QUAERITUR: How to confess past, forgotten sins?

From a reader:

I made a big confession spanning over many years of not going to Confession a few months ago. I thought I had made a good and thorough Examination of Conscience, as it took me close to a month of racking my brain for sins. Sadly, being very ignorant of things like the virtues and vices, seven deadly sins, etc, I left out a litany of sins that I’ve slowly discovered as I learn more. Some might be mortal sins, and some not. I’m not sure, but they do seem little on the graver side than other sins, and I’d like to confess them and get them out there, even if they’re not mortal because I feel pretty guilty and bad about them.

The problem is many of them I’ve left unconfessed for several confessions because I’m not sure how to confess them exactly. Do I just include them with my list of sins, or do I have to specify that they’re leftover from previous confessions? I go to confession bi-monthly, so I’m concerned moving up to the legal-sized list will pose some sort of a red flag to the priest that I had been making bad and insincere confessions previously and he’ll scold me for it.

No priest I know would scold you during confession for something like this.  Priests are impressed with people’s sincerity and courage.

The best way to approach this is to make your regular confession of what you can remember since your last confession and then say something along the lines of this: “Also, Father, after reflecting on my life and learning more, there are some things from my past that I haven’t confessed yet.”, and then just tell them briefly and succinctly.  Don’t dwell on them.  It’ll be fine.  You’ll see.

Keep in mind that when you make a good confession, to the best of your ability, even the sins that you have forgotten are forgiven.  If you remember them later, include them in your confession, by all means.  But don’t worry that you have to have a perfect, machine-like memory.  Just do your best and all your sins are forgiven.

The confessional may be a tribunal in which we ourselves are our own prosecutor, but the confessional isn’t a torture chamber.  Making a confession can be hard, because we really have to look hard at ourselves, but it isn’t a vivisection.

I am glad you want to be so thorough.  But remember that you are a human being, not an angel with an angelic mind which can never forget.  None of us are.

In the meantime, since we live and learn, this is an experience by which you have lived and learned.  Having done this, you won’t have to worry about knowing what to do next time.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    I appreciate posts like this. These help me with my own experiences with this sacrament.

  2. TomG says:

    When I reverted many years ago after many years away, I attempted an encyclopedic rehearsal of my sins. My confessor listened patiently and then welcomed me back as the prodigal I was. It was beautiful.

  3. Genna says:

    Same here. The priest said: “Congratulations. You’re back.” I came out of the confessional and wept.

  4. Patti Day says:

    Father Z, I wish every person who is in fear of going to confession, of being scolded, of possibly not being absolved, of not saying enough, of not saying the right way, could read this. I hope I may refer others who need encouragement to it.

  5. APX says:

    *sigh* I get where the questioner is coming from. While I’ve gotten my social anxiety under control in other social settings, the confessional is still a struggle for me, and these types of things reek havoc on my brain. I chronically worry in the confession line, go through breathing exercises and thought changes while trying to humbly confess my sins without having an anxiety attack, an then replay my confession experience over and over again in my head beating myself up. Sometimes I wish I could have the grace of forgetfulness.

  6. Gregg the Obscure says:

    I recently had a similar experience, realizing I had forgotten to confess a raft of sins that I had committed prior to my conversion. I ended up saying things like “I committed ****** about ## times over a period of twenty years” or “I committed %%%%% at least ### times”.

    Most of those recently remembered sins were related to one particular vice – a vice that has been a big problem for me as long as I can remember. Since that confession – about six weeks ago – I’ve had vastly less difficulty with that vice than ever before. Your mileage may vary.

  7. JohnE says:

    After years of going to confession only once or twice a year, and now trying to go at least once a month, I now occasionally remember some of the more damn-worthy things I’ve done from years ago — even as far back as my childhood and some of the cruel teasing I did to my brother. If I’m somewhat sure I’ve confessed them, I usually leave them alone. But if I’m not sure, I mention them. Or even if I’m sure I’ve confessed them but I now have better contrition for them than when I originally confessed them, I might mention that as well. I figure they were brought to my attention for a reason. I hope it’s not an abuse of the sacrament. I don’t feel as though I’m being scrupulous. I know I’ve been forgiven, but isn’t it an appropriate time to renew your sorrow for your past sins? Being forgiven doesn’t mean you no longer feel sorrow for what you’ve done, does it?

  8. Joseph-Mary says:

    Been there. Had 19 years between confessions and even after I had returned to regular confessions, things would ‘percolate’ into my consciousness. So I was inclined to make a general confession and the priest told me all the sins of my past life were gone and forgiven and I was not to bring them up again. And so I was free.

  9. kat says:

    We had a parish mission this year, and were able to make our general confessions either of our lives, or since our last general confession. Doing those once a year or every couple years, during a retreat or a mission, sure does help one feel confident about all the sins being forgiven!

    Do the Redemptorists still come around and do parish missions anymore?

  10. Anyone old enough to remember that there was a Catholic Church prior to 1962 has “stories” of “scary confessors.” It wasn’t typical, just as “scary sisters” weren’t typical in Catholic schools, but such “stories” were part and parcel of