"Everyone who belongs to the Truth hears my voice…" (John 18:37)

A Confession Primer for Cradle Catholics (and the rest of us!)

I’ve come to love and appreciate the Sacrament of Reconciliation over the years, but it wasn’t always that way. For a long time, I suffered from “confession avoidance” and had all the accompanying excuses:

I don’t really need to go… I’ll feel embarrassed… I forget how this works… Confession? Who has time?… What do I even say??

The short lines outside confessionals these days say it all: I’m not alone. For whatever reason, it’s the one sacrament that even otherwise good, faithful Catholics feel it’s okay to skip. We’ll get married in the Church, be buried by the Church, and even take Communion each week, but we frequently put off going to confession.

I think sometimes we just don’t know or remember the language of confession. Or we get caught up in feelings – feeling awkward and uncomfortable admitting our faults, or else expecting to feel dramatically different afterwards and feeling disappointed when we don’t.

Whatever the reason, it’s time to rediscover the beauty of the sacrament, to open our hearts to God’s love and mercy. As our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has said repeatedly, “God always forgives us. He never tires of this. It’s we who become tired of asking for forgiveness.”1 Perhaps a little refresher will help us to see how incredibly important the sacrament is – and just how much we need it.

Who? Because of our frailty and weakness, we are all ‘susceptible’ to sin.2 Jesus knew this about us – how difficult it would be – and so provided a way to heal and strengthen us. Of course none of us wants to admit our failures, but how else will we overcome them?

As Matthew Kelly points out, not wanting to think about our weaknesses is a sign of mediocrity. “Great men and women want to know their weaknesses. They see those weaknesses as the key to a richer, more abundant future. Wouldn’t you rather have God deal with your weaknesses in private than have to deal with them in public?”3 Confession isn’t meant to be some kind of punishment – it’s a gift!

What do I say? Try to state your sins as simply and clearly as possible, without going into explicit details. If the priest needs more information, he’ll ask. Likewise, it may be tempting to want to explain or justify our actions, but this also isn’t necessary. God knows our motives and intentions – what’s truly in our hearts.

Some people mistakenly believe that they can confess just the sins they want to confess versus what they really need to confess. But what good will that do? It’s like going to the doctor when you’re sick but not telling him all your symptoms. There could be something seriously wrong, but he won’t be able to help you.4

Stop and think: What actions and attitudes have damaged my relationship with God and others? Have things like pride, greed, anger, envy, laziness, gluttony or lust crept in? If so, it doesn’t mean you’re a horrible person, just that you need to be more diligent in the way you live your life. Sadly, these ‘seven deadly sins’ cut us off from God; they “kill the life of sanctifying grace” within us. Sin isn’t like a traffic ticket, a mere infraction of the law; it’s a “failure to love the One who loves us.”5

Why bother? If we compare ourselves to those around us, we can begin to think, “I’m not doing so bad,” and then put off or even avoid going to confession altogether. Don’t make that mistake! Jesus is calling, just waiting for us to come to Him.

Sin puts up a barrier. It’s like trying to talk through walls: the words are faint, muffled, and unclear. We need God’s grace – His supernatural help – to guide our thoughts and actions, to do any good in this life. To be sure, our world has lost the sense of sin. But there’s no room for complacency in the life of a Christian.

When we avoid going to confession, we begin to absolve ourselves or assume we’re forgiven.6 God is gracious and loving, and wants nothing more than to take us back. But we must never be presumptuous or take His love for granted. If you’re not living the Church’s teachings or have skipped Mass, it’s essential to go to confession before starting to receive communion again.

When should I go? You don’t have to wait until the big stuff builds up to go to confession… Sometimes all the little stuff – what the Church calls ‘venial sin’ – can begin to weigh just as much. Chances are, anytime you feel uneasiness or unrest in your soul it’s because of sin.

Though Catholics are only required to confess serious sins once a year, why deny yourself all that grace?7 Practice makes perfect – and I don’t just mean making the “perfect” confession. You will grow in wisdom, humility and strength – all that you need to live a good and holy life. Many priests, therefore, suggest going at least once a month. And if you get into the habit of examining your conscience frequently, you won’t have trouble coming up with something to say.

Another good time to go? Before traveling. If my family and I are planning a trip, I insist everyone goes before taking off. Literally the best kind of travel insurance!

