THE list again: Fr. Z’s 20 Tips For Making A Good Confession (and Fr. Z rants)

You and I are going to die someday.  We don’t know when.

When we die we will be judged.

Scripture teaches, and Christ’s own words and actions make clear, that there are some sins bad enough to kill the life of grace in the soul and sever you from friendship with God.

Die in that state and you will be eternally separated from God.

If you think about that  – eternal separation from God – which doesn’t immediately sound that bad, you will run or crawl to the confessional, get yourself to the priest to confess every mortal sin in kind and number you can think of…. because… you one day will die.

Jesus Christ Himself gave His own power to forgive sins to bishops and priests as the ordinary means for forgiveness of post-baptismal mortal sins.  Christ’s power is exercised in the Sacrament of Penance.

You may have heard some goofy ideas over the years, or when you were growing up, about it being nearly impossible to commit a mortal sin, or that all that stuff the Church taught is too strict or too focused on sex or too mired in the mores of ages past.

Do you want to bet your eternal soul on those goofy ideas which, in your heart of hearts you know full well are dead wrong?  When they are going all squishy and wobbly and easy on what you are doing… doesn’t that actually ring alarm bells somewhere in your conscience?

That alarm bell you hear is your conscience and God’s grace trying to pull your sorry backside out of the serious spiritual danger your soul might be in.   And if your soul winds up in Hell, friend, your body will one day follow.  And the results of that will never… ever… end.

Never ending separation from God in hopeless, loveless agony … or… the sight of God face to face, the fulfillment of every good and the perfection of every joy and virtue in communion with the angels and saints and the infinite Triune God.

Heaven or the PIT.

Stick to the Church, friends.

Review the Catechism of the Catholic Church or any old approved Catechism or pious book of prayers with examinations of conscience.  Forget what the “Everyone’s just fine as they are and Jesus is a fluffy huggy friend” crowd, the “There can’t be anyone in hell” gang.  Wanna bet your soul on that?

Never mind about the pious language in some of those older book, look at the substance. The things the old books and approved Catechisms say are sins really are sins and they can put you in Hell forever if you don’t confess them, receive absolution, do penance and amend your life.

Go to confession.  Hold nothing back.

Go to confession.  Confess it all, in kind and number.

Go to confession.  Don’t be afraid.

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) …never confess “tendencies” or “struggles”… just sins;
15) …never 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 sometimes priests can have bad days just like we do;
20) …remember that priests must go to confession too … they know what we are going through.

This list is always available on a page I created for this blog.  Go to the bottom of the blog and look for the page in the list on the left footer.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Thank you, Father,
    I think this was the kick in the rear I needed… I already recognized that I needed to go but I let various things get in the way, excusing myself that it wasn’t my fault things kept coming up or that I had read an incorrect schedule and Confession wasn’t going on as I was driving by (which really wasn’t my fault… but it doesn’t excuse letting this drag on for weeks).

    I wanted to go before Holy Thursday mass for obvious reasons, but I hadn’t acctually resolved with certainty to do it. Now I have so, thank you!

    Plus, beyond the Triduum, I’ll be driving a few hundred miles this weekend… I’ll drive much more peacefully not worrying that in the very unlikely chance something terrible happened, well, you know…

  2. joan ellen says:

    Thank you, Father. That’s a rant? I thought it was telling us like it is. Anyway going to Confession tomorrow. Am also emailing this post to my list. It could make a large difference for others as well as for us who frequent this blog.

  3. Jacob says:

    I went last night. I waited patiently in line and used the opportunity to say my Rosary. The confessor was very nice.

  4. Charles E Flynn says:

    If you have absorbed over the years a few ideas that you suspect might be, as Fr. Z put it, “goofy”, review the importance of the two words “I believe” (in the first comment to this posting):

    warning: some Kleenex might be handy in certain cases.

  5. Charles E Flynn says:

    21. Thank the priest at the end of the sacrament, and mention briefly something he said that you found especially helpful.

    22. After performing your penance, make a note about something memorable the priest said, even if only on the back of an ATM slip.

  6. EWTN Rocks says:

    Although I’m not the biggest fan of Confession right now, I know it will get easier over time. Even though I felt inept, the priest was kind and understanding. Thank you for posting tips – I’ll be referring to them before I go next time!

  7. ncstevem says:

    I broke # 2 last week when I went to confession with my wife. Two priests hearing confession in confessionals on opposite sides of the church. One line in front of one of the confessionals when my wife and I show up. We wait in line like everyone else.

