- “Why go to confession? Can’t I just talk to God myself?”
- “It’s been so long. I don’t know what to do.”
- “I can’t tell the priest that stuff! It’s too embarrassing.”
- “I really don’t do anything that bad. I don’t have anything serious to confess.”
Perhaps one of the above statements expresses the way that you think.
I regularly encourage my parishioners to make a good, sacramental confession. Why? Simply stated, the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance (confession) is a grace-filled opportunity—an occasion to allow God’s very life to dwell in us more fully. Jesus gives us this sacrament so that we can be reconciled with God and with our fellow Christians in the Church. As Catholics, we believe that Jesus gave the power to forgive sin to the Church, initially through the Apostles. “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained." (John 20:23)
When the priest gives absolution, it is actually Christ who is forgiving sin through the instrument of the priest. The priest is a channel of God’s mercy, forgiveness, grace and love. This is a supernatural action which restores us back to our Baptismal innocence. In addition, the grace of the sacrament helps us in our struggle to resist sin in the future.
“But can’t I just go to God directly myself?” Maybe an example will help to shed some light on the situation.
Some years ago, I came down with what I thought was a really bad cold. No matter what I tried on my own I just couldn’t seem to get rid of it. Finally, I decided to see the doctor. After some tests, the doctor told me that I had pneumonia in my lung and prescribed the appropriate treatment. Maybe if I would have decided to handle it on my own, I risked getting worse and developing additional complications. I needed the expertise and guidance of someone who was trained to diagnose and treat this particular illness.
With sin, sometimes we need someone objective to look at the situation and recommend the appropriate action. In order to overcome sin, we need something more than what we alone can do. We need God’s grace. As priests, we are instruments of God’s grace in the sacraments.
Believe me, with time priests have heard it all—the good and the bad. So many times our joy comes from being able to bring someone closer to God and bringing peace to people’s lives. Those who frequent the sacrament surely understand what I mean. For those who may have been away from the sacrament for any significant amount of time, why not check it out?
- Examine your conscience thoroughly. Quietly think about what you did wrong.
- Begin by making the Sign of the Cross. While the revised rite may have changed some things, the traditional formula many people are accustomed to is: “Bless me (or forgive me), Father, for I have sinned. It has been (how long?) since my last confession. These are my sins . . . .”
- Confess all of the sins that you can remember. It is not necessary to worry about the number of times for venial (less serious) sins, BUT the number of times a mortal (deliberate and serious) sin is committed should be mentioned. This gives the priest an idea of the seriousness and frequency of the problem.
- If you are not sure if something is sinful, ask the priest to clarify it for you.
- Do not withhold any sin deliberately. The purpose of confession is to admit your sinfulness and to clear your conscience. To hold back sin defeats the purpose of confession. Remember that you speak to God through the priest. You really cannot hide anything from God. No matter how embarrassing something may be, trust that the priest will understand and is anxious to help you reconcile with God and the Church.
- Do not worry about unintentionally forgotten sins. It is usually a good practice to end confession in this manner: “For these and all of the sins of my past life which I cannot now remember, I am sorry.”
- Remember that going to confession means that you want to change for the better. There should be a purpose of amendment which means that you promise to try not to do the same things over again. Perhaps you may fall into sin again, but it important that you resolve to try to do better.
- The priest will give you some penance. The completion of the penance is part of the sacrament. If you do not do the penance, this should be confessed in your next confession.
- Pray an Act of Contrition*. (Sometimes during a Communal Penance Service this may be done together.) One or more versions is usually provided in the confessional. You may also use one that you know by heart or recite a prayer of sorrow in your own words.
- The priest will give absolution and then dismiss you. You can be confident that any sin told to a priest in confession is in strict confidence. The priest can never reveal the content of an individual’s confession so that any sin is equated to a particular person (canon 983). [The Seal of Confession is so sacred that if the priest violates it he can only be forgiven by the Pope himself (canon 1388) and the priest is not permitted to hear confessions again. The priest must even give up his life before breaking that seal. In addition, the priest may never use knowledge from confession against a person (canon 984).]
*Examples of the ACT OF CONTRITION:
Fr. Ed Namiotka