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

Here is a question from a reader I answered some time ago.

But it is now Saturday of Passiontide.  Sure there are parishes this evening where you can find a priest hearing confessions.

Go. To. Confession.

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.  There is even an iPhone app to help you examine your conscience ahead of time!  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 number of 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 pattern 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 face the face to face thing.

Give it a shot, please!

There is nothing that matches that sense of reconciliation and the relief of the forgiveness of your sins.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    What Father said…Even if you had a bad experience with a priest at some time, most of them are actually very gentle with nervous penitents.

    It actually gets easier if you go more often. (Hint!) I’ve been going about once a month, and am seriously considering upping that to once every two weeks.

  2. wanda says:

    Go, friend. ‘You’ll be okay.’ Yes, you will. ‘There is nothing that matches that sense of reconcilliation and the relief of forgiveness of your sins.’ I can identify with your struggles. It had been 2 years in my case, but with Fr. Z.’s encouragement and enlightening posts, I was able to get myself to confession. It is good, you’ll be ok.

  3. APX says:

    Father Z!

    Funny you should bump this back up today. I wrote that and I’m actually going back to confession tonight to take care of some of the venial sins that are wreaking havoc on my life. In fact, I’m fretting over how to confess venial sins without them turning into a laundry list right now.

    Thanks so much for this the first time you posted it. It was the most helpful explanation of how to do Confession I’ve ever received. The way it was originally taught to me was so wishy-washy.

    It really wasn’t as bad as I was expecting, and there’s just something about walking into a dark, empty church that smells like incense that makes you feel like you’re compelled to go to confession.

  4. Marianna says:

    I liked Pope Benedict’s comment, that we wouldn’t let our house get all dusty and dirty – we clean it regularly. That, he said, is what our souls need, too. We need to take care of our souls. And what Fr Z. said about the happiness and relief of having our sins forgiven, is spot on.

  5. tealady24 says:

    Just go! Once you are there everything will fall into place; the Holy Spirit will be gentle with you! And when you hear those words of absolution, your heart will rejoice!

  6. APX says:

    when you hear those words of absolution, your heart will rejoice!

    This is one thing I find I don’t experience in the old form of Confession because the only word I can make out is excommunication. However, I prefer that it’s a three-fold absolution and more instills more graces than the new rite, so I’m willing to give up that moment.

  7. Random Friar says:

    Any priest has been in your shoes… and we are supposed to tell the person we are confessing to that we are clerics, even if the Confessor cannot see us!

    “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.”

    Priest are like you in every human way, even in the way our Lord wasn’t – with sin. We know what you are going through. And any priest worth his salt will recognize that. As I tell people, how can I withhold the same mercy God has shown me? I would be the worst example of the debtor, whose debt was forgiven by his king, and then refused to show the same to someone else.

  8. liongules says:

    Yes, go to Confession, everything will be all right! I too was afraid to go, having only been 2-3 times in my life and the last time was 25 years ago. I was so nervous and I couldn’t remember the Act of Contrition, I told th priest and he pointed to a small table next to me in the room. They had laminated cards on the table with the Act printed on them and I just read it off of the card. When I left that day I felt like a thousand tons had been lifted off of my shoulders. Please go to Confession, it will change your life!

  9. inIpso says:

    Even if it hasn’t been ten years…. GO! From my own experience I know that one sin always led to another and then another… until I was in so deep I failed to even realize I was spiritually dead. So don’t wait any longer… get to the doctor! Stop your soul from bleeding and prevent the infection by getting things treated early.

  10. amsjj1002 says:

    I went today, yay! The line was super-long, it stretched on and on and on…

    My little Lasance “Prayer Book” had something I found helpful to get started, even before the Prayer and the Examination of Conscience:
    Call to mind that this confession may be the last of your life. Therefore, prepare yourself for it as if you were lying sick on your deathbed, and already at the brink of the grave. Ask God to give you the grace to make a good examination of conscience, the light to see your sins clearly, and the strength to make a sincere confession and to amend your life.

    p. 462, 1923 edition

  11. APX says:

    I just got home from Confession after driving on terrible snow-covered highways, several cars in the ditch, as well as accidents. (Unpredictable April snow storms = Another good reason for frequent Confession) I’m starting to see that these graces do in fact work. I had several unpleasant experiences on the way home that would have normally resulted in a lot of cursing and losing my temper, and other unpleasantries. I didn’t drop one expletive or lose my temper for even a moment. I. am. Impressed.

  12. asperges says:

    Although as a youngster, I didn’t like being herded in Confession regularly by my parents, I am deeply grateful now that I was given that discipline which makes the regular “wash an brush up” something which does not seem strange or frightening. Indeed it is the lack of use of this wonderful sacrament which is frightening in times where we need it more and more.

    As to unsympathetic confessors, as a child in the ’50s, some of the imported clergy here in the UK were appalling in their attitudes; although on a lighter note, having confessed once as a child that I had bitten the cat – a most heinous sin I dreaded to relate at the age of 7 or 8 – there was a shuffling and groaning from the other side of the box and the sharp retort: “.. and how would you like the bl**** cat to bite you? Tree Hail Marys, O my God!”

    It is not a sin I have repeated since…

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