One reason that Catholics sometimes stay away from the Sacrament of Confession is that they have forgotten how to go. After all, they may have received their “training” on how to go to Confession in second grade! This is an understandable hesitation, but Reconciliation has a surprisingly simple format.
Confession really begins before you walk into the confessional. First, it is important to take some time to spiritually and mentally prepare for Confession. There are many aids or pamphlets out there which can help us call to mind our sins and our need for God’s mercy. Very simply, we can call to mind the Ten Commandments as a simple examination of conscience, which means that we think about our life and remember the ways in which we have gone against our conscience or God’s Law. These are things we need to take to Confession. Many people (myself included) find it helpful to write down a list of things to be confessed. Oftentimes going to Confession, I get nervous and forget what I need to confess in the moment. Just make sure that you throw this list away when Confession is over! Before going to Confession, St. Faustina recommends that we say a prayer for the priest, that he may listen to the Holy Spirit and give good counsel.
The penitent (the one going to Confession) or the priest can begin with the Sign of the Cross. Then the penitent indicates how much time has passed since their last Confession. This helps to provide some context for what is about to be confessed. Then, simply list your sins. It’s best to be brief and to the point. We are required to confess any mortal sins, but we are encouraged to confess venial sins also, if we have time. (See last week’s article for the distinction between these two types of sin.) This is a place to confess your own sins, not your spouse’s or your friend’s. It can be helpful to give a few sentences of background information for certain things, but it’s good to avoid long stories and get to the point. To conclude, you can simply say, “That’s all, Father.” Some people like to say, “For these and all the sins of my past life I am truly sorry.” After this, the priest will offer some words of encouragement and counsel. He also might ask a clarifying question.
Then, the priest will assign you some sort of penance to complete after you leave the confessional. In confession, all our sins are forgiven, but it does not correct all the disorder that sin has brought into our life. A penance is usually simple, such as saying some prayers, and it begins to correct what sin has damaged in our spiritual lives. The best penances correspond to what the penitent is dealing with in their life. The priest will ask you to pray the Act of Contrition, which can be said from memory or from a prayer aid. The priest then prays the prayer of absolution, which he has authority to do by his priestly ordination. Finally, he dismisses the penitent with words such as, “Your sins are forgiven; go in peace.”
Very simply, when you walk through the Confessional door, simply come with a contrite heart ready to confess your sins. The priest will walk you through the rest of the process. Most of all, learn to develop a deep trust in God’s mercy, knowing that Jesus paid a great price to forgive our sins. The number one obstacle to coming to Confession is shame, but Confession is actually the best place to have our shame taken away. The confessional is a tribunal of mercy and a place of true encounter with Jesus through the sacraments.