About the Sacrament of Reconciliation
"And behold some of the scribes said within themselves: He blasphemeth. And Jesus seeing their thoughts, said: Why do you think evil in your hearts? Whether is easier, to say, Thy sins are forgiven thee: or to say, Arise, and walk? But that you may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then said he to the man sick of palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go into thy house. And he arose, and went into his house. And the multitude seeing it, feared, and glorified God that gave such power to men." - Matthew 9:3-8
"Now when it was late that same day, the first of the week, and the doors were shut, where the disciples were gathered together, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them: Peace be to you. And when he had said this, he shewed them his hands and his side. The disciples therefore were glad, when they saw the Lord. He said therefore to them again: Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you. When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained." - John 20:19-23
"The tears of the penitents are wine for the angels." -- St. Bernard
The Sacrament of Penance is such a gift! It can be very hard to do -- it can be intimidating, embarrassing -- but once absolution is given, you will walk out of that confessional feeling like a trillion bucks. Christ, in His most Holy Wisdom, gave us this precious Sacrament to literally and truly bestow His grace upon us through His priests as a means of forgiving us and assuring us of His mercy and love for us. This psychological benefit of "feeling assured" and "clean again" stems not only from the supernatural fruits of the Sacrament, but from our human nature and our need to purge ourselves of those things that plague our consciences. Christ, the Great Physician, knows us well and knows that "confession is good for the soul," in both a supernatural and psychological sense. As G.K. Chesterton wrote:
When a Catholic comes from confession, he does truly, by definition, step out into that dawn of his own beginning... in that brief ritual God has really remade him in His own image. He may be grey and gouty; but he is only five minutes old.
I have talked to many people who've been terrified to go to Confession; all I can say is be a brave soldier and buck up and "just do it." Christ Himself wants this of you, so just resolve to do the right thing. Millions of Catholics over the course of 2,000 years have braved the "little dark box" (at least metaphorically; though Confession has been around since Day 1, the Confessional is a 7th. century Irish gift to the Church); you can, too. Priests have heard it all, trust me, and nothing you say can ever be repeated to anyone in any way that could identify you -- not to the police, not to another priest, not to anyone (a priest is automatically excommunicated if he were to violate the Seal of Confession)!
And if you're worried because you're "new at this," that's okay! It's okay to be nervous, it's okay to be afraid because this is something new and different to you. And it's okay to tell the priest how you feel. Just let him know it's your first Confession; he will put you at ease and help you through it and be so glad you've come to receive the graces our Lord wants to pour out on you!
It's not as scary as it seems to so many people. Really. But if you're still afraid, take a deep breath, pray for strength, go to Confession and receive His wonderful mercy! You will not regret it, I promise you!
If you've just been validly baptized, you don't need Confession, because Baptism wipes away all guilt of sin (and the temporal effects of sin, by the way). If, however, you were validly baptized years ago and are just now coming to this Sacrament for the first time, you might want to schedule an appointment with your priest to make what's known as a "General Confession," which includes sins of one's entire life, since it might take a bit longer than usual (do the same if you are a returning Catholic and haven't been to Confession for many, many years). "General Confessions" are also often made before before marriage or ordination.
The steps to Confession are:
I will go through each of these in detail below.
Before we get to the church, we mentally review our sins and determine what needs to be confessed. There are various methods of doing this, but one good way is to consider your Duties to God, Church, family, society and to yourself to see where you've failed to honor them.
A Catholic is required to go to Confession once a year (during Lent) and also at any time of the year he has mortal sin on his soul (is "not in a state of grace"), especially if he desires to receive the Eucharist. But weekly -- at least monthly -- Confessions are encouraged.
The Sacrament is usually offered before Mass (see parish or chapel bulletin, parish website, or call your parish's office), at least on weekends. You can also call your priest to set up an appointment for the Sacrament (for "just reason" only, you have the option of receiving the Sacrament face to face, outside of the Confessional, but this is not standard and should not be treated as though it is). Be warned, though, that because of the Modernism attacking the Church, many Novus Ordo priests treat this Sacrament as, at best, "a little chat" (especially in the too common "face to face" confessions) or, worse, as nothing at all and so simply don't offer it frequently enough or allow only 15 minutes for the Confessions of an entire parish before Mass. Some fail to follow the proper form so as to render your Confession invalid! The solution to these problems is: find another parish or a chapel with a traditional priest and traditional Mass. Fast.
What Penance is: it is the Sacramental pardoning of the eternal effects of our sins for which we are truly contrite. It is effected by Christ, Who paid their eternal wages with His Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension, through His priests using proper form. Through the Sacrament, Christ gives us not only forgiveness, but grace to remain steadfast.