    After waiting in line 15 – 20 minutes, my wife is next in line when someone from the back of the line leaves the line and walks to the opposite confessional even after observing that people from the line were using both confessionals. Then several people enter the church and start lining up in front of the opposite confessional. I finally had enough and walked over to the ‘new’ line of confessors and told these folks that the people they saw across the church were in fact not waiting for the bus and that the line to have one’s confession heard started at the BACK of said line. My wife wanted to crawl in a hole.

    I don’t know about you folks, but I don’t have much patience for people who think they can step in front of everyone else.

    So now I have to go back to confession before Easter.

  8. JayneK says:

    I highly recommend the book Frequent Confession: Its Place in the Spiritual Life by Dom Benedict Baur, OSB. It gives a lot of good information about the pious practice of confessing venial sins. I wrote a series of posts about it at Voces Traditionis:

  9. Janine says:

    May I please ask regarding #6, to always confess those.. even if we have already done so? I have heard it both ways, and have been told I was forgiven and not to bring it up again… so since I dont want to go to the pit… I’m asking if you would clarify. thanks

  10. chloesmom says:

    Last night I went to our parish church early.- Confessions are scheduled 15 miutes before each Mass. No light in the Confessional; no sign of a priest. Disappointed, I knelt in the pew and said a fervent act of Contrition instead. Next thing I know, the priest appears from behind the pulpit to the left of the altar and goes to the altar to begin Mass. He was there all the time, but completely invisible from the body of the church (he’s a short man)… This is typical unfortunately. There were a few others in the church before Mass started – maybe they’d arrived to go to Confession also. My question: if there were Confessions scheduled, shouldn’t the priest have been sitting in or near the box until a few minutes before the start of Mass, and then gone to the altar? As might be obvious, Confession is not promoted at all in our parish — it’s more the ” Everyone’s just fine as they are and Jesus is a fluffy huggy friend” philosophy. In fact, at the end of every Mass, the priest thanks us for being there and says, “remember, God loves you”… He does, of course, but He also expects us to do our part to respect and honour Him by living good lives. (That’s my mini-rant for the day!)

  11. The Cobbler says:


    Any that you’ve already Confessed — are gone. Number is “reset” to zero, so to speak.

    Any that you haven’t, you should Confess. Number is only since this sin was last Confessed because, as noted above, the ones already Confessed are gone.

    Any that you haven’t Confessed out of simply, honestly not remembering them when you made your Confession(s) should still be Confessed once remembered, but until then are covered by the intention to reject all serious sin (“…and I destest _all_ my sins…”).

    If you (I say this in the hypothetical sense — you, Janine, may not need to hear it, but may find it handy to pass on someday) suffer from geniune scrupulousity (which is not, contrary to the opinion of some people, caring about sin or thinking in detail about it at all, but rather an obsession — in the psychological sense — over the possibility of sin that makes it difficult or even psychologically impossible to accept normal moral certitude or deal normally with genuine doubt), this intention to reject all sin covers any that you are uncertain of, and you should therefore leave doubtful might-be-sins under that rather than feed the obsessions that comprise real scrupulousity. If you don’t suffer from scrupulousity, it’s commendable to err on the side of caution, bearing in mind that once you’ve made a morally reasonable effort God counts that, not whether you happened to remember exactly every last thing you did. (The difference here is that scruples make it unreasonable to try to gauge what would normally be morally reasonable, so more emphasis is instead placed on God’s being merciful as long as you do what you honestly can, which as noted above is already a principle in cases of honest mistakes or forgetfulness even when scrupulousity isn’t involved.)

  12. APX says:

    It was through this list that I stumbled upon your blog.

    I have a hard time with a lot of examinations of conscience. I either don’t understand what they mean and find myself saying, “I don’t know” or they’re out of date for my 21st century sins and don’t know where to categorize them.

  13. PghCath says:

    Confession tonight for my wife and I. . . bring on the Triduum!

    In addition to my penance, the confessor asked me to pray for the auxiliary bishop to be ordained in Pittsburgh on Monday. He noted that the new bishop has spent his entire life in the Diocese of Harrisburg and will need extra support as he starts his new life here in Pittsburgh. It was a nice request – our bishops always need prayers.

  14. PghCath says:

    Make that “me and my wife. . .”

