As we continue with our Lenten penances, I republish this column slightly modified from previous years, since it seems to have been helpful to many of you…
While the Sacrament of Penance (or “Confession”, or “Reconciliation”) is particularly important during Lent, as we meditate on both on the sins that permeate our lives and the forgiveness Christ pours out on us from His Cross.
But how do we make a “good confession”? We begin by prayerfully looking at our lives to recognize the sins we’ve committed since our last confession, i.e., “an examination of conscience.” This requires both honesty and humility—we must not deceive or excuse ourselves about anything we’ve done.
In particular we need to look for mortal sins, i.e., a sin that involves all three of the following criteria: 1) grave matter, 2) full knowledge of the sinful character of the act, and 3) complete consent. Note, if any one of these is lacking the act is not a “mortal sin” (although may still be a “venial sin.”)
“Grave matter” means the act involves some very serious moral evil, found either in 1) the act itself or 2) the intention behind the act. Grave matter can sometimes be difficult to identify, but sometimes it is not. Clear examples of grave matter include (but are not limited to): violence (in word or deed) against parents; children disobeying parents in a serious matter; neglect of elderly parents (in serious need); serious parental neglect or abuse of their children (including neglecting proper formation in the Catholic faith or unnecessary postponement of the sacraments, especially baptism); murder; abortion; euthanasia; drunkenness; denying just and serious assistance to family members; abandoning a spouse or children; remarriage after a divorce (without annulment); sexual activity before or outside of marriage (including “petting”); viewing pornography; masturbation; contraception; direct intentional sterilization (including vasectomies and tubal ligations); theft of valuable items; unjustly or unnecessarily and seriously damaging reputations; lying about important matters; perjury; cursing someone using God’s name; “dabbling” in occult practices or witchcraft; willful dissent from Church doctrine or dogma; serious and unjust infringements on religious liberty; serious and unjust discrimination; missing Mass on a Sunday or Holy Day; receiving Holy Communion unworthily; direct material cooperation in another’s mortal sin (e.g., paying for a friend’s abortion; voting for a pro-abortion politician when a viable alternative existed); directly leading another into mortal sin.
Note that there are many “guides” available to help us with our examination of conscience (several are found in pamphlet form in the church, and several are available online and as “apps” for smart phones).
Also, in confession you must distinguish the “kind” of mortal sin committed, i.e., be as clear as possible about what the sin was, but refrain from being graphic or giving long explanations. So it is not enough to say “I had bad thoughts,” rather one should say “I had thoughts of violence,” or “I had lustful thoughts,” etc.. \
Also, you must give the number of times you committed particular mortal sins. Sometimes this is difficult to do, e.g., if you haven’t been to confession in a while. In that case, give the priest some idea of the frequency or number; for example, “at least once a month for several years,” etc..
Besides mortal sins, we should also consider venial sins, especially any vices (sinful habits) or other venial sins that are particularly problematic—perhaps they lead to mortal sins, or cause others unnecessary pain, etc..
Next comes going to confession. Here’s a step-by-step guide you may cut out and take with you to Confession:
A Guide for the Penitent in Confession.
You may go to Confession kneeling or sitting, anonymously behind-a-screen or “face-to-face”—these are usually your options, although the priest has the right to require anonymous confession.
After greeting the priest, you begin by making the sign of the cross saying:
“In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
The priest may invite you to confess your sins, but he may remain silent, in which case you go on.
You say these or similar words:
“Bless me father, for I have sinned. It’s been [number of days, weeks, months, years] since my last confession.”
It is then helpful to reveal your “state in life”: e.g., “I am a married man,” etc…
Then say: “These are my sins.”
List by number and kind all mortal sins you have recollected in your examination of conscience.
You may also describe the types of venial sins you have committed, and list any which are of particular concern to you.
Close with these are similar words:
“For these sins, and all my sins, I am truly sorry.”
The priest may ask you some questions to understand your situation better. He may also give you advice/counsel as you are confessing.
The priest then gives you a “penance” to perform. If you know you can’t fulfill his penance, tell him so he can give you another penance; (sometimes you don’t know the particular prayer, or you have limitations due to physical impediment).
You then make an Act of Contrition, in these or similar words:
“Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee, and I detest all my sins because of thy just punishment; but most of all because I have offended thee, My God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin. Amen.”
Either during or immediately after your prayer the priest will say the prayer of absolution which concludes with the words (as he makes the sign of the cross):
“I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
You make the sign of the cross and respond: Amen.
The priest will then say a dismissal to which you respond, using one or both of the following:
Priest: “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good.”
You respond: “His mercy endures forever.”
Priest: “Go in peace.”
You respond: “Thanks be to God.”
As you are leaving the confessional it is polite to say, “Thank you, Father.” Leave the confessional and do your penance as soon as possible, immediately in church if you can.
Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles