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

As a follow up to the dynamic discussion HERE, I thought it a good idea to repost my tips for making a good confession so that you can have them in hand, before Lent begins and you can make a plan about your Lenten practices.

Fr. Z’s 20 Tips For Making A Good Confession   o{]:¬)

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) …don’t confess "tendencies" or "struggles"… just sins;
15) …don’t 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 priests can have bad days just like we do;
20) …remember that priests go to confession too … they know what we are going through.

FacebookEmailPinterestGoogle GmailShare/Bookmark

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. I think “Glue some Act of Contrition printout to your hand, because you’ll never remember it and they’ll never have a card in the confessional” should be added.

    Sigh. If somebody would just compose a rhyming Act of Contrition, I could remember it. Or even in alliterative verse. Why did my generation have to be the one where mnemonics were thought to be oppressive?!

    The Act of Contrition I learned in school was apparently only in use in my archdiocese for a span of a few years, so I can’t find any version on the Internet that “sounds right”, so that I can refresh my memory with it. Then there were years and years when my home parish didn’t encourage you to say one, or they had out a card with a newly composed one, and I pretty much forgot it entirely, except for the first couple phrases.

    This would be fine, if I would ever remember about the Act of Contrition issue before I got in line or got into the confessional. But I never do. So when we get to the end, I always sound like I haven’t been to Confession in years, even though I go every few months or so… sigh.

    Maybe I can find a pack of laminated Acts of Contrition or confessional cheatsheets, and then strew them among my various coats and totebags so I can’t possibly leave them behind.

  2. MikeM says:

    “6) …confess all mortal sins in number and kind”

    What if we can’t really remember the number, exactly? If it’s something we did frequently over a certain period, is it sufficient to leave it at that?

  3. Serviam1 says:

    This is the Act of Contrition the Sisters of St. Joseph (CSJ) taught us in second grade in preparation for First Penance (circa 1965) in the Archdiocese of Boston. I still use this form today.

    Act of Contrition:
    O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of Heaven, and the pains of Hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and
    deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.

  4. Choirmaster says:

    6) …confess all mortal sins in number and kind

    MikeM:

    What if we can’t really remember the number, exactly? If it’s something we did frequently over a certain period, is it sufficient to leave it at that?

    When faced with this situation I always say something like “as a habit” or “habitually” to signify the recurring and uncountable number since my last confession. Maybe next time (alas) I will use the word “innumerable”.

    Now I have questions:

    When should I say the Act of Contrition?

    Should the priest prompt me to say it (this never happens)?

    Do I say it silently during the absolution prayers?

    Do I start to say it as a signal that I have completed my confession?

    At my TLM community we have absolution in Latin and the priest sticks to the formulas and doesn’t give much advise, probably because we have confession lines wrapping around the [huge] church and everyone is anxious to get their confession in before the Sanctus. Invariably, a large group of people never make it in!

  5. Folks: Do your best with the number of times. Even if you have to approximate frequency. What isn’t good is simply to toss out vague statements such as “I lied, I cheated, I stole, I kicked my dog…”.

  6. Thank you for this helpful reminder, Father. To Confession! Often!

  7. wolfeken says:

    Choirmaster — that’s the way our parish is too. If others are fortunate enough to be at a parish that offers the traditional form of the sacrament (i.e. absolution in Latin as it was said in 1962), here is the Latin followed by an English translation FYI:

    http://traditio.com/office/absoluti.htm

    For those who don’t have this, you have the right to ask your pastor for it under the motu proprio.

  8. Mark01 says:

    I agree with Suburbanbanshee. I can never remember the act of contrition because since second grade I’ve only known a very simple version, “Oh my god, I am sorry for my sins because they hurt you, and I promise with your help not to sin again.” I feel like a dolt saying that now that I’m 32, but I get so worried about it before hand that my mind goes blank. Now I bring my bible with me every time I go to confession and have the page bookmarked so I can just read it. It still comes from the heart, but I don’t sit there and worry about it so much.

  9. Re: those worried about memorizing /the/ Act of Contrition.

    IMO, the Act of Contrition is just a vocalization of what is already in our hearts. I have a wallet sized card that I carry into Confession with me and leave out ready for my Contrition. I will learn it eventually through repetition. But really isn’t all that is needed in an Act of contrition:

    1) Sorrow
    2) The resolve to sin mo more

    Am I wrong?

