QUAERITUR: How to confess well? I worry I am not doing a good enough job of it.

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.

It doesn’t have to be long.  But it has to be honest.

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.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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27 Responses to QUAERITUR: How to confess well? I worry I am not doing a good enough job of it.

  1. When I confess venial sins, I do not try to remember the exact number of all my venial sins, but I would certain indicate if this is something that happens almost every day and perhaps several times a day. Some things have only happened on one or a few occasions since my last confession, and they are easy enough, though I guess I hardly every venture an exact number because I would get all twisted up in knots trying to do that. If it is an area in which I fall frequently, I would also indicate if there has been little or no improvement since my last confession and it is an ongoing struggle over an extensive period of time. That one is embarrassing and sometimes tough, even if the sins are not mortal, but, I believe, useful.

    I assume and hope this is a good enough manner of alerting the priest to what are struggles I am not very good at overcoming and what are more isolated incidences even if there are few exact numbers forthcoming. Even when doing a daily examination of conscience, remember the exact number of venial sins from one confession to the next would seem to me a bit of a challenge even if one goes to confession fairly frequently.

    Mortal sins, of course, are a different matter, and one must try one’s best to confess a number as close to the exact one as one can, but without anxiety or fear about accidentally getting it wrong.

  2. Toan says:

    “The one thing I am convinced of is that is, even while I am writing this, I am sinning…the nature of our existence. ”

    Remember 2 Corinthians 5:17 where St. Paul states, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Trust that God is powerful enough to change our sinful nature and that even now, with your cooperation, He is doing so, making you a new creation. That is, He does something in addition to simply forgiving you. Don’t underestimate His power to do such things.

    Incidentally, the image of us humans being like dung covered by snow is not nearly accurate enough to be helpful.

    Also note, on mortal (i.e. deadly) sin, 1 John 5:17 which states, “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not deadly.”

  3. irishgirl says:

    I find it very hard to go to confession-and I’m a ‘born and bred Catholic’!
    I always get tense and nervous, and I especially don’t like to hold up the priest when there’s a long line outside of the confessional.
    For me, confession IS like being in a torture chamber and being put on the rack!
    And I always come out with a sweaty back!
    And when I DO go, I try to ‘be blunt, be brief, and be gone’!

  4. Torkay says:

    Thank you for posting the traditional Act of Contrition, not the “reformed” one.

  5. the_ox says:

    I hear you irishgirl. Me too.

    I feel like satan always finds a new way to make the experience painful to keep me from going.

    I thought for a time the more frequently I went, the easier it would be, but it seemed like it just gave me more opportunities to experience new ways to feel uncomfortable.

    Something I feel like satan knows right where to hit me.

    Stay with it.

  6. LaxMom25 says:

    I have historically been terrible at Confession, receiving the Sacrament sporadically and frankly, without serious-enough Examination. We recently moved, and for the first time in many years, have access to frequently- scheduled Confessions. Reception of the Sacrament has become a “routine” and is on our calendar. With more frequent confession, I am naturally more aware of my failures and able to note my sins. The more often I confess, the clearer my examination. This also makes the anxiety that might have held me back in the past diminish. I understand this is obvious to many of you, but it has been a profound change for me.

    Also, I do write down my sins and bring the paper in with me.

  7. Rob in Maine says:

    Father,

    I had a happy opportunity to emphasize the Sacrament of Confession just last night to my eight year old son (who has completed his Sacraments of Initiation).

    I am reading CS Lewis’ “Voyage of the Dawn Treader” to him at bedtime. We completed the chapter when that stinker Eustace changed into a Dragon and then was saved by Aslan. After, I asked my son of what did this story remind him? He shrugged.
    “Who is Aslan supposed to be?”
    “The Great Lion…oh! Jesus!”
    “Right. Eustace was really bad in his heart and his thoughts and actions turned him into an ugly dragon – he became what his heart was like. He was really sorry about it. So Aslan peels off his skin. It hurt, but it felt so good in the end. This is a story about the Sacrament of Confession. When we’re not the best person we can be the way God wants us to, we get all dragony. It may be uncomfortable to confess the bad things we’ve done, but in the end Jesus makes us feel so good!”

  8. Mark Pavlak says:

    Just in case that particular reader is reading these comments, perhaps we should stay away from the extreme nervous-ness and tense-ness you feel in confession. Our reader, no doubt, is already feeling this even before making his/her confession and we needn’t frighten him/her away. Instead, think of the love of the Father!
    To our friend wanting to make a good confession: Praise God! Speaking as someone who makes a pretty regular confession (every 2-3 weeks), I still always try to make a good, solid confession – but it’s not always easy. Fr. Z. is right (per usual!) that often examining your conscience allows for more clarity in the confessional.
    Finally, it’s good to be nervous before confession; you’re expressing that first step of sorrow which is guilt. But don’t let that frighten you away.
    Something I always say: “If the walls of the confessional could talk, they wouldn’t speak of all our sins but of the mercy of God.”

  9. lacrossecath says:

    It might be worth mentioning that haggling over imperfection could be the sin of scrupulosity. We have to accept the fact we are sinners and that we cannot will ourselves to perfection on our own. True progress in virtue will take time, trust the sacrament. You will get the grace you need but it doesn’t work like a drive through.

  10. MargaretC says:

    A couple of comments, and then a brief rant…

    I, too, am a convert and I can genuinely sympathize with your correspondent’s dilemma. My RCIA program gave the theory, so to speak, of penance, but not the mechanics. I found a lot of useful tips from reading this blog (Thank you, Father!), so when I made my first confession I already new the “Bless me, Father…” formula you mention, plus an act of contrition.

    Some suggestions: Put Confession on your calendar at regular intervals. Don’t wait until you “feel” you have to go — that’s just setting yourself up to procrastinate. I go on the first Saturday of the month, which is especially useful as I can always ask Our Lady for moral support. When confessing venial sins, I use phrases like “regularly and habitually” — face it, everybody has besetting sins, and these will probably crop up every time you go to confession.

    And now for the rant…most RCIA programs are useless for converts already well catechized in a Protestant tradition. I think your reader was influenced by Calvinism — I know I was, so what the RCIA director told me made little sense. If you really believe in the depravity of your own human nature, confession, absolution, and penance are going to seem like a cruel joke! I finally got straightened out during a Bible study on the book of Romans led by my parish priest. He took the time to explain the Catholic understanding of grace, and my confessions are now helpful and, I hope, fruitful.

  11. amythosa says:

    Like the person who asked the question, I am also a convert. Confession has become something that, while not enjoyable per se, is extremely freeing. There is something about verbalizing my sins and receiving that verbal confirmation of forgiveness in return that gives a peace that is difficult to describe. A tool that helps me when I go to confession is a little card that i can keep in my purse that goes through step by step instructions for a good confession, as well as a grid on the back to keep track of the dates that I go. You can email the creator of the cards at confessioncard@gmail.com if you are interested. Irishgirl, I pray that confession becomes less torturous and more peace-filled for you– it is a wonderful treasure that you have been given!

  12. Fr Martin Fox says:

    Father’s advice is very good–and Lacrosscath’s comment is excellent: we must “trust the sacrament”! I cannot think of a better way to put it.

    One of the perils of the spiritual life is lapsing into Pelagianism, out of fear of presumption. Pelagianism, we recall, is the heresy of believing we can do it ourselves, perhaps with just a nudge from God in the right direction. A variant is the notion that we ought to do it ourselves–that God expects this. Well, God expects and tells us that it will be hard work; but we never, never, ever “do it ourselves”–meaning, without the necessary, constant assistance of grace.

    So…yes, we imperfectly recall our sins, and we imperfectly know our sins. Some souls torment themselves trying to perfect their self-analysis. My admonition to folks is that while God stirs us up, and gets us in motion, he always leads us toward peace. So if our attempts to go deeper in the spiritual life lead us to a less peaceful state, then we are not doing it right.

