Fr. Z’s 20 Tips For Making A Good Confession – A review

Since it is Lent again, and many of you are (I hope) determined to develop the good practice of making a regular and frequent confession.  It is therefore opportune to repost my 20 Tips for Making a Good Confession.  They have been zipping around the internet for years, but some of you may not have seen them yet.

Fr. Z’s 20 Tips For Making A Good Confession

We should…

  1) …examine our consciences regularly and thoroughly;
  2) …wait our turn in line patiently;
  3) …come at the time confessions are scheduled, not a few minutes before they are to end;
  4) …speak distinctly but never so loudly that we might be overheard;
  5) …state our sins clearly and briefly without rambling;
  6) …confess all mortal sins in number and kind;
  7) …listen carefully to the advice the priest gives;
  8) …confess our own sins and not someone else’s;
  9) …carefully listen to and remember the penance and be sure to understand it;
10) …use a regular formula for confession so that it is familiar and comfortable;
11) …never be afraid to say something "embarrassing"… just say it;
12) …never worry that the priest thinks we are jerks…. he is usually impressed by our courage;
13) …never fear that the priest will not keep our confession secret… he is bound by the Seal;
14) …never confess "tendencies" or "struggles"… just sins;
15) …never leave the confessional before the priest has finished giving absolution;
16) …memorize an Act of Contrition;
17) …answer the priest’s questions briefly if he asks for a clarification;
18) …ask questions if we can’t understand what he means when he tells us something;
19) …keep in mind that sometimes priests can have bad days just like we do;
20) …remember that priests must go to confession too … they know what we are going through.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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30 Responses to Fr. Z’s 20 Tips For Making A Good Confession – A review

  1. Anna says:

    Dear Fr. Z.,

    Thank you for these tips. I seek a clarification or, perhaps, an elaboration of #14, which I think is the most valuable piece of advice of the 20 but, unfortunately, I have trouble executing. E.g., on a fairly regular basis I “confess” a tendency (although I do not use that word) to use alcohol to dull the affects of a busy, demanding, often stressful household of kids and husband between the hours of 6 p.m.-8p.m. Now, I very rarely consume more than two units of alcohol, I continue to execute my duties as a wife and mother, and though I give up alcohol in Lent and miss it, it is not for me a MAJOR burden to do so. Nevertheless, I feel that the way I use alcohol on those evenings, and the way that it leads me, from time to time, to snap at the kids in a way that is less than helpful, or to head for bed right away after putting the kids to bed instead of doing some spiritual reading or finishing outstanding email, means that I feel it is a topic to bring up in the confessional. What is being confessed here? How not to fall into the trap that you speak of in #14? I can think of other places in my confession where I might fall into that trap, but the illustration I give seems to be the most concrete.

    Thank you.

  2. Fr Z:

    Thanks for this. I especially love the “confess your own sins, not those of others”!

  3. Impressed by our courage? I wish more confessors were. It’s hard to confess something serious to anybody, never mind when they turn on you. And I don’t mean mere correction, I mean tearing into a penitent. Any priest reading this knows exactly what I’m talking about, and doesn’t have to guess my one tip for them. If there is admission of guilt, and a determination for amendment, they don’t need to be kicked around.

  4. Sharon says:

    I have never had a priest ‘tear into me’ nor have I ever heard of a priest doing
    this. I can only imagine David if this happens to you on a regular basis with diffferent priests you must be having a run of insensitive priests.

  5. Andrew says:

    I think, and I could be very wrong, but I think that it is a good idea to keep in mind that confession is not psychotherapy. Confession is a sacrament. An outward sign of an inner grace. It is an encounter with Christ. It is a sacrament of divine mercy. Therefore, one should make an effort to keep it simple, uncluttered. Not easy because we are not machines. The tendency is there always, I think, to analyze and basically to pity and to excuse oneself.

  6. Melody says:

    Andrew wrote:
    “I think, and I could be very wrong, but I think that it is a good idea to keep in mind that confession is not psychotherapy. Confession is a sacrament. An outward sign of an inner grace. It is an encounter with Christ. It is a sacrament of divine mercy. Therefore, one should make an effort to keep it simple, uncluttered. Not easy because we are not machines. The tendency is there always, I think, to analyze and basically to pity and to excuse oneself.”