  10. Father S. says:

    RE: Trevor

    Actually, all that is needed in the at the time of the Act of Contrition is contrition. It is one of the three acts of the penitent (integral confession of sins, contrition, and penance). The existence of the Act of Contrition is to make certain for the priest that a person is, indeed, contrite. It is sufficient even to use a simple form, such as, “Have mercy on me, for I am a sinner.” The purpose of the memorized Acts of Contrition is that they offer an opportunity to reflect on a larger set of things, such as a firm purpose of amendment. Likewise, a Confession is perfectly valid if no Act of Contrition is said and there is still contrition on the part of the penitent. This is not in the mind of the Church, given the Rite of Penance. (newer or older) As such, it should not be encouraged.

  11. Agnes says:

    It’s part of my devotion to go weekly – partially out of habit, partially because I have a really lousy memory, partially and really because it’s in the confessional that I encounter Divine Mercy. “The just man sins seven times a day.”

    Type and number: I think it’s better to let it out than to be in danger of withholding something. Even venial sins are optionally confessable. I try to let the priest take the lead if he needs more information. Sometimes, I’ve slipped into the box and vented tears over situations that were not my sins but harmful to my soul nonetheless. Sometimes, I walk out thinking, “THAT came from GOD??” But it’s the absolution that matters. And regular, even weekly, Confession will eventually take hold and root out even the deepest vices. I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than five minutes.

    It’s not therapy, but it is the great Sacrament of God’s mercy and an encounter with Christ Himself. Next to receiving the Lord in Holy Communion, I love Confession.

  12. Salvatore_Giuseppe says:

    Choirmaster:

    I have a similar problem to you, after I get through my sins, there is a pause, of differing lengths, and then, invariably, the priest says something like “is that it?” or “are there any others?”

    Its as if they expect some grandiose conclusion for my list of sins that I never learned to say

    Perhaps I could follow my last sin with “in conclusion [summary of all my sins]” :P

  13. DavidJ says:

    I try to end with “for these and for all my sins I am truly sorry.”

  14. Frank H says:

    As a child I was taught to end with “I am sorry for these and all the sins of my past life because they have offended God”. And I still say it.

  15. Lee says:

    One thing I appreciate very much in a confessor is some comments after I make my confession, whether simply an exhortation related to that week’s liturgy, or simply taking one of my sins and suggesting some of the root causes and solutions, or an exhortation to have a more fervent prayer life, praying at least 15 min per day, etc.

    However, when I confess my sins and the priest simply gives me a pro forma penance and absolution while I am saying my act of contrition, then shuts the slide, it seems a very impersonal, unreal and mechanical kind of thing.

    No matter how long the lines might be, there is always room for a short exhortation, a little display of humanity and fatherly feeling, is there not?.

  16. wolfeken says:

    Many handmissals and instructions on penance recommend this concluding line:

    “For these and all the sins of my past life, especially my sins of (naming some previously confessed and forgiven grievous sin), I am heartily sorry, beg pardon of God, and absolution of you, Father.”

  17. Lee says:

    Further to the above-

    Once I had confessed worry as a sin and the priest asked me, “What are you worried about?”

    “Money.”

    “Pray to St. Nicholas!”

    Did that take so long? No, but it was a lifesaver.

    Another time, that I had neglected my prayer life.

    Father: “Tell me about your prayer life…”

    I did and he offered me good advice.

    Another priest, a remarkable priest from India, made some lengthy and helpful remarks, after which he repeated back to me every sin I had confessed and assured me they were all forgiven. Incredible!!!

    Obviously these last two priests had some time and they used it well

    In these instances one did not have the feeling of having dealt with a kind of sacramental automaton who only knows how to open the slide, remain quiet, give a penance, say the words of absolution and close the slide again. But, of course, I am very grateful to them also. Thank you Fathers for all that you are and do!

  18. asperges says:

    2) …wait our turn in line patiently; The least difficult to do: there aren’t any in most churches. I rarely wait at all ever. No-one goes except for the odd few. At some churches it is a little better (eg Cathedrals, central churches), but most parishes see ones and twos if that per week, I am told.

    BTW I have never been to a church in the UK where the Act of Contrition wasn’t written on a card on the kneeler in the confessional – and – mirabile dictu – it has never changed, except probably “you” for “thou.”

    Without any disrespect, one could think of a few golden rules for confessors, especially those who talk you out of sins or refuse to accept them as such; those who practice amateur psychology entirely devoid of anything doctrinal; those who don’t listen at all and those who read from pre-determined scripts regardless of what one has said, or just repeat their own favourite mantras.

