From a reader:
Hi. I am convert. [… S]ince being brought up in a protestant
tradition and only becoming catholic as an adult, I was never exposed to the traditions, the formality. In our confirmation classes we was taught the believe system and not the liturgy. So when going to confession I never know how to start, what sins to confess.
But that is not the biggest problem: How do you remember all your sins? How do you remember how many times you have done a particular sin? The one thing I am convinced of is that is, even while I am writing this, I am sinning…the nature of our existence. The problem also becomes exponential, since the knowledge becomes so overpowering that I feel as if I am doing a “half-a-job” confessing and that I have not achieved grace after going to confession that I stop going to confession for months at a time…and then I feel that I should not receive the Eucharist.
I am so glad you see the need for a good confession. A good regular confession. A good regular thorough confession.
Go to confession anyway, even if you are not sure you are doing a perfect job of it. Just go anyway. Please.
From the onset be assured that, if you do your best, even if you can’t remember everything, your sins are forgiven. Even those you forgot are forgiven. If you make your confession but through no fault of your own forgot somethings – either because in that moment maybe you were nervous or you simply forgot – and you walk out of church and a construction crane falls on you, you go before your Maker in pretty good shape, as far as mortal sins go. Temporal punishment might be another matter… but the really big deal is getting those mortal sins forgiven.
First, learn a standard way to make your confession and use it ever time. This helps keep the nervousness down and the priest always knows where you are at. The standard way every kid in the USA learned is probably the best. When you start (for example when the little window opens and the priest may say intro thing) you say “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been [X days, weeks, months, years] since my last Confession. These are my sins. Confess your mortal sins in number and kind. When you are done, say “For these and all the sins of my past life I am truly sorry and ask a penance and absolution.” That let’s the priest know you are done. Sometimes people just fall silent, which could leave the priest wondering if you are trying to summon the courage to confess the big one. The priest will maybe give you some counsel, he may ask a question or two. He will assign a penance and, usually, say something like “Act of Contrition”, meaning that you should say the Act of Contrition. He will give you absolution. Sometimes the priest will start with the form of absolution before you are finished with your Act of Contrition. Then he will probably say something like “Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace.” It is nice to say “Thank you” before you get out.
I suggest this Act of Contrition, for it has all the elements the priest needs to hear and you need to say:
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you 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 you, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of your grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.
You can do this with “you” or “thee”, whatever. I say “thee” because that’s the way i learned it. There are various forms of Acts of Contrition, Acts of Sorrow. I think this one is as good as they get.
About remembering your sins.
Every night before you go to sleep, examine your conscience. Make this a regular part of your routine before going to sleep.
I suggest to people just getting going, to start making examination of conscience when you start brushing your teeth. Why? Because, unless you are really strange, you always brush your teeth before going to bed, and if you don’t you should. By tying the examination of conscience to some other thing you never omit, you can develop the habit of examining your conscience regularly.
Review your day. Look for things you did that were wrong and, don’t forget, things you failed to do that you should have. Use the commandments… use the virtues… whatever. Just do it. Every evening. Just do it.
There are good little booklets with examinations of conscience and preparation for confession that you can find in any good Catholic book shop. The point is: pick one and start. You may find a better one later, but get at it right away. We make baby steps in all these things at first, and that’s okay. God sees your heart and knows you are trying. With a little time, you’ll be more confident and aware of what you are doing.
Brick by brick.
By doing this every evening, you will more easily remember what you have done so that your examination of conscience before confession will be much easier and your confession more precise.
Why is such precision and care important? Why should you instantly dismiss any suggestion that this is just making a “laundry list” and that numbers of sins aren’t important?
When you examine your conscience you are also looking for your ingrained habits, vices, the things which are real dangers to your soul. You quickly identify with stark clarity the fissures and fault lines in your life. When sometime gets into the confessional and says “It has been one week sicne my last confession. I lied, I cheated, I kick my dog…”, there is no way of telling if the person lied one time, and therefore this was an aberration, or if she lied 52 times in that week. Lying 52 times in week is a real problem. If she is confessing this sort of thing with this sort of frequency often, then she would be a liar, an inveterate liar. This gives her and the priest the chance to start fixing the problem through grace, common sense and elbow grease. We have to identify our principal faults so that we can make progress in holiness. This is ongoing. We need an objective eye and some inescapable honesty. We attain this through a daily examination of conscience.
If you do this regularly, you will not have such a hard time remember sins also in number when you go to confession.
Also, if you start remembering things you forgot about, and you haven’t confessed, or aren’t sure you confessed, just mention them when you go to confession the next time.
The confessional is not a torture chamber. You don’t have to put yourself on the rack.
Pray for some help from your guardian angel to be honest with yourself and to keep the enemy at bay, and examine your conscience.
Then just go.
Finally, about receiving the Eucharist in Holy Communion.
If you know that you are in the state of mortal sin, do not go to Communion. If you are not sure if you are in the state of grace, you could probably go, or you could sit that one out. If you are not sure, make a very good act of contrition, and go. If you don’t choose to go, make a spiritual communion (there are good prayers for that). If you are pretty sure that you are in the state of grace, happy you, then go to Communion with happy and confident fear and trembling. We can’t be presumptuous about the state of our soul, but we can nevertheless be pretty sure after examining our consciences and using the sacrament of penance wisely.
The worst thing a person can do is never ask a question about the state of his soul. For that sort of person, I worry.