    Very true, however, there is also a modern tendency to mistake psychotherapy for the confessional, so one must be careful with a broad statement. Many people today are in place of hurt and despair caused by their sins, yet so few actually go to recieve absolution. Instead they go to a psychologist who can diagnose their emotional problems(like depression and low self esteem) but cannot give them the healing of forgiveness, nor the actual spiritual guidance they need.
    There are also certain unhealthy lifestyles which promote mental illness and which need the dual help of the confessor and psychologist, but for personal or cultural reasons, the confessor is the only one contacted. Not a few rehab and psych patients are referred by their clergy. Marriage counseling has become a church ministry in many areas because of the
    great need.

  7. John Polhamus says:

    We seem to have gone through a period here in San Diego in the past couple of years, that quite a number of priests were declining to assign pennances. I took it up with one of Auxiliary bishops actually, who didn’t really come down on one side or another. But there is one priest who I have had to go to on occaision out of proximity and constraint of time, who when I asked him if he was going to assign me a pennance, simply replied, “No.” He offers no advice, and goes straight to an absolution.

    In fact, he seems to have become even more intransigent over the issue, having been faced with a similar situation a couple of years ago, when a friend of mine emerged from the Sala de Reconcilicion, stopped, looked rather puzzled, turned around, went back in, stood in front of the Father and said, “Father, you didn’t give me a pennance.” No,” he replied, “I didn’t.” “Well,” said my friend, “I want one.” I think he got an “Our Father.”

    Frankly, I’m not sure, since satisfaction is a condition of fulfillment of the sacrament, that this priests confessions are entirely valid. Any opinions?

  8. John Polhamus says:

    By the way, I tend to type rather quickly, and I’m admittedly not the most reliable speller in the world, though I generally like to chalk it up to a preference for pre-Johnsonian non-standardized English usage. Just thought I’d try to justify some of my more venial literary offences.

  9. Melody says:

    John Polhamus- I’m no theologian, but a priest I know once explained to me that according to the doctrine of the church, a sacrament is valid as long as it is performed correctly, regardless of the individual faith of the priest. The question then is whether giving a penance is a required or optional part of the sacrament.

    I would guess that the answer to this is possibly in the negative, although I do believe doing penance serves the spiritual life and ought to be assigned by your priest.

  10. John Polhamus says:

    Melody: Canon 981 states, “The confessor is to impose salutary and appropriate penances, in proportion to the kind and number of sins confessed, taking into account, however, the condition of the penitent. The penitent is bound personally to fulfil these penances.”

    Leaving aside the issue of offering council or advice, which does not seem to be addressed specifically, the non-imposition is not the same as a “light” penance, it is the omission of a part of the sacrament. I mean even if he said, “Make a good act of contrition and let that be your penance,” that would be one thing. But to not even require an act of contrition would also seem to get at lack of form in Canon 980, which says “If the confessor is in no doubt about the penitent’s disposition…” How can he ascertain contrition unless it is expressed? This is in turn dependant on Canon 979 which begins “When asking questions the priest is to proceed with prudence and discretion, taking into account the age and disposition of the penitent…” I’m not saying that he has to grill anybody, but when you’re dealing with a forty-year-old, you don’t have to be too delicate. At least, not SO delicate that you omit to probe the case at all, even to ascertain contrition. So there is the canonical basis for my concern. Does that make sense to anybody else?

  11. Elaine T says:

    #4 is important. I was once in line for Confession and could hear every word the guy before me in the confessional was saying. After a minute, I banged on the door and said loudly “I can hear you!” After which he got a little quieter, and I moved farther away. I didn’t really want him to know who it was who’d banged.

    Also, that church often has Confessions going on during the Mass, so being loud disrupts the Mass, too.

  12. RBrown says:

    I think it’s important that priests realize that sin is forgiven through absolution–not by them tearing into a penitent nor offering sympathy.