    Fortunately very few of these traits apply now but they certainly did when Confession became “Reconciliation.” Some even read out chunks of scripture. I came across a booklet introducing the “new” form of confession (c1971?). It is hopelessly unrealistic. No wonder no-one takes the slightest notice today. The form still is much as it always was, thank God.

    Confession is certainly (in my opinion) the most wonderful sacrament (after the Eucharist of course) given to us: and the most neglected. The temperature of the Church can be correlated to it and attitudes towards it by priest and people a very good indicator.

  19. MargaretMN says:

    Yes, we Americans have had several different versions of the Act of Contrition. The one I learned is O My God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee and I detest all of my sins because of thy just punishment but most of all because they offend thee my God who art all good and deserving of all of my love. I firmly resolve with the help of thy grace to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin. Amen

    Still has “thee” and “art” but dispenses with heaven/hell with the euphemistic “just punishment.”

  20. )Dear Father, thank you for this forum… [It's a blog, not a forum... but "You're welcome!" o{]:¬) ] I so have loved the Sacrament of Penance–even from the very beginning. I must admit, however, I DO like it in face-to-face format; the reason for my saying this is because I feel obligated to be responsible for my sins–the more embarrassing the better, as far as I’m concerned, and somehow the secrecy of the confessional seems like there would not be much motive for changing one’s behavior/attitudes/habitual sins. The other issue is that I have artificial knees bilaterally; sometimes they are exquisitely painful on which to kneel (I also have other disabilities sometimes meaning I can’t kneel).

    It is the practice of the parish from which I moved to offer both… in the parish I am now in, one has to do the embarrassment of asking the priest to move from the confessional to the Reconciliation Room in the narthex. This “marks” one. It also means I need to get there before everyone else, or else wait until everyone is finished (this is a parish that has a great many participants.) Of course, the latter allows plenty of time to do a finishing examen–but sometimes it only means I become more and more nervous–this, for me, has meant sometimes I do not do a very good job of my wording; it has caused incredible messes for me in the past, because I am scrupulous as a rule–and damning of myself for issues that really were not of my doing. I feel guilty as a rule just on general principles (God is so Immaculate–how can we see ourselves any other way?), sometimes accusing myself of sins that were NOT mine.

    Also, I know the confession is NOT always under seal–because these confessions have gotten around. Will you elucidate when confessions are NOT under seal? Thank you so much–all of this has been extremely heavy on my heart; the Blessed Virgin has been so supportive of me, however… I AM at peace–I just have to shake my head in wonderment at the absurdity of life.

  21. Thomas S says:

    As far as number and kind goes, there have been times when I’ve given the kind without number or frequency. The priest didn’t ask for clarification. He gave me absolution at the end. Do I need to re-confess those sins with number the next time?

  22. wmeyer says:

    I wonder, as the years pass before my very late baptism, awaiting the completion of annulments for myself and my wife, whether the good members of the Tribunal appreciate just how much some of us suffer for being unable to make a confession.

  23. Frank H says:

    MargaretMN – exactly the version I learned and continue to use.

  24. An American Mother says:

    I always wind up with (and I have no idea where I read it): “For these and all my sins, especially [] or [my forgotten sins] I ask pardon from God and absolution and penance from you, my spiritual father.”

    Worst confessional experience: I was in a strange church out of town, and I confessed something and the priest shouted – loud enough to be heard in the narthex – “THAT’S NOT A SIN!!!!” I had no idea how strange.

  25. bookworm says:

    I hope this isn’t a silly question, but regarding the “confess only your sins, not someone else’s” rule: how do you stick to this if a lot of your sins, or things you suspect may be sins but aren’t sure, have to do with your reactions to someone else’s actions? (e.g. arguing with your spouse, dealing with a difficult boss) How do you know whether your response was sinful or not, if you can’t say what it was you were responding to? I understand that we shouldn’t use up our confession time complaining about what someone else did to us, but I’d like to know how to handle this issue appropriately.

  26. paxetbonum says:

    Wolfeken- The version I was taught as a child, and have always used: “For these and all the sins of my past life, I am truly sorry, and I ask forgiveness of God and absolution of you, Father.”

