Before reading this guide, you should be familiar with the following terms:
Act of Contrition
Examination of Conscience
The sacrament of confession is the means by which we repair our relationship with God. When we sin, we turn away from God and place ourselves first. When we make the decision to confess our sins, it is normally through an infusion of grace from God. God desires us to be close to Him. He wants to repair the relationship. God is always willing to start fresh with us, no matter how selfish or terrible our sins are.
In the Sacrament of Confession, the priest acts in persona Christi (in the Person of Christ). He is strictly bound not to disclose or make any use of anything he has heard during the confession. He may not mention that you even confessed your sins at all. He is not even allowed to discuss your confession with you outside of the confession itself. Furthermore, he is not allowed to require you to disclose any of your sins to anyone else no matter how bad they are. The integrity of the sacrament is one of the most intensely guarded aspects of the Catholic Tradition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the ‘sacramental seal,’ because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains ‘sealed’ by the sacrament” (CCC 1467).
The first question invariably must be “what is the sacrament of confession?” Confession, also known as reconciliation, or penance, consists of three main components: 1) Confessing our sins to a priest in person, 2) Reconciliation, or repairing our relationship, and 3) penance – making up for the harm caused by our sins.
Before going to confession you should first have contrition, or sorrow for your sins. Our society strives to remove the feeling of guilt for our sins, but it is guilt that is necessary in an appropriate amount to bring us to make amends for our sins. There are generally 2 types of contrition: perfect and imperfect. Perfect contrition is sorrow for our sins because they have offended God and broken our relationship with Him. Imperfect contrition is sorrow for our sins because we are afraid of hell, or afraid of the loss of heaven, or even because of the ugliness of the sin itself. We should strive for perfect contrition, but only imperfect contrition is necessary for a good confession.
The next action on our part should be to examine our conscience. An examination of conscience is a series of questions or meditations to reflect on which help us remember all of our sins so that we can have a list ready to tell the priest in confession. The reason we examine our conscience is first to help us understand the many ways in which we may have sinned. Also, the examination helps us call to mind these sins before confession so that any nervousness or anxiety does not cloud our recollection of our sins in the confessional. Some people make a written list to take with them, which is acceptable, but could contribute to scrupulosity if you are not careful. Also, the list if used, should be destroyed when you are done so that your sins remain private.
If you honestly forget to mention a serious sin, your confession is still valid, and all your sins are forgiven. You should mention the sin at your next confession. If however, you intentionally neglect to mention a serious sin, then the confession is invalid, and you must not only confess all of your sins at the next confession, but you have also committed a serious sin of sacrilege by not being honest in your invalid confession, so that must also be confessed at the next confession. Venial sins (less serious sins) do not have to be mentioned at confession, but it is a good practice to do so anyway, unless there is a long line of people waiting behind you or you have already been in the confessional for a long time.
Confessing our sins to a priest involves entering the confessional and beginning a conversation with the priest. If this is your first time or you are unsure how to confess, mention it to the priest and he will guide you. In most cases, you have the benefit of a screen of some sort between you and the priest so that your identity can be anonymous. Some churches also offer face-to-face confession if you prefer it that way. The faithful have the right to an anonymous confession, as Canon 964.2 states: “Confessionals with a fixed grille between penitent and confessor are always located in an open area so that the faithful who wish to make use of them may do so freely” (Canon 964.2). Additionally, Pope Paul VI stated at a general audience on April 3, 1974: “The confessional, as a protective screen between the minister and the penitent, to guarantee the absolute secrecy of the conversation imposed on them and reserved for them, must, it is clear, remain.”
If you have made previous confessions, you should consider using a formula to guide you through the confession:
- Sometimes, the priest may begin with a Scripture reading or a short reflection. Sometimes he may just remain silent and wait for you to begin.
- Next, you say: “Bless me, Father, in this confession for I have sinned. It has been ______ (length of time) since my last confession. I accuse myself of the following sins.”
- You will then tell your mortal sins (if any) in both kind and the number of times committed. Next, confess a few venial sins that you have struggled with since your last confession.
- Next, you can say: “For these and all the sins I have committed which I may have forgotten, I am sorry.”
- The priest might now discuss some of your sins or ways for you to avoid sins or grow closer to God. He then gives you a penance and asks you to recite the Act of Contrition (act-of-contrition.aspx). Then wait and listen as the priest gives the absolution.
- Your confession is now over. Before you leave the confessional, thank the priest.
- Finally, perform the penance assigned by the priest (before going home if possible).
The penance serves as a way to make up for the harm caused by our sins. Usually the penance will seem to be very small compared to our sins. The point is that you do something to make up for them. Sometimes the priest will do some penance for you without you knowing it, but you should assume that the penance is just a start. The only way to truly make up for all of our sins is to change our life and live with God as the first and most important part of our life. We must resolve to avoid sin and amend our life. No one is perfect, therefore we know that we will fall, but it is important for us to get back up and go back to confession to restore our relationship with God.
Other Articles You May Like:
A Thorough Catholic Examination of Conscience
What is Mortal Sin (The Catholic Definition)
What is Venial Sin (The Catholic Definition)
The Act of Contrition
Top 10 Emotional Reasons People Don't Go to Confession (and Why You Should Consider it Anyway)
What Does it Mean to Mention Sins in "Number and Kind" in Confession