  15. Fr Martin Fox says:

    Some thoughts:

    > Confessing sins as mortal, even if you’re unsure. Do confess a sin in any case; but do not automatically “upgrade” a sin to mortal “when in doubt.” It is important to arrive at a right judgment, and God does not wish us to apply a more severe law than he does, nor one that is less severe. Or, to put it another way: given three elements to make one culpable of a mortal sin, one cannot be culpable if one honestly is in doubt about having committed a mortal sin. It’s axiomatic! Why? Because one essential element is…full knowledge. Not knowing whether a sin is a mortal one is, manifestly, not “full” knowledge. Either that, or ones doubt would have to pertain to ones freedom; either way, the result is the same: one is not culpable of a mortal sin. In my judgment, accusing yourself of a mortal sin without being clear about it, is not correct; simply confess the sin.

    Some additions to Father’s list, if I may:

    > Tell the sins, not the stories.
    > Always make an act of thanksgiving to God afterward.

  16. Ed the Roman says:

    Or “for my wife and me.” :-)

  17. ttucker says:

    If only we could go to Confession where I am.
    The week leading up to Easter and no Confession times this week!

  18. NancyP says:

    Due to scheduling conflicts, I wound up at tonight’s “last Confession before the Triduum” opportunity. Good: Two priests, prepared for several hours in the confessional. 50+ penitents. Frustrating: Knowing that people were still arriving as I was leaving, yet confessions were going very, very slowly. I wish our pastor had mentioned on Sunday that those of us arriving for the Sacrament tonight were very, very welcome, but should arrive prepared (examination of conscience complete). Side benefit: I met a lovely fellow parishioner I’ve never seen before, and I hope to talk with her some time in the future. She has a long history with our parish but seems a bit disconnected; maybe that’s why I was there tonight…

  19. MissOH says:

    I have a mini notebook so as I am doing my examen so I can jot down what I need to remember rather than doing a head smack later. I know how to obliterate paper afterwards.
    Fortunately, though the availability of the Triduum in the EF is not what many would want, the sacrament of confession is available at numerous parishes in the area up until Holy Saturday morning.
    ttucker- I would be e-mailing and or writing my (arch) bishop … a charitable reminder of the fact that the priests bishop have the responsibility to the souls in their pastoral care. Prayers for that situation to change.

  20. Red Cardigan says:

    A question about penances: when a priest assigns a vague-ish one, is one’s intention to do the penance enough provided one actually does *something*?

    Not long ago I received the penance “Do something nice for your family” on a Sat. when I was unsuccessfully fighting a migraine. Knowing that I would have to go to bed when we got home (and thus would not be able to do any of the “usual” nice things a mom can do for her family, e.g. a nice dinner or dessert etc.) I formed the intention of offering my daily rosary specifically for my family as the “nice thing.” I managed the first decade before I fell asleep, and then finished the other four when I woke up later.

    Now, though, I’m wondering if I really performed the penance properly; of course, praying for one’s family is nice, but did I need to do something active as soon as that was a possibility? And if I do something now, do I need to offer it intentionally in my heart as the “nice thing” I was supposed to do?

    Sigh. I do wish that vague penances would disappear.

  21. Joan A. says:

    In my youth I drifted away from the faith, and did not go to confession for many years, and only to Mass occasionally. Then about 9 years ago I realized I should be practicing my religion regularly. After 2 failed attempts to go to confession (because I was terrified) I did go to a very devout, serious priest.

    After being away so long, I hardly knew what my sins were, or even what was a mortal or venial sin, and I was nervous and uncertain how to proceed. Hence I did NOT confess “in kind and number”. I gave a sort of sweeping generalization of the lifestyle I led, which was nothing unusual or shocking, probably relatively mild. I even said to the priest, “You know, all the same banal sins you must hear all the time.” (I didn’t know better, OK?!?)

    He asked me a few questions, I don’t recall what, and seemed to accept my confession, gave me absolution, and some brief advice, including saying the rosary regularly. I considered myself at that moment “BACK” in the Church.

    Since that time (9 years ago) I have made fairly regular confessions. But since becoming better educated (thanks, Fr. Z and all holy priests!), I have got worrying about that confession 9 years ago. First, was I absolved of everything even though (in my ignorance of what was a proper confession, and the priest’s not asking for it) I did not confess kind and number? Second, do I need to do anything now to make up for that?

    I’ve had 9 years of subsequent confessions, it seems to me I have been absolved enough times to cover everything, even if not all stated in kind and number. There’s a point where this starts to seem absurd. But, if there is some benefit to dredging up this old stuff (further penance? or what?) and confessing it in a more explicit manner, then I could try to do that…???