  13. Elaine: Sometimes this is a difficulty with people hard of hearing.

  14. Melody says:

    “Melody: Canon 981 states, “The confessor is to impose salutary and appropriate penances, in proportion to the kind and number of sins confessed, taking into account, however, the condition of the penitent. The penitent is bound personally to fulfil these penances.””

    Thank you very much for this correction, John. I was under the mistaken impression that penance is not required for venial sins.

    Perhaps this can underscore the great need for better catechism? My classes did to help me spiritually in dealing with my teenage angst and low self esteem, but not so much with doctrine.

  15. John Polhamus says:

    Melody: Don’t think I’m claiming to be a cannonist either, I just happen to own a copy (with commentary) so I looked it up when this problem came to light. I’m just wondering if anyone else has had similar problems or noticed similar trends (or corrections thereof) in the confessionals of their areas. As I say, I took it up with my bishop, and he took a reductionist view opining that the confession could be considered a pennance, or that there was indeed a difference between non-imposition and omission of form. I don’t quite see it myself. The way I read it, if absolution is granted then a sin had to have been committed; and if it was, pennance is required, or no absolution should be given. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but the cannon seems pretty clear, and Fr. Negligent seems to be deliberately abusing the sacrament.

  16. Choose a confessor wisely.

    Some priests are wonderful, others are truly horrible.

    If you have a bad experience at the confessional, it is not the sacrament, but the priest who is ultimately to blame.

    Some have made me feel like a total loser, others act like psychiatrists not physicians of the soul, while others were embarrassed by the very concept of sin, and asked me to tell them something nice I did instead and gave me invalid absolution.

    Given the state of modern priests in the Church, confession can still be a crap shoot.

    When you find a good confessor, give thanks to God and stick to him like glue!

  17. “if this happens to you on a regular basis with diffferent priests you must be having a run of insensitive priests.”

    No, it only happens occasionally, often enough that I move around from one place to another, and never at my own parish. (That’s just me, okay?) And no, Andrew, I do not confuse confession with psychotherapy — lest I start having a “run” of assumptions.

  18. I’ve also had confessors who were entirely too easy on me. One even argued with me when I ended with: “For these and all the sins of my past life, I am truly sorry,” claiming that I would have already been forgiven for them if confessed. Talk about a reductionist view! Finding a good confessor is hard. Some priests just have a bad day. I suspect some just finished a bio on Padre Pio and start getting ideas (although I prefer that they be themselves), and a very few are just… well, jerks. I’ve gone once a week, I’ve gone once a year. The ideal, I should think, is recommended as once a month, if only to practice what is called “confessions of devotion.”

    When I go home to Cincinnati, I look for a Dominican. How’s that?

  19. Veritas says:

    [First of all: That is the best anti-spam word I’ve ever SEEN!]

    I went to confession recently where the priest asked, “What do YOU think your penance should be?”

    HUH????

  20. David says:

    I was going to Confession every Saturday afternoon for quite a while, but I found myself getting a little screwed up as I was found myself struggling to work out what sins I had committed that week in order to have something to confess to the priest. I’d almost be glad if I realised there was something I could confess. Which I guess is missing the point somewhat…

    I think I just need to learn to find a balance and realise that I can still receive the grace of the Sacrament if make a confession of devotion rather than be overly scrupulous about having something ‘meaty’ to bring to the confessional.

  21. John Polhamus says:

    With due respect, David, neither you nor anyone else can receive the grace of the sacrament of Pennance unless an ordained priest bestows it on you, however meaty or venial your sin, or sincerely fervent your desire. Scruples can alwyas be overdone, St. Philip Neri warns against them, but confessing serious sin promptly is always benificial.

  22. Some well-meant advice from another priest…

    If the priest is harsh
    Don’t waste energy being cross with him or feeling sorry for yourself. God is infinitely good and everything that he allows to happen to us can work to our good by his grace. In the past, I have found that it has challenged me on some sin that I have become a bit blasé about and it has done me good.

    But also, pray for the priest. He is running a great risk here. If souls are lost because of his harshness, he is going to have a lot of explaining to do to Our Lord when he meets him.