    Father also made a very important point, that I often stress, but which many will be skeptical of, when he said, if you are not sure you committed a mortal sin, you can go to communion. It seems pretty clear to me that if you have a genuine (not dishonest) doubt about whether a sin was mortal, then by definition, you are not culpable of a mortal sin, regardless of the gravity of the matter per se. Recall that the definition of a mortal sin includes three elements: (1) the action itself must be grave; (2) the action must be truly voluntary; and (3) the person must have sufficient knowledge.

    Well, isn’t it rather obvious that if someone has a genuine doubt about having committed a mortal sin, then it’s because of a lack of knowledge, or else a question about ones freedom? Why else would one genuinely wonder?

    (I think of folks who accuse themselves of a sin when they miss Sunday Mass because they were sick. “That’s not a sin,” I tell them. Which recalls another point I often make: God wants us to exercise right judgment. No, it does not please him if we are too lax; but neither does it please or honor him if we are too severe. If God does not deem something a sin, it does not honor him if we overrule him.)

    Of course, it should be obvious this advice is directed to those who are taking their spiritual lives seriously enough to be scrutinizing themselves closely. Of course I would have different advice for someone who does not do that.

  13. pfreddys says:

    I actually LOVE going to confession; one of the reasons is prior to making my first confession someone told my class that after confession your soul is as pure as a newly baptised baby…..what a great feeling that is to walk away with!
    I have a bad memory, I write my sins on a post-em which I keep in the palm of my hand while confessing. I write just enough in my own personal shorthand to jar my memory, if someone came into possession of the paper I dont think anyone could make it out.
    Lastly, going to confession on a regular basis has probably saved me thousands of dollars in psychotherapy, seriously.

  14. ttucker says:

    Okay, here’s a question about mortal sin and confession.

    [I will edit this out. Rather than get into "how about this sin" or "this case", I think we would do better to stay right on target with the subject of the post. Concrete questions can wait for another entry. What is encouraging is that people take this topic seriously and want to have their questions answered! Priests need to preach about these things.]

  15. Joan M says:

    ttucker – Trying to answer the questions you ask could get anyone tied up in knots. I think that the only thing to do is to confess everything and have done with it!

    In my life time I have done some things that caused me to wonder whether I was guilty of mortal sin or not. I have learned to bring whatever is stirring my conscience to confession. I leave it in God’s hands to determine my culpability, and my peace is restored.

  16. benedetta says:

    Have had wonderful confession experiences all around the Archdiocese of New York (many places). Gentleness, kindness. Encouragement. Welcome. Scripture (!) Basic respect. Careful listening. Where I am here, which promotes itself as being so pastorally evolved, not so much, unfortunately. Another part of the propaganda of the slowly dying dissenting group: that priests who take the sacrament seriously and at face-value are somehow going to be, overbearing, scolding, shaming…thus scaring people off! Insidious.

    And far and wide, regardless of the supposed politics of congregation or priest or religious order, the same, no shaming, no scolding, no diminishment. Quite pastoral and refreshing, personable and affirming. Refreshment for the soul. Even where there were long lines of…old people? No, long lines of people from all states in life, from every sort, age, whatever. Solidarity. Prayer. The sacrament, plainly offered without irony or undermining. To great numbers of believers. To the one who raised this Quaeritur, don’t worry. The Lord welcomes you in the sacrament of confession, always. You are loved.

  17. ndmom says:

    For those who worry about or struggle with confession, let me put in another plug for the priests of Opus Dei, who spend many hours in the confessional. They are extremely available for this sacrament — if you live near an Opus Dei center (mostly located in major metro areas or near universities), you can contact them for more information. Opus Dei priests will give you all of the time you need, and will make it as easy as possible for you to make frequent confessions, whether or not you have any connection to Opus Dei.

  18. Catholictothecore says:

    To hear the priest say, “I absolve you of ALL your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,”…. brings a tear to my eye every month, without fail. It is such a freeing moment. All our guilt, our burdens, disappear just listening to those words. I say thank you to the priest and walk out to a pew to say my penance (and sniffle a little, dab my eyes). Of all the Sacraments, and all seven are so beautiful, I love the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist. We couldn’t live without them. Thank you, Lord.