  22. benedetta says:

    APX, I don’t find it that difficult to apply examinations of conscience to our century. I don’t notice things that don’t apply to our times, let’s put it that way. But perhaps one thing, I would suggest in addition to the solid examinations which exist out there is to supplement your examination with an examination formulated for young people. Only as a supplement. Because these often are framed with experience of those who work with young people and know what their struggles with different types of sin are about right now. Even an examination aimed at younger children could be of help to those whose catechism about confession effectively ended at 2nd grade and never heard anything more about it, or for those who feel their rcia formation wasn’t up to speed for their needs as they make their journey. You can look back at these outlines to supplement and help you along. It’s also easier for us adults as well if we realize, having once been kids too, that we are all capable of sin, even children, and can benefit from the sacrament. Because our formation in this area is often sort of disjointed, like, 7 years old and then, there you are in adulthood already with serious matters and as Fr. Z says you find something tugging. I always find it reassuring to observe parents bringing children to the sacrament and to see young people seeking it out, even in places where it is not, for whatever reason, emphasized or encouraged. I don’t know for sure what that is all about, perhaps our priests and leaders are overwhelmed with so many things and this one slipped by, but, it’s pretty obvious, just going on scripture alone, that it is all about God showing His unconditional love for us and our expression of desire for relationship with Him. Why must it be this way? God shows this love in many ways, but this way is unique and it is helpful for countless reasons. I could not catalog all of those reasons, but I would say that all relationships take work, commitment, listening, response, and, if we are going to attempt to listen to do it His way, in connection with goodness, then we are going to have to bring our awareness and consciousness to that. It is a deliberate thing that requires our focus and it is framed to each individual’s needs and circumstances. You can’t accomplish this communally, it must be attended to personally, repetitively…Not that we can’t pray together with a communal attitude of needing God’s mercy, forgiveness, in sorrow…we can, but that’s another story…

  23. Dr. Sebastianna says:

    If you have committed a mortal sin and confessed it, but you didn’t know to confess the number of times, and the priest didn’t remind you, do you have to confess it again, with an estimate of the numbers? It’s rare to find a priest who will ask how many times you did something nowadays.

  24. pelerin says:

    I am a great procrastinator with this. I put off and put off until I receive a great ‘nudge’. This time the nudge was in the form of the Sunday homily given unusually from in front of the altar. The subject was the importance of Confession and wow was it powerful! It was just what I needed to get me in the box before Easter.

  25. irishgirl says:

    I find it hard to go to confession, much less trying to examine my conscience.
    I’m always nervous when I do go-by the time I leave the confessional, my back is damp with perspiration.
    I always feel ‘rushed’ ,especially when confession times are limited and there’s a line of penitents behind me. There’s nothing I find more annoying when someone ‘hogs’ the confessor’s time!
    I don’t have much interaction with people-I live alone. What sort of trouble can I get into that way?
    I know I’m not perfect-far from it! But I end up confessing the same things over and over again-I’m surprised that the priest gets tired of hearing them, too!
    I’m too intimidated by confession-and I don’t have a ‘regular’ confessor or spiritual director, anyway. In the days when I did have one, it was inevitable that he got either transferred to another parish or had more responsibilities placed on his shoulders.
    I got ‘kicked out’ of the lay branch of the Discalced Carmelites eleven years ago because of my ‘infrequent going to confession.’

  26. my kidz mom says:

    Thanks for the nudge, Fr. Z and Holy Spirit. Daughter & I went last night. No times at our regular parish, so went to cathedral to get’r done.

  27. APX says:

    There’s nothing I find more annoying when someone ‘hogs’ the confessor’s time!

    I found something slightly more annoying and baffling on Saturday. When pre-teens spend a long time in the Confessional and come out laughing it up, when you know full well your priest isn’t one of jocularity, especially in the Confessional.

    Anyway, it’s not people hogging the confessional I have issues with. It’s just when it’s been one long confession after another, after another, especially when I let these people go ahead of me! I kind of feel pressured to rattle off “The List” as quickly as possible and worry not to annoy the priest with my peddly stuff.

  28. Catholictothecore says:

    There’s nothing I find more annoying when someone ‘hogs’ the confessor’s time!

    So true ! One time we had to wait for 30 minutes, yes 30 minutes, for someone to come out of the confessional. When I went in next my heart just melted because her tears were still in the confessional. It brought tears to my eyes. We are all sinners. We strive, we try not to sin but we fall short. It it wasn’t for the Sacraments especially the Sacrament of Reconciliation we’d all go down to the Pit as Fr. Z pointed out. God’s love is manifested in our lives in so many different ways EVERY single day but especially when we go for Confession. Thank you, Lord.