    If the priest doesn’t give a penance
    (Apparently this happened quite a bit in San Diego.) First of all, ask him “Father, would you please give me a penance.” He may just have forgotten. If he refuses to do so, you could first of all accept this refusal as a penance in itself (these things are annoying, aren’t they?) Then you could voluntarily impose a penance on yourself, perhaps a decade of the rosary. These would be pious acts, not necessary to the validity of the sacrament.

    I just checked Cappello and he says that although the imposition of a penance is necessary for the integral celebration of the sacrament, it is not necessary for the absolution to be valid. So you can rest assured, go to communion, it is the priest’s sin, not yours.

    Again, pray for the priest because he is obliged by the teaching of the Council of Trent and required by canon law to impose a salutary penance if you have actually sinned. He may well have to do the all these penances himself in purgatory. Added to which, it was always considered grave matter to omit giving a penance unless there is an excusing cause.

  23. Fr. Z,

    I posted what’s below to my site this morning and hope you don’t mind my reposting it here.

    Since one good turn deserves another, might this member of the laity offer five tips to priests for receiving good (and more frequent) confessions?:

    1) …talk about confession during your homilies, especially during penitential seasons like Lent;
    2) …catechize the faithful about the role of confession with the worthy reception of the Eucharist (start with the new document from the USCCB);
    3) …offer confessions more than 45 minutes per week; the people will come if you follow tips 1) and 2);
    4) …observe the rite (deviating from it by, say, changing the words of absolution distracts the faithful);
    5) …match the penance to the offense;
    6) …keep praise to a minimum, as we’re there to confess our sins, not feel “special”;
    7) …make confession available to the students of your parish school more than once per semester (you’ll help them form good habits early);
    8) …provide free guides to making a good confession in the vestibule literature racks or near the confessional (to this day I still stumble over the words to the Act of Contrition);
    9) …respect the value of penitential anonymity (many people shy away from parish penance services during Advent and Lent because they’re forced to go “face to face” with a priest);
    10) …speak with a degree of objectivity, and not with the contrived tones of a psychiatrist or, worse, talk show host.

  24. Cornelius says:

    What bothers me in confession is when the priest tries
    to tell me that something I’ve confessed is not a sin,
    despite the fact that it is CLEARLY labeled as such
    in a prominent and recent encyclical of the Holy Father.

    In such cases I just tell the priest in respectful tones,
    “Father, I know you don’t regard this as a sin, but my
    conscience clearly tells me that it is. Will you
    absolve me?”

  25. W says:

    Father I have a question about confession: I had a very orthodox priest who only celebrates Latin Mass tell me that in case of a sin which is grave matter, don’t worry about whether all the conditions for a mortal sin are present (full informed consent, especially), consider it possible or likely that you have comitted a mortal sin, and consider yourself inelegible to receive the Eucharist until you make your confession and receive absolution. Then I have other priests, ranging from orthodox priests to rather less orthodox ones, telling me everything in between in terms of advice. How do I kinow who to trust on this? The most out-there (which I don’t trust at all) said, “It’s practically impossible to commit a mortal sin”. His theology was so twisted, and his knowledge of the teaching of the Church was so far away from what I’ve read elsewhere, especially the Catechism, that I knew he was giving me his own thoughts, and not the Catholic faith.

    What do you tell someone who is trying in good faith, to discern if he needs to go to confession, and if he didn’t go, not to receive the Eucharist? If in doubt, I tend towards not receiving, so as not to receive unworthily. I know it’s the health of my own soul I should be concerned about, not that of others, but I do sometimes wonder how many Catholics have been lead astray by bad counsel from priests, such as the one I had, who convinced a group of Catholics I was doing study and formation in the catholic faith with, that they basically were incapable of mortal sin, and that they should never even consider their own spiritual condition, or consider not presenting themselves to receive the Eucharist.

    W

  26. The general rule here is this. If you KNOW you are guilty of some mortal sin you committed, then you must not receive until you have been to confession. If you are NOT SURE or sincerely in doubt about whether or not you are properly disposed, then you may receive. Remember… God cannot be fooled, though we can fool ourselves, so examining your conscience is critical. Even in the case of not being sure, it is best to go to confession.

