Catholics ask this question all the time. It comes from teens and adults alike, guys and gals. Confession has got to be the one thing in the Church that stops everyone cold and gets you to looking for an excuse to bow out. It’s not just Catholics, either. My Protestant friends do a fair bit of squirming when I so much as mention the Sacrament of Reconciliation. “Why would you wanna do that?!” they ask me. “Kneel in the box and tell the priest everything you’ve done wrong? That’s just crazy. I’ll ask God for forgiveness, but I’m not ABOUT to tell another human being what I’ve done!”. Confession, for some reason, seems to be an issue for most people.
But I’ll tell you one thing I’ve noticed. I get on the internet quite a bit and answer questions about the Catholic Church on several different sites. You know what I’ve seen? Confessions. A lot of them. I’ve seen people from all different faith backgrounds posting their sins all over the internet, but I pay close attention when I see another Catholic doing this. You know what they’re looking for? Advice. Help. Always advice and help. And they turn to the internet. Why? Well, I have a theory. We human beings seem to have this thing about us: when we do something wrong, we don’t want to tell anyone at first. After a while though, it really starts to bug us. We can’t escape it–unless, of course, we tell another person, someone we trust. Then we feel like the burden has been lifted from our shoulders and we can go on with our lives. For some reason, after we’ve voiced whatever it is that we’ve done wrong, we are free.
So…would you rather tell the whole world via Facebook, or your priest, who acts as God’s representative?
Confession is actually not that terrifying…and it isn’t meant to be a scary encounter, either. We have turned this sacrament into something that is to be avoided because we’re scared: scared of admitting our faults to ourselves, terrified of confessing them to another person, and (I think) afraid that we’ll be judged by the priest. And I totally understand that because I do the same thing. But I think the underlying reason for our hesitation isn’t some traumatic fear–it’s pride. We’re too proud to acknowledge our sins personally and we’re certainly too proud to admit them to another human being.
Then what can we do? I’ve got a few ideas.
1. Calm down! There’s no sense in feeling like we’re walking to our death when we go to Confession. Try being silent before receiving this Sacrament. Clear your mind and take some deep breaths…no, seriously. I’ve walked into Confession with my heart going ninety miles a minute before. But trust me, once you’re in the confessional, you won’t be nearly as stressed out.
2. Remember who you’re talking to.So you walk in, and there’s the priest. But remember that it is Christ who absolves you through the person of the priest. You are speaking to Christ and admitting your faults to Him.
3. Don’t worry! Worried that you’ll be the topic of conversation the next time the priests get together for coffee? Not gonna happen. A priest is bound by the seal of the confessional to never reveal what is said during Reconciliation by a penitent. That and, let’s face it, you’re not the only person going to Confession. Your priest is not going to remember the details of each confession he hears. So don’t worry about it!
That’s all fine and good…but what do you do when you go to Confession?
The first thing you’ll want to do is a thorough examination of conscience, which is normally done by going through the Ten Commandments. By doing this, you see where your life strays from God’s Law. Anything that you observe from this should be confessed. You can find a good form (a sort of walk-through) of examination of conscience here.
So, that’s how you prepare. Now let’s get to the structure of the sacrament.
When you walk into the confessional, you will normally be able to either sit down and face the priest or kneel behind a panel/curtain. Choose whichever makes you more comfortable. After you’ve made your choice, this is more or less what will happen:
Priest: (making Sign of the Cross; you will make the Sign of the Cross with him) In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Penitent: Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been (however long it has been) since my last confession.
Now, you confess any sins you have committed. After that, you might also wish to ask your priest for advice if there is one sin in particular that you struggle with. For example, you might say, “Father, I’ve really been struggling with the sin of pride. Do you have any advice that could help me?”.
Priest: He will now give you a penance and ask you to say the Act of Contrition.
Note: There are different forms of the Act of Contrition. You can say one of these, or you can simply express your contrition (sorrow for sin) in your own words. Below, I’ll give the most common form of the Act of Contrition. Some parishes have a copy of this prayer in the confessional.
Penitent: O my God, I am sorry for my sin with all of my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against You, Whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with Your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In His Name, my God, have mercy.
Priest: The priest will now absolve you of your sins. It is appropriate to bow your head as he does this. Here is one of the absolution prayers: God the Father of Mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son, has brought forgiveness of sin to the world. Through the ministry of the Church, I grant you pardon and absolution for your sin in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You should make the Sign of the Cross here.
After you are dismissed, you might thank the priest before you leave as well.
So, that’s how it goes. Some priests add a few extra things in there, some don’t. Just remember: if you get lost, don’t be afraid to ask your priest to guide you through it. He’ll help you out.
But why go in the first place? Well, for one thing, (1) Confession is a humbling experience. It forces us to step out of our comfort zones and push aside our pride as we acknowledge our faults in front of another person. (2) Confession is also a great way to prepare to receive the Eucharist. Absolved of the stain of our sins, we can then receive the Lord into our hearts as He deserves to be received. (3) This sacrament also provides a place for us to get the weight of sin off our chests and to ask for the advice of our priests. You know, the priest is there to help you, and he’s willing to help you. So let him! Tell your priest everything you’ve done that you need to confess and then let him guide you.