through the Commandments. I have also referred to Fr. Z's 20 Tips for Making a Good Confession, just to remind myself of good pointers.

Look up Confession times at your parish. I am lucky enough to go to a parish where Confession is offered regularly twice per week, but often up to four times per week. Jackpot! If you are unable to make the scheduled Confession time, you can set up an appointment with a priest. Unfortunately, many parishes only offer an hour (or half an hour!) on a Saturday evening. Would that Confessions were offered every day! But that's a result of many people neglecting Confession. Don't blame Father for not reading your mind and knowing your schedule. Just make a bit of an effort. (If there is a surge of Confession frequenters, then Father may add more hours to the week!)

Then, make a commitment to go at a certain time and stick to it! Make sure you show up with ample time and not five minutes before the time for Confession is over. I strongly encourage this because if many other people are trying to go to Confession that day, the priest may not get to every single person who shows up near the end, but he will make the effort to hear as many people as possible. Better safe than sorry! Remember that Confession is important: this is a matter of the soul and your standing with God. So do approach it with the seriousness and sincerity it deserves.

I find it helps to have Confession coincide with Adoration or Mass, as you have further reason to go and another good spiritual thing to do at the same time. I highly recommend going to Adoration or Mass after Confession. If Adoration, you get to thank Christ in what seems a more intimate way when you step away from the confessional. If Mass, you get to receive Christ in the Eucharist. Do all three together? That's the best!

II. During Confession

When you confess, bring along the guide you used to help you examine your conscience. I keep everything in that phone app, but if you're worried about a technological blunder, you can write everything down (and destroy the paper later). Whichever way you are comfortable with, because whichever way you choose needs to work for you.

Follow the priest. At the start, you'll make the sign of the cross. Then you'll say, "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been ___ days/weeks/months/years since my last confession." You should also state if this is the first time you've ever gone to Confession. That way, the priest will know to guide you a little more. You will continue by confessing your sins in kind and number. This means you confess what the sin is and how many times you committed it (for example: "I lied three times."). You are only required to confess mortal sins (sins of serious nature, committed with full knowledge and consent; an example would be blasphemy), but confessing venial sins (sins which fail to meet at least one of the criteria of mortal sins) is good practice, too. Once you have finished confessing, you should communicate to the priest that you are finished by saying something like: "For all these sins and any that I may not recall, I am heartily sorry."

The priest may ask questions to clarify. He will give you counsel and advice. Then he will give you a penance. Penance is usually a prayer (for example: five Our Fathers), but may be an action (for example: apologize to the person you sinned against), assigned to you in order to pay the temporal punishment of sin (the eternal punishment is remitted by the sacrament) and increase your hatred of sin. Make sure that you understand the penance. You will then be prompted to make an Act of Contrition and say something like: "O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you, and I detest all of my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all because I have offended you, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to avoid the near occasion of sin. Amen." It is good practice to have an Act of Contrition memorized, but I have often seen them printed out and secured to the confessional.

The priest will then absolve you
. This is essential. Make sure that the priest says, "I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Respond, "Amen." There are rumors that some priests forget to absolve (!?), so if you've said your Act of Contrition and Father just says, "Peace out, home skillet," kindly remind him to absolve you. He may then say, "Go in peace." Respond, "Thanks be to God." I also like to say a quick "Thank you, Father," before ducking out.

III. After Confession

As you exit the confessional, you may feel as light and free as a bird. Do not, however, fly outside. Post-Confession prayer is some of the best prayer, and it is good time to do your penance. If you have been given a prayer as your penance, do it immediately. If you have to do some act, make a (physical, if necessary) note for yourself to complete your penance as soon as you can. Remember my advice to go to Confession and then go to Adoration or Mass? You have nice, squeaky cleanness, so what better way to celebrate than to adore Our Lord in the monstrance and receive him in the Eucharist?

Confession can be intimidating. I know, because Confession has been intimidating for me. But do you know what's more intimidating? Thinking that you have separated yourself from God by your sins and may never make amends. When you postpone Confession, you are only dragging your sins around  like a ball and chain longer. Once you've confessed, the anxiety and guilt tethered to your ankle falls away. It is truly a great gift Our Lord has given us.

Some Notes:

  1. The priest is bound by the Seal of Confession. This means that he cannot talk to anyone about what is confessed. Your cringe-worthy fails are safe with him.
  2. Venial sins can be remitted by prayer and reception of the Eucharist. I still like to confess them.
  3. If you can manage to have a regular confessor, that would be great! I've moved so much in the last few years and even at the same parish, I haven't always had the same priest. Having a regular confessor can help both of you to see the pattern of your sins or any underlying problems. Then you'll be better able to come up with a plan of attack.
  4. If you conceal any sins, then none of the sins you have confessed are forgiven and you have committed an additional sin, sacrilege. If you forget any sins, just bring them up next time.
  5. If you're ever feeling a little nervous, just remember: it used to be the practice to confess one's sins aloud in front of others in the church. Take solace in your dark, private confessional!
If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments below! Here's my post on my first Confession if you're curious.


  1. I wish I had a thumbs up emoji on my computer. Oh well. *thumbs up* So glad to see you posting these kinds of posts right now with RCIA starting up everywhere! Posts like these are what gave me courage for my first confession. I didn't know about that website, that's great!

    1. Thank you, Hannah. :) I think asterisks work well. Haha.
      Confession was something really difficult for me to do when I was in RCIA. Not that I found confessing impossible, but I wanted to be as prepared as possible and there was no single source that helped me fully. I also couldn't find a guide that explained things enough for me. I wanted to create the guide I would have liked back then, because I know it would have been helpful, at least for my crazy brain. I'm happy you liked it and I do hope it helps other people with their confessions. :) *thumbs up*