What Penance is not: psychotherapy. While the priest may give you some direction and advice in the Confessional, if you have general problems or spiritual issues you want to discuss, you should set an appointment to talk with him. This is especially true at a Confession before Mass where people are in line behind you and time is short.
Contrition is willful regret for one's sins. It isn't a matter of one's "feelings" of guilt, but of conviction of the evil of sin and the resolution to sin no more. In other words, contrition is rooted in the will, not in the emotions. For example, some people are more emotional than others: some get a case of the "scruples" and feel shame or guilt over any little thing, whether it's sin or not; others can have committed murder and never "wallow" in guilt but are still truly contrite. The one is not necessarily more "holy" or making a better Confession than the other. What matters is their conviction -- their will to offend God no more, and their resolution to make reparations as far as possible, do their penance, and patiently bear the temporal effects of their sins. Without contrition, Confession is not valid.
"Imperfect Contrition" (also called "attrition") is regret out of fear of God's just punishments for sin; "Perfect Contrition" is regret for having offended God. We must always strive for the latter, which always absolves sin in itself if it is coupled with the will to also receive the Sacrament.
One of the keys to confession is the desire to be rid of all of one's sins. If this is your will, if this is your desire, if you are willing to confess all of your sins and do your penance and resolve to sin no more, then your sins will be forgiven -- all of them, even those you may have truly forgotten about. But don't kid yourself, either, and think you can skip mentioning this sin or that one because you're embarrassed. Don't lie to yourself, to your priest, or to God, by omission.
When the Sacrament is typically offered: before Masses, Saturday afternoons, and by appointment.
When you get to the church at the time the Sacrament is offered, you may or may not find a line of people standing or lined up in a pew outside the Confessional. Just take your place in line, keeping a wide berth of the Confessional itself if it is occupied by a fellow penitent. Please note that it is very rude to be near the Confessional when someone else is using it! Though I've never overheard anyone in the Confessional, it could feasibly happen. If this were to happen, the one who overhears should take all steps to not hear, and should never, ever repeat anything he might have heard.
Some confessionals have a green light shining when a priest is ready and available in the Confessional, and a red light shining when someone is in the Confessional with him, receiving the Sacrament. Others don't. In any case, when it's your turn, enter the Confessional and kneel. You may barely see the priest on the other side of the grille (the screen which separates you).
When you are ready to begin, make the Sign of the Cross and say, in a whisper, but loud enough so he can hear you:
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It is (X days, weeks, months, years) since my last Confession. I accuse myself of the following sins.
You then name the sins you need to confess, indicating, in the case of mortal sins, how many times you've committed them. If you're unsure of exact numbers -- but only if you are unsure -- tell him "about how many" times you've committed the sin. Ex., "I've lied to my mother twice, I stole a candy bar from work once, I've had lustful thoughts too many times to count, etc."
Don't go into a lot of detail, don't name other people who may have sinned with you, but do tell him what he needs to know in order to understand relevant circumstances of the particular sins -- that is, circumstances that might mitigate your culpability or make you more culpable. For example, telling him about stealing a loaf of bread because you were starving will elicit a different penance and spiritual direction than if you tell him you stole a stack of money because you wanted to buy some porn. If you are unsure as to whether a particular act was a sin, tell him. As you speak, he may stop you to ask you questions for clarification.
When you are finished, indicate so by saying something like the following traditional words:
For these and all the sins of my past life, I ask pardon of God, penance, and absolution from you, Father.
Don't panic if you later recall sins you forgot to confess: remember that if you were willing to confess them but simply forgot, they are forgiven if you will to confess them the next time you go.
Now the priest will give you penance to help you pay for the temporal effects of your sins. He might ask you to say certain prayers (the old "Say three Hail Marys"), he may ask you to read certain parts of Scripture. If there is restitution to be made, he might ask you to do so. Whatever he asks you to do, accomplish it as soon as possible after leaving the Confessional.
Now you will make an Act of Contrition to express your sorrow at having offended God and resolving to sin no more. The traditional way of doing this is to recite aloud the prayer called "Act of Contrition":
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all because they offend 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 avoid the near occasions of sin. Amen.
If you have a hard time memorizing (which is OK!), you can pray aloud using your own words to the same effect -- i.e., expressing your contrition for having displeased God and resolving to sin no more and avoid the near occasions of sin -- but you should try to memorize the traditional Act of Contrition and teach it to your children. You can also have the prayer written out or on a Holy Card to carry with you in the Confessional. (Note: a "near occasion of sin" is a situation in which you are likely to sin. For ex., going to the mall might be a "near occasion of sin" for a kleptomaniac who hasn't learned to control his behavior; keeping company alone with a girl he is extremely attracted to in a sexual way might be a near occasion of sin for a man, etc.)