  29. JayneK says:

    Irishgirl, I used to have the same problem with confessing the same faults every time. The book I recommended earlier in these comments, Frequent Confession was of great help to me. Here is a section from my blog article in Voces Traditionis, :

    One of the pieces of advice that I found most helpful was Fr. Baur’s comments regarding confessing the same fault over many Confessions. I used to be discouraged when in this situation until I read what he had to say:

    Our purpose of amendment need not be and indeed should not be changed in every Confession. But if it is not changed, it should be renewed and made more firm and more solidly established in every Confession. As a rule the same purpose of amendment should be retained and renewed in each Confession until the fault against which it is directed has been energetically attacked for some time and its dominance noticeably shaken.

    It is normal to struggle a long time against our venial sins and we must persevere. The Sacrament of Confession is a powerful source of grace in this struggle. Fr. Baur’s book is practical and encouraging. He wrote:

    The important thing for us is not so much that we never again fall into any faults, but rather that we never become indifferent and careless about our faults and failings or about their roots and causes, that we sincerely turn away from them and never come to terms with them, that we always keep on climbing upwards to the holy heights of God’s love.

  30. JayneK says:

    It is not unusual for something annoying to happen when I am waiting for Confession. I have started thinking of these things as God adding to the penance assigned by the priest. It is easier to deal with them when I accept them as opportunities to express my sorrow for my sins.

  31. irishgirl says:

    That’s what I meant about people ‘hogging’ the confession time.
    I don’t like being in the ‘box’ anymore than strictly necessary.
    My confession ‘motto’is ‘Be Blunt, Be Brief, and Be Gone’!

  32. Gregg the Obscure says:

    Wow. I was 20 minutes early today and there were already a dozen people ahead of me. Twenty or so in line when I left. (For you Denverites out there, this was at Holy Ghost. By the time I got to a box, there were three priests performing this most vital work. They’re at it again on Good Friday, should you need to stop in.)

    If I may, two requests to priests:

    1 Please be generous in offering this sacrament at times that are logistically feasible for working folks.
    2 Please give penances that are clearly defined. About three years ago, I was given a very vague penance, so I did something pretty big and ended up prideful over what I had done. Certainly not the priest’s intent, but I doubt I’m the only person who could fall into that trap.

  33. The Cobbler says:

    Red Cardigan: “… praying for one’s family is nice, but did I need to do something active as soon as that was a possibility?”
    If prayer isn’t something real and active, I don’t know what is.

    I didn’t always think this way — or not really beyond a theory — but at this point in my life I know from experience as well as intellectual notions that it’s true. I also know I’m a wimp when it comes down to that… but I also know that whether I’m wimpy doesn’t matter as much as whether I’m trying to work with God even in my wimpiness.

    Fr. Fox: Good point. I tend to forget that because, not being scrupulous myself but definitely being prone to lose track of details of my memories, I’m usually unsure what I knew at the time more than I was unsure at the time itself. I guess that makes two largely different issues. I should probably focus more on the fact that by definition it can’t be mortal if you’re genuinely unsure, barring deliberately keeping yourself in the dark — and then, that caveat hardly needs to be brought up with scrupulousity, because what scrupulous person in either sense of the word intentionally remains ignorant of morality? I’m starting to get a better grasp of how these things will play out in life, despite knowing the varied possibilities on an intellectual level and how to assess them abstractly — I geuss what I’m saying is, I’m gradually getting that even though abstract assessment isn’t inherently inaccurate, sometimes it’s superfluous and opens up more rabbit-holes than it closes.

  34. Will D. says:

    Partly thanks to you, Fr. Z, and thanks to a real fire and brimstone sermon from my own parish Priest, I finally went to confession yesterday for the first time in 15+ years. [Fantastic! Thanks for sharing that!] The Capuchins have set up a chapel at the Mall down the road from me and they hear confession all day, every day except Sunday. They were doing land office business yesterday.
    When my turn came, Father came out and waved me into a chair, torpedoing my intention to make my confession behind the screen. But even so, it wasn’t as painful as I expected. Father was helpful and understanding of the fact that my confession was to the best of my memory, that I wasn’t omitting things intentionally, and he was helpful in stepping me through the sacrament. I found M. Dubruiel’s A Pocket Guide to Confession to be very handy for the examination of conscience and the actual confession.
    So, if, like me, you’ve been putting off going — go now. It won’t be as bad as you think, and there’s never a better time than during the Triduum.

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