  19. Mariana says:

    Thank you, Father, this was extremely useful to me, also a convert!

  20. oddfisher says:

    Thanks for publishing the standard formula that every kid used to learn. I scoured the internet for it when I was making my way back to confession and I couldn’t find it anywhere. It would have been a huge assist in reducing my anxiety level. I was able to find the new rite, but it was so vague and complicated that it was useless. If this were printed and available in the back of every Catholic church in the US, I honestly think the number of confessions would increase dramatically. Sometimes the simplest things can be the most helpful.

  21. Front Pew View says:

    I recall one occasion when at the end of confession, the good Father said, “Your sins are forgiven, go in peace.” As was my custom, I said, “Thank you, Father!” To which the priest replied, “Thanks be to God!” I thought that he had a good point, and ever since, after the priest says “Go in peace,” I reply “Thanks be to God!”

  22. Brian says:

    I just wish that priest would follow the Rite. You start with the sign of the Cross, not “Bless me Father.” I’ve never had a priest share Scripture after the greeting. I personally prefer the current translation of the Act of Contrition. We shouldn’t confess our sins because of fear of punishment, rather because our sinned is hindering our relationship with God, but that is just my opinion.

    [You may have failed to understand something. The older Act of Contrition which many prefer, expresses both attrition and contrition. Attrition is sufficient to receive absolution. As the Act makes clear, contrition is a more perfect motive to be sorry for sins. That is clear in the Act of Contrition. you perhaps missed it somehow.]

  23. Ouida says:

    I too am a convert and remain confused about confession. Would someone please direct me to explanations about venial and mortal sins (perhaps something on the net) and general requirements such as do we confess only mortal sins. Also, I came to the Church late in life and shortly after began to have health issues with heart, am on several medications, etc. Often the last year especially, I have missed Mass because I am unwell and greatly fatigued, not because I am sick, but because of permanent and ongoing conditions and probably medications. (I am over 70 years old.) I am so anxious to know if missing Mass under these circumstances are a mortal sin and should I go to confession after each time I miss before I receive again? My question may not be appropriate for this posting – I understand – but would appreciate someone pointing me to something to read about the unwell and aged who miss Mass. Thank you so much.

  24. APX says:

    Would someone please direct me to explanations about venial and mortal sins (perhaps something on the net) and general requirements such as do we confess only mortal sins.

    I’ll direct you to my new found friend, the Baltimore Catechism. http://www.boston-catholic-journal.com/baltimore_catechism.pdf. Everything is in there in QA format and it’s a quick and easy read compared to the Catechism of the the Catholic Church, which left me more confused than anything.

  25. Jenny bag of donuts says:

    Oh dear Ouida! There are many elderly brothers and sisters who have difficulty attending Sunday Mass for one reason or another. Please don’t fret. Are you able to watch a Mass on television? Even better, can you call your parish and ask a deacon or Eucharistic Minister to visit you with Holy Communion during those periods when you feel especially unwell? You don’t have to prove that you are sick “enough.” Your age warrents you special treatment.

    APX is right. The Batltimore Catechism rocks. If you can get your hands on The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism No. 2 in particular you will be in good shape. It has easy, quick explanations and cute dated pictures to illustrate points. I love it.

  26. Ouida says:

    Thank you APX and Jenny Bag of Donuts. I’ve never read the Baltimore Catechism but have checked it out on your recommendation. I can see that this is a must read, and I’m sure it will be very helpful to me. Boston Catholic Journal website has very good information and spiritual inspirations, one of my favorite sites, recommended to me by Poor Clare nuns who are friends with the site’s author.

    My husband is also a late-life convert, in his 80′s, and not well at all. He rarely makes it to Mass because of his health, and when he does, if he has not been to confession, he does not receive Holy Communion.

  27. Jenny bag of donuts says:

    Ouida, I hope you and your husband will request Holy Communion visits. Our Lord can come to you if you can’t come to Him. God bless.