QUAERITUR: I haven’t been to confession for 10 years! I don’t know what to do!

From a reader:

I haven’t been to Confession in 10 years, and I’ve only gone three times back when I was still in grade school. It’s possible I wasn’t catechized in the sacrament properly because I don’t recall requiring the Act of Contrition, saying any lines for my first two Confessions, nor the proper format for confessing sins.

My last Confession was in a high school theatre and the priest kept tersely correcting me when I confessed my sins wrong, and seemed quite annoyed he had to walk me through it. Now the thought of going makes me anxious to the point I feel ill.

I’ve scoured the internet for guides to confession and examinations of conscience, as well as reviewed your 20 tips, but I’m still unsure about some things.

1. What EXACTLY is the proper way to confess sins, while still being brief at the same time? By Commandment (ie: “Took the Lord’s name in vain X amount of times)? Or by specifics (ie: received communion while not in a state of grace X amount of times)? Something Else?

2. What do you recommend I do if I can’t even hazard a reasonable estimate of how many times I did something?

3. If committing a mortal sin happens so often because it became a habit, is it still a mortal sin?

Before anything else, I am very glad that you are aware of your need to go to confession and you are striving to do it right.

Please know, friend, that going to confession is not supposed to be like being stretched on the rack.  Yes, it is hard.  Yes, you accuse yourself of sins.  Yes, you should be thorough and that can be painful.  But… think of the relief afterward.

Even if you don’t think you are wholly “knowledgeable” about what to do, go anyway.   The priest can help if you get stuck.  99.9% of priests are going to be pretty careful with you.    Just explain that it has been a long time and that you are nervous.  He’ll hear that.

1) There is no specific method of confessing or of examining your conscience, which is more to the point.  You can use the commandments.  That is a standard way.  You can go with virtues and vices.  I think examens using the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, are pretty complete.  Perhaps that would be the easiest.  You could simply say that you sinned against the, say, 4th Commandment X times.   However, sometimes you may need to add details or circumstances that made it worse.  For example, you can sin against the 7th Commandment by stealing a candy bar, stealing Bill Gate’s Porsche, or stealing a little old widow’s monthly pension.  If you are starving, running from an Islamic terrorist hit squad, or… well… I can’t think of a good reason to steal a widow’s pension at the moment, unless it is to buy Mystic Monk Coffee … no… not that either… these are details that need to be included.  Also, if you stole a candy bar once or 634 times, that is something you need to mention.  Get the idea?

2) It is necessary to confess sins in kind and number, what the sin was and how many times you did it.  The number does make a difference.  That said, we have bad memories.  Just do your best, friend and don’t torture yourself.  Ten years is a long time.  If you can’t think of numbers of times, go with something like an frequency, or an average per month, per year.  Something like that.  If you still can’t get at it, use something like “very rarely”, “really often”, “constantly”.  That sort of thing.  God knows that you are doing your best and, in examining your conscience, you are still giving yourself and the priest a sense of the problem you may or may not have with a particular sin.
3) Sometimes when a sin is deeply ingrained or habitual there is a sense in which the guilt of that sin can be a bit less.  That doesn’t mean that you are not committing a sin.  Furthermore, when you know that you are sinning, you have the responsibility to do something about it.  We can’t excuse ourselves saying, “I can’t help it!”, and then continue as if it suddenly is okay to do it because we struggled over it for a little bit.  This is one of the hard parts of the spiritual life: we have to be willing to suffer, plain and simple.  Saying “no” to ourselves can make us suffer.  But knowing that we are going to suffer ahead of time could help us get our heads into the right place and make some plans before hand, so when the hard part starts, we are not just twisting in the wind.  If you know that X is a big problem and that you had better stop X-ing, make a plan so that when you recognize you are on the verge of X-ing, your pre-arranged plan will kick in and you will Y instead.  This can help.

Finally, it really does help to memorize a regular patter or routine for what to say.  That structure will make it easier!

Take it easy friend.

If you forget something, but you did your best during the confession itself, don’t fret.  Mentioned it the next time you go.  God knows you did your best and He doesn’t expect the impossible.

You’ll be okay.  Just go.  And if you think you may need a little time, make an appointment with the priest, even to meet at the confessional if you don’t want to do the face to face thing.

Give it a shot, please.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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