    An increasingly common abuse I observe when I go for confession is the person who goes into the box and monopolizes the priest’s time for 10, 20 even 30 minutes (during a 1 hour confession period!). After about 15 minutes, people in line start to wonder if the penitent has had a heart attack, or is threatening Father, or God knows what is going on. This is selfish and disrespectful of the waiting penitents, who have scheduled their time and made arrangements to get to confession and should have a reasonable chance to have their confession heard during the published period. It is also disrespectful of the priest’s time, at least if he is conscientious enough to stay late and hear the remaining penitent’s confessions. A phrase I have heard (and uttered myself in frustration) is- “Hey, it’s confession- not therapy!”.

    Penitents who need more than 5 minutes of a priest’s time should make a personal appointment for confession and/or counseling, and not monopolize the priest’s necessarily limited availablity during published confession periods. Likewise, priests should be considerate of waiting penitents, and try to limit people to ten minutes maximum, and be willing to discontinue a marathon session and give the penitent an appointment for further counseling.

    It seems very few people nowadays have been instructed on The “3 Bs” of Confession: “be BRIEF; be BLUNT; BEGONE!”

  27. coeyannie says:

    I have a couple of things – “wait in line patiently” – I took an hour and 15 minutes of vacation to go to Confession at our Cathedral. I got there at 4:08, Confessions begin at 4:00 and end at 5:00. I waited and waited and waited and finally wondered what the heck I was doing there anyway. [That is why I have #5) "...state our sins clearly and briefly without rambling", and I stress brevity throughout.] My rehearsed confession was beginning to crumble. My resolve started to fall apart. I wanted to smack someone. I was the next one in line and the man came along and said he had to get Father out of the confessional for the 5:15 Mass. So, I smiled and had terrible thoughts for a few minutes.

    Also, do not confess struggles? Why not. When you go to Confession bi-monthly, or weekly as some of the people say they do, is there really a serious sin to confess. Yes, I guess there is, but I try not to commit mortal sins, unless I am committing them and don’t know it. I have struggles containing my impatience, and displaying annoyance at others. I don’t know, some priests don’t mind if you tell them what is bothering you, as long as it pertains to a fault, or venial sin. I tried to make sense.

  28. Father S. says:

    RE Types of Penance and Counsel

    There are a few schools of thought on types of penances. From the point of the view of the priest, a great deal depends on the penitent. If the penitent seems to be in a rush or struggles with hearing, sometimes it may be easier to give a variety of formulaic prayers (Our Father, Hail Mary, etc.) Some priests use this exclusively.

    Other priests seem to like the meditative penances. These are good for those who have the necessary discipline to go out and actually do them instead of looking at the ceiling or taping their fingers on the pew.

    I find that medicinal penances are most useful both to give and receive. For example, if someone struggles with their spouse, performing some small act of kindness and affection for their spouse may be helpful. Or, if a person struggles with their coworkers, praying for them to St. Joseph may be helpful. I am not a fan of anything complicated and we must always avoid the mistaken notion that penance somehow pays for absolution. But, if a penance can be directed at the sin, it can both teach a lesson on how to pray in the future and how to avoid cooperating with temptation in the future.

    As for lines for Confession, we hear every day at my semi-rural parish and there is almost always a line. [If you sit there, they will come.]

  29. Girgadis says:

    Occasionally, one of the elderly priests at the nearby parish with daily confessions will forget to put the green light on (this church actually has lights similar to a traffic light with red for do not enter, green for ok to enter). If I have waited for 10 minutes or so and the person ahead of me is not sure someone is in the confessional with Father, I will (very timidly) knock on the door. Nine times out of 10, Father has simply forgotten to turn on the light. Maybe this isn’t appropriate, but neither is standing in line for no reason. And I’m sorry, but if a confession takes more than 10 minutes, maybe it should have been scheduled for a private appointment.

    bookworm, at the risk of sounding like a know-it-all, when in fact I know very little and will be the first to admit it – there is no harm in taking responsibility for a sin you did not necessarily commit or, if you did commit it, you had an accomplice. Think of it as rear-ending the car in front of you: it may have been the other driver’s fault, but ultimately, we’re responsible for controlling our own vehicle.

  30. ray from mn says:

    Lent might not be the time for it, but for some of us, particularly me, a General Confession might be in order.

    Between the ages of 18 and 39 I didn’t attend Mass except when I was with my parents. And of course I went to Communion in the state of Mortal Sin when I was with them.

    Praise God, long story, but I came back to the Church and right before All Saints Day in 1981 I went to Confession at a daylong parish retreat. Frankly it wasn’t a great confession, with me blurting out in tears, my sorrow at a bunch of the major offenses I had committed and the priest gave me absolution and a penance of reading the Prodigal Son parable in the Bible.