Where can I do this? Priests hear confessions on buses, in bunkers, on cruise ships, and in hospitals, so no place is exempt or off-limits. But the usual place is your local parish, either privately or during a parish penitential service.

Because it’s so important to be in a state of grace8 before receiving Holy Communion, pretty much every Catholic church will offer confession at least once a week, normally on Saturday afternoons before the Sunday Masses begin. Just check the bulletin or the church’s website for times, or make an appointment.

Many churches will offer confession two ways: behind a screen, or sitting face to face. If you prefer to remain anonymous, the screen is definitely the way to go. But don’t worry. The priest is bound “by the most absolute secrecy and confidentiality known to humankind.”9 If a screen isn’t available, it’s perfectly fine to close your eyes or avoid eye contact.

How to confess? Sometimes the old formulas work best. For Roman Catholics, that means beginning with “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…” and stating how long it’s been since your last confession. Then it’s just a matter of listing your sins by kind and number (e.g. “I was angry at my kids 3 times, I had impure thoughts once, I lied to my boss…”).10

But don’t get too hung up on formulas. The most important part is being truly sorry for your sins and wanting to reconcile with God. Which is why penance – prayers or other acts of reparation the priest suggests – and an act of contrition are so important. Even if you forget to mention a sin, it’s forgiven – just as long as you haven’t intentionally withheld it.

How to begin? Before going to confession, it’s important to take a few minutes to prepare. In other words, PRAY. As you review the past days and weeks, ask the Holy Spirit to reveal your faults and failings. If you find that you’re running through the Ten Commandments quickly and just checking off all the boxes, perhaps take it one step further and choose a passage from Scripture to reflect on, like St. Paul’s beautiful description of love from 1 Corinthians 13.

Some people like to make a list of questions based on their state in life (married, single, etc.), focusing on the areas in which they’d like to grow (e.g. virtues).11 There are many ways to examine your conscience, but in any case, the point is to see how well we’ve responded to Jesus’ command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and your neighbour as yourself.”12

That’s a tall order and it can be humbling to see ourselves as we truly are: weak, broken, disobedient, and downright arrogant. But rather than dwell on our sinfulness and failures, we must focus instead on God’s abundant love and mercy.13 In this way, we will come to see our Lord’s providential care for us, how even our failures can work for good.

– Kelley Holy

1 Pope Francis, Homily of January 23, 2015, Zenit [online news agency]; available from http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/pope-s-morning-homily-god-never-tires-of-forgiving-us; Internet; accessed 27 August 2015.

2 According to tradition, this inclination towards sin is called concupiscence, a ‘condition’ that remains with us even after baptism.

3 Matthew Kelly, Rediscover Catholicism (Beacon Publishing, 2010), 145.

4 Cf. Rev. John Trigilio, Jr., PhD, ThD and Rev. Kenneth Brighenti, PhD, Catholicism for Dummies (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, 2003), 125.

Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, “How to make your best Confession ever,” Catholic Herald [online newspaper]; November 7, 2012; available from  http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/features/2012/11/07/how-to-make-your-best-confession-ever/; Internet; accessed 15 August 2015.

6 Cf., Ibid.

7 There are six precepts that Catholics are obliged to follow:

*Attend Mass on all Sundays and holy days of obligation

*Receive the Holy Eucharist during Easter season

*Confess your sins at least once a year

*Fast and abstain on appointed days

*Observe the marriage laws of the Church

*Contribute to the support of the Church

[from Rev. John Trigilio, Jr., PhD, ThD and Rev. Kenneth Brighenti, PhD, Catholicism for Dummies (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, 2003), 179.]

8 Being in a state of grace means having no mortal sin on the soul; being in communion and friendship with God.

9 Rev. John Trigilio, Jr., PhD, ThD and Rev. Kenneth Brighenti, PhD, Catholicism for Dummies, 125.

10 Fr. Stephen Wang, A Way of Life for Young Catholics (London and San Francisco: Ignatius Press and the Catholic Truth Society, 2008), 49.

11 Here are some excellent questions to help you examine your conscience and prepare for confession: http://diopitt.org/short-guide-confession-sacrament-reconciliation-0

12 Luke 10:27

13 In fact, Pope John Paul II often referred to confession as the Sacrament of Mercy!


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