How to Go to Confession (Part III)
Throughout these catechetical presentations, I have spoken of the Catholic Church as a community of faith, prayer and law. In my most recent instruction on the sacraments, I have highlighted how these seven “outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace” bring these elements together in the lives of the faithful. The Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation is no exception. Parts I and II have focused upon the sacrament itself and sin as it is the occasion that makes it necessary. This catechesis will simply present the methodology for “going to confession.”
Every sacrament is an occasion for prayer, a deep conversation with the Lord Jesus Christ. In the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation, that conversation focuses upon our need for God’s mercy. We are all sinners and we all seek the Lord’s forgiveness and reconciliation. How does one make a good, “integral” confession?
First, we must admit and acknowledge our sinfulness. In our quiet moments, we need to identify how we have turned away from God in the things that we have said and done or failed to do since our last confession. When we, as human beings gifted by God with an intellect and free will, experience occasions in which we have used these gifts in a way contrary to God’s designs and purposes for us, we sin. Those occasions are the “matter” for confession.
Next, we should pray and ask God to enlighten our conscience so that our confession is honest and true. Our prayer should lead us to an “examination of conscience.” Using the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20: 2 - 17; Deuteronomy 5: 6 - 21) as a guide, we should consider our experience of living or failing to live those commandments. It is worth reading over those commandments and reflecting upon our lives and our conformity with what God has asked of us. Another good source for our self-examination are “the Beatitudes,” Jesus’ own Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5: 3 - 10). The Ten Commandments present the “thou shall nots” of human living. The Beatitudes offer a more positive expression of Christian living.
There are also “Precepts of the Church” that should be considered, rules that oblige baptized Catholics and pertain to membership in the Catholic Church (CCC, 2041-2043):
I. To attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation (check your parish bulletin), and resting from servile works.
II. To observe the days of abstinence and fasting.
III. To confess our sins to a priest, at least once a year.
IV. To receive Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist at least once a year during Easter Season.
V. To contribute to the support of the Church.
As Catholics, we are or should be acquainted with the moral teachings of the Catholic Church, especially as they relate to our obligations of charity, justice and our particular age and state in life (married, single, religious, clergy).
This examination of conscience should yield a healthy sense of the state of our souls before God. Our sins, then, should become apparent to us. Mortal or serious sins must be confessed. Venial or lesser sins should be confessed since they weaken our determination to live the Christian life fully. After our examination of conscience, we should express sorrow or contrition for our sins and pray for God’s mercy and forgiveness, asking God to help us to amend our lives and “sin no more (John 8: 11).”
People are naturally embarrassed by sin, especially when we find ourselves repeating sinful behaviors again and again. We feel guilt and embarrassment by the fact that “I did it again.” But, that is the purpose of confession: to free ourselves from sin, no matter what we do or how often. It is human to wonder “what will Father think of me?” But it is only important, rather, to reflect on “what God thinks of me?” And you know what? God only thinks of us with unconditional love, mercy and forgiveness, just for the asking. Forget about the priest. He sees his role only as reconciling you with God, no matter what you tell him or how often. “Neither do I condemn you (again, John 8: 11).” God rejoices in your return to him. “There is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent (Luke 15: 7).” And the result of your confession? Forgiveness, mercy, love and peace of mind and heart.
And, next, the “moment of truth:” make your confession to the priest! If you need or want to write your sins down, feel free to do so and bring your note with you. If you have doubts about anything, simply mention your doubts to the priest. He will advise you. Tell him when you made your last confession. If it has been a long, long time since your last confession, do not be afraid or embarrassed.
Simply tell that to the priest. He will help you make a good confession. He is not there to judge or condemn you. He is there to be a minister of God’s forgiveness, mercy and your reconciliation with God.
The Church asks that you make an “integral” confession: that is, mention your specific sins and, to the extent possible, the frequency of these sins. If your sins are “occasional,” say that. If they are habits or frequent, say that. The purpose of confession is to free you from sins, any sins, all sins.
Following your confession, the priest may give you some advice or suggestions to help you. He will ask you to make a good “act of contrition (see below)” after giving you a penance — prayer or good works — to perform as a sign of that contrition after you finish your confession. If you don’t remember the “act of contrition,” tell the priest and, again, he will help you. Feel free to bring a copy of the “act of contrition” into confession with you. The priest will then give you absolution from your sins.
Next step, “go in peace and sin no more.”
(My next Catechesis on the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.)
Most Reverend David M. O'Connell, C.M.
Bishop of Trenton