  27. RBrown says:

    Father I have a question about confession: I had a very orthodox priest who only celebrates Latin Mass tell me that in case of a sin which is grave matter, don’t worry about whether all the conditions for a mortal sin are present (full informed consent, especially), consider it possible or likely that you have comitted a mortal sin, and consider yourself inelegible to receive the Eucharist until you make your confession and receive absolution.

    What good are the conditions if they are not used to determine the possible gravity of a sin?

    I would say the priest has created his own theology, but in fact he is espousing old time rigorism.

    Then I have other priests, ranging from orthodox priests to rather less orthodox ones, telling me everything in between in terms of advice. How do I kinow who to trust on this? The most out-there (which I don’t trust at all) said, “It’s practically impossible to commit a mortal sin”. His theology was so twisted, and his knowledge of the teaching of the Church was so far away from what I’ve read elsewhere, especially the Catechism, that I knew he was giving me his own thoughts, and not the Catholic faith.

    The response to laxism is not rigorism.

    Garrigou La Grange said that rigorism and laxism are species of moral relativism.

  28. Paul Razalla says:

    “What good are the conditions if they are not used to determine the possible gravity of a sin?”

    Many Catholics do not have a well informed conscience. Without the conditions, one is mire likely to rationalize, “Did I or did I not” have the intention and more likely will come to the cobnclusion, I one of the conditions was not present, so I can go to holy Communion. I would say, if in doubt, go to confession. What’s to be gained but more graces?

    “I would say the priest has created his own theology, but in fact he is espousing old time rigorism.”

    Many holy Pontiffs can be accused of riogorism and be called “integrist” because they held to the true Catholic faith — strictly by the letter and spirit of the law. This priest is perhaps mindful that there is a lack of a well formed a Catholic conscience and therefore his caveat, if in doubt, go to confession. It is more of a liberal bent — a modernist attitude — to say there is no sin when in fact it is much in evident.

  29. RBrown says:

    Many Catholics do not have a well informed conscience. Without the conditions, one is mire likely to rationalize, “Did I or did I not” have the intention and more likely will come to the cobnclusion, I one of the conditions was not present, so I can go to holy Communion. I would say, if in doubt, go to confession. What’s to be gained but more graces?

    You seem to be proposing a scrupulous conscience as the standard. Martin Luther was also plagued by scrupulosity. Look where it got him–he went from rigorism to laxism.

    It is the height of self-centered folly to presume that everything we do is done with deliberate consent and full knowledge.

    Many holy Pontiffs can be accused of rigorism

    Are you saying that there are Holy Pontiffs who disagree with the three conditions? What are their names?

    and be called “integrist” because they held to the true Catholic faith—strictly by the letter and spirit of the law. This priest is perhaps mindful that there is a lack of a well formed a Catholic conscience and therefore his caveat, if in doubt, go to confession. It is more of a liberal bent—a modernist attitude—to say there is no sin when in fact it is much in evident.

    Holding to the spirit and letter of the law is relevant to the gravity of the matter. But the three conditions teach us that there is more to it than just the matter.

    The conditions of full knowledge and deliberate consent are there for a reason.

  30. Karen L. says:

    Unfortunately, there are those of us who suffer from scrupulosity, so everything can be a sin. I have prayed and prayed to find a Confessor, but it is fairly obvious to me that most priests do not understand it and therefore side step it in Confession. I really do try to examine my conscience and I end up with a list as long as your arm, or nothing. I can relate to the writer at the beginning who said she uses alcohol to medicate herself. I do the same thing, especially when things get emotionally stressful. I drink too much and then cannot discern whether it is a sin or not. Anyway, I have made it my mission to NOT be a pest. I do not go to Confession less than 7 days from my last Confession, even it I think I have committed a mortal sin, and do not attend daily Mass and Holy Communion. Why don’t I just stop drinking wine? That’s a good question. Thanks for allowing me to vent.