    It’s my understanding that all my sins were forgiven because that was all I could remember at the time.

    But for many years I would wonder: was I really forgiven? And there were things that I thought weren’t sins but that I felt much guilt about.

    So maybe ten years ago I resolved to have a General Confession where I confessed all the major sins and guilts of my life to the priest, this time, not omitting any serious ones that I could think of.

    I probably spent a couple of weeks making my examination of conscience and writing it down on my computer. I made an appointment with a priest I knew, told him what I wanted to do and we agreed on a time.

    We met in his office. It took me almost an hour to go over all these offenses of my life and I went through my list one by one and we discussed some of them.

    It was difficult to start; but once I started going, it was marvelous. I don’t even remember what kind of a penance he gave me. But I did feel finally and totally forgiven for my omissions of the past. And those incidents for which I had occasionally felt guilt, I rarely think of any more.

    I destroyed my list when I went home.

    A General Confession is a wonderful gift to yourself. I would recommend it highly. But probably not during Lent or Advent, or on Saturday at the regularly scheduled time. It takes much time. Make an appointment.

    You won’t regret it.

  31. Rachel says:

    I’ve had some very helpful confessions, even though they’re always quick. Once I was grounded from the internet. A few times I confessed to not having accomplished some task I was supposed to do, and my penance was to get it done. Very practical! I made my first confession as a convert at age 28, and my penance then was a holy hour, which was exactly what I needed to work on my main issue at the time.

    I used to get extremely nervous before each confession, but I’d pray to the Mother of God for help and I’m convinced it’s because of her that I was able to keep going every two weeks in spite of fear.

  32. Agnes says:

    ray, I’ve heard General Confession is good to do every 5 years or so. I did it after converting and just this winter (12 years later). While the sins we can’t recall are in fact forgiven, it is such a grace to be able to sit and trace God’s work in us from beginning to present, and it’s a good venue to get into the nitty-gritty of faults and failings and struggles where it wouldn’t be appropriate in an average confession. People take up time because they need more in-depth spiritual guidance. I’m glad I did it – I think it has helps me “tighten things up” for my weekly Penance because I’m not dwelling on past baggage. “Your sins are buried in the tomb now,” the priest assured me after the absolution. “Annihilated. They are no more. Don’t dwell on the past – you are a new creature in Jesus Christ.” AMEN!

  33. Thank you Fr S.

    For those speaking of General Confessions (and anyone else who knows), if one is receiving all three Sacraments of Initiation at once, is there a General Confession required prior to the Sacraments, or would it only be recommended (or required) for those who are already baptized?

    I received all three sacraments at once two years ago and am now wondering if I was to make one prior to my initiation.

  34. albizzi says:

    Ray from mn,
    I was almost in the same situation as you are describing.
    I made my general confession written on a one and half page. The priest read it, briefly commented and gave the absolution. Speaking with the priest for one hour like you did would have been better since anyways I still have scruples bcs I feel I wasn’t accurate enough on some specific big sins which are bearing on my conscience.
    I spoke of this to another priest but he said that God isn’t a rigorous account keeper and that I was forgiven.
    Anyway my scruples aren’t gone.
    What shall I do?

  35. ssoldie says:

    Father, I believe the picture that is used, comes from Fr. Louis LaRavoire Morrow ” My Catholic Faith” #150, How to Make a Good Confession. I have been using this book, (Silver Edition 1961), since my children were teenagers. It is an excellent Catechism, but it’s pre vatican II, not modern or progressive, only very traditional and truthful.

  36. Father S. says:

    RE: Trevor

    If one receives the three Sacraments of Initiation together, there is no need to confess on account of the Sacrament of Baptism. However, if someone is already baptized, they make their Confession before receiving the second two Sacraments.

  37. Anne M. says:

    When I first returned to the Church I wrote the Act of Contrition on an index card and brought it with me, along with a list of sins to confess. For me it wasn’t an inability to memorize the Act so much as it was nervousness and forgetting what to say. I have finally gotten past that and no longer need to refer to the index card. When I have finished confessing I say that I am sorry for my sins so the priest knows I am finished.

    As for people taking a long time in confession, I usually am very brief when I speak but sometimes the priest is not. Personally, I appreciate that. Our priest never makes anyone feel rushed in confession and will take as much time as he thinks is necessary to speak with each person. He hears confessions 2-3 times a week and there is always a long line. I have learned to get there early.