At my parish here in Olympia, the pastor has set up a very generous schedule of confessions throughout the year. We offer an hour of confessions with one priest on Thursday mornings, an hour of confessions with one priest on Saturday mornings, and two hours of confessions with two priests before the vigil Mass on Saturday evenings. That’s six hours of confessions each week, which is more than I’ve seen anywhere else. Too boot, during Lent, we hear confessions each Friday evening after stations of the cross until all who come have been heard.
In the midst of this, there is the ongoing struggle in the celebration of the sacrament: the making of a good confession is in danger of becoming a lost art.
I don’t mean that people come to confession with anything other than an intent to apologize to God, but rather that often they misunderstand how to properly do so. With this in mind, I would like to offer five(-ish) suggestions to the would-be penitent who is preparing to make a good confession.
1. Spend some time doing a complete and faithful examination of conscience
In the sacrament of reconciliation, there is one prosecuting attorney: you. The confessor is there to help you, but the responsibility lies on you to probe your soul for faults and sinful inclinations. Come prepared to tell your sins; don’t force your confessor to imitate a dentist and do a root canal on your soul. Its painful for both of us!
(Remember, by the way, that part of that examination of conscience is how long its been since your last confession. Your confessor needs to know this along with your sins.)
The good news is that there are a great number of helpful guides to a faithful examination of conscience. EWTN offers a very thorough examination. If you’re blessed to own an iOS device (iPod Touch, iPhone or iPad), the Confession app by Little iApps has the equivalent that will provide a script you can read out!
2a. Tell ‘your sins, all of your sins, and nothing but your sins’
Pardon my bluntness, but it needs to be said: Confession is not a counseling session.
‘But Father!’, you say, ‘I need advice for the struggles that I have with these sins!’ Fair enough, and a good confessor will offer some brief advice. But that is not the purpose of confession. We come together in this sacrament for forgiveness. Counseling deserves its own time – particularly when we consider that there are folks in line waiting for that same forgiveness!
Some things to avoid spending time on in confession:
- re-telling your successes – Truly, it is heartening to know that God’s grace is working in your life. And we will briefly celebrate that at the end of confession in the proclamation of praise. But apart from that this is a distraction at its best and avoidance of true confession at its worst.
- speaking in generalities – ‘I lied, I lusted, I was prideful, I cheated, I was impatient’. Any of these could be sins of varying gravity and frequency, this isn’t a very thoughtful or whole-hearted offering. Be specific about your sins.
- giving your reasons – Sin is the commission of evil freely & knowingly. Its understandable that you may have had a rough time since your last confession, your kids are really getting to you or your marriage is going through turbulence. But there isn’t a reason in the world that justifies sin – and that’s what reasons offered try to express: justification. Its subtle and usually not directly intended, but break the habit. It makes for a better confession once overcome.
- talking about your doubts about the sinfulness of X action – Yes, contraception, masturbation, skipping Mass on Sunday and a whole slew of other actions are mortal sins. Its not a sin to struggle with these teachings, but if you aren’t going to honor them with a faithful confession while you work to understand, then you won’t be making a good confession. This is bad. As in, the makings for an invalid confession bad. Confess all the sins you’ve committed that you know are mortal, even if you’re not totally convinced that the Church is right about their gravity. Grace will provide for all things, in time, but worry about making a good confession for now.
2b. ‘Just the facts ma’am’… but some details make all the difference
The Code of Canon Law offers the reminder that a good confession requires both the confession of the kind of serious sin committed and the number of times it was committed. One doesn’t need to be graphic in explaining the sin or the occasions, simply specific.
If the sin confessed is gossiping about a neighbor, that is one thing. But gossiping about a neighbor every day for the past two months is another. Neither is good, but the latter is a more serious sin. Confessed improperly (without the detail of number), the seriousness is not properly expressed.
When in doubt, stick with the basics: tell the kind of sin and the number of times committed. You won’t go wrong.
3. Make sure you get the big stuff
Confession is first and foremost the opportunity for the forgiveness of mortal sin – take the time to recall them in your examination of conscience beforehand and then to confession them first.
Venial sins are forgiven in the worthy (no mortal sins allowed) reception of the Eucharist. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t confess them at confession, but that mortal sins – which can only be forgiven in the sacrament of reconciliation – need to be confessed above all.
And again, just because you’re not wholly convinced that something is a mortal sin doesn’t mean you get to opt out of confessing it. You’re Catholic, you’re celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation – confess the sin now and struggle with the reasoning later. God knows of your struggle and will continue to illumine you, but a bad confession… especially with regards to mortal sin … not only prevents absolution, but blockades the grace necessary for understanding.
4. Follow through
After your confession, the priest’s counsel and penance, finish the rite strong: say the act of contrition deliberately and prayerfully. Don’t rush through it – if you’ve gotten this far you’re already at the home stretch! Say it prayerfully.
(And do yourself a favor: memorize it)
After confession, the priest should offer the proclamation of praise of God – learn the response! The priest will say Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. Your response is simply His mercy endures for ever.
(Memorize that too).
5. Come back!
Finally, don’t let your confession be a quick layover between flights. Make it home – come regularly and especially when you’re aware of mortal sin. The Church reminds us that we are obliged to come at least once a year to confess grave sins, but seriously, who sins just once a year? Come once a month, or at least every other month (that’s a mere six times a year!). You’re not the worst person in the world to be sure, but face it, you’re not a saint yet.
If you come to confession faithfully, however, you have a great chance at being one.
your brother in Christ,