Now comes the good part (it may come as you make your Act of Contrition, so don't be confused if the priest starts whispering in Latin as you pray): Christ, through His priest, grants you absolution in a form that includes the words below. Without the words in italics (the very form of the Sacrament), the Sacrament is not valid:
May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you; and by His authority I absolve you from every bond of excommunication and interdict, so far as my power allows and your needs require. [making the Sign of the Cross:] Thereupon, I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
He will pray a prayer for you:
May the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of all the saints obtain for you that whatever good you do or whatever evil you bear might merit for you the remission of your sins, the increase of grace and the reward of everlasting life.
The Sacrament is now complete. The priest will dismiss you, perhaps with a final blessing. Thank him, cross yourself, and leave the Confessional. (If it is before Mass and people were in line behind you, it is kind to give the priest an idea as to how many people are awaiting Confession).
As soon as possible, carry out the penance you were given. Do all you can to avoid near occasions of sin, to bear patiently the temporal effects of the sins you've committed, to make restitution to anyone you've harmed. You may add penances of your own devising to the one(s) the priest gave you.
Rejoice and be grateful! Consider what has been done for you! Savor the sweet knowledge that you are forgiven. Praise the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world! He has said the word, and you have been healed!
Now you must imitate Christ by forgiving others as you have been forgiven:
Thus therefore shall you pray: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our supersubstantial bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from evil. Amen. For if you will forgive men their offences, your heavenly Father will forgive you also your offenses. But if you will not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive you your offenses.
Consider the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant:
Then came Peter unto him and said: Lord, how often shall my brother offend against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith to him: I say not to thee, till seven times; but till seventy times seven times. Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened to a king, who would take an account of his servants. And when he had begun to take the account, one was brought to him, that owed him ten thousand talents. And as he had not wherewith to pay it, his lord commanded that he should be sold, and his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.
But that servant falling down, besought him, saying: Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And the lord of that servant being moved with pity, let him go and forgave him the debt. But when that servant was gone out, he found one of his fellow servants that owed him an hundred pence: and laying hold of him, throttled him, saying: Pay what thou owest. And his fellow servant falling down, besought him, saying: Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he paid the debt.
Now his fellow servants seeing what was done, were very much grieved, and they came and told their lord all that was done. Then his lord called him; and said to him: Thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all the debt, because thou besoughtest me: Shouldst not thou then have had compassion also on thy fellow servant, even as I had compassion on thee? And his lord being angry, delivered him to the torturers until he paid all the debt. So also shall my heavenly Father do to you, if you forgive not every one his brother from your hearts.
Think of those against whom you hold grudges. Consider vengeful feelings you might have, or any petty ways you strike back at or undermine others. Make peace with those you've wronged; forgive those who've wronged you. This doesn't mean to be stupid, to "forget" that you've been wronged, or to allow yourself to be abused. It means simply letting go of anger and vengeance, and praying that the evil-doers stop doing their evil and come to Christ.
One other way the grace
of the Sacrament of Penance may be received
As indicated above, perfect contrition absolves sin in itself. Thus, if one is sorry for one's sins but is trapped on a desert island without a priest, one needn't fear being damned if unable to confess in the normal way. We are bound by the Sacraments; God is not, and has many ways of pouring out His grace to us!
Perfect contrition, though, includes the desire to obey God and not offend Him further -- and God wants us to confess our sins to a priest. Therefore, if one can, one must go to Confession if there is a mortal sin to confess, or at least once a year. If one is unable to confess in the normal way, but would confess in the normal way if it were possible, then merciful God provides.
"General Absolution" such as is given in "communal penance services" in which a priest "absolves" an entire group of their sins is highly illicit unless it is a serious emergency (you're all on the Titanic, you're a group of soldiers getting ready to go into battle, etc.) If you are in a group that receives such an "absolution," you are still required to go to individual Confession if it is at all possible.
If, for serious and just reason, you need to make a Confession to a priest outside of a Confessional, kneel and carry on as above. The priest might lay his stole on your shoulder as you confess.
Confession of venial sins to laymen is a sacramental and has the same power to remit sins as does the use of such things as Holy Water. The practice is also healing to human relationships, so if you've sinned against someone, confess your sorrow to him in addition to confessing to your priest! There is a beautiful Lenten custom practiced before going to see the priest for Lenten Confession: one bows before each member of the household and to any one has sinned against, and says, "In the Name of Christ, forgive me if I've offended you." The one being asked for forgiveness responds with "God will forgive you." This lovely practice doesn't have to be for Lent only...
For inspiration, read how Christ forgives from the Cross (Luke 23:33-34), the story of Mary Magdalen, the Parable of The Two Debtors (Luke 7:36-50), and the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). See also St. Ephraem's "Homily on the Sinful Woman."