Note: this column is essentially a reprint of my column from a year ago. So many people found it helpful last year I thought I would reprint it this week.
While the Sacrament of Penance should be received regularly throughout the year it 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. And of course all this is at the heart of the Sacrament of Penance (or “Confession”, or “Reconciliation”).
But how do we make a “good confession”? We begin by prayerfully examining our lives to recognize the sins we’ve committed since our last confession, i.e., “making an examination of conscience.” This requires both honesty and humility—we must not kid, deceive or excuse ourselves about anything we’ve done.
In particular we need to look for mortal sins, i.e., a sin that involves 1) grave matter, 2) full knowledge of the sinful character of the act, and 3) complete consent. “Grave matter” means the act involves some very serious moral evil. While grave matter can sometimes be difficult to identify (some acts are gravely evil only in certain circumstances), but sometimes it is not. Clear examples of grave sin include (but are not limited to): violence (in word or deed) against parents, willful neglect of elderly parents (in serious need), murder, abortion, drunkenness, abandoning a spouse or children, remarriage after a divorce (without annulment), sexual activity before or outside of marriage, viewing pornography, masturbation, contraception, theft of valuable items, lying about important matters, missing Sunday or Holy Day Mass, receiving Holy Communion unworthily, perjury, cursing someone using God’s name, dabbling in occult practices or witchcraft.
Note that there are many “guides” available to help us with our examination of conscience (several are found in pamphlet form in the church).
Also, in confession you must distinguish the “kind” of mortal sin committed, i.e., you must be as clear as possible about what the sin was, although you should 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 vengeful thoughts,” or “I had lustful thoughts,” etc.
Also, you must give the number of times you committed particular mortal sins. Sometimes this can be problematic, especially when one has been away from the sacrament for a while. In that case, give the priest some clear idea of the frequency or number; for example, “at least once a month for several years,” etc.
Finally, we should also consider venial sins, especially any vices (sinful habits) we have formed, as well as any venial sins that are particularly problematic—perhaps they might lead us to mortal sins, or cause others unnecessary pain, etc.
Some folks ask me if they can take an actual written list of sins into confession. If that’s what it takes you to make a good confession, by all means do so.
Next comes going to confession. Over the years of my priesthood it’s become clear that many Catholics hesitate to go to confession simply because they’ve forgotten or never learned exactly how it’s done. So perhaps a review of details of how to go to confession might be helpful.
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. Its been [how long: 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.”
Then say: “These are my sins.”
o List by number and kind all mortal sins you have recollected in your examination of conscience.
o You may also describe the types of venial sins you have committed, and list any which are of particular concern to you.
o 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 sins, guilt or situation better. He may also give you advice or counsel as you are confessing.
The priest will then give you a “penance” to perform. (If for some reason you know that you cannot fulfill his penance you must tell him so, and he may give you another penance; this is sometimes the case with particular prayers which you do not know, or 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 confession 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.
I hope this has been helpful. Feel free to cut it out and take it with you to Confession. See you, or hear you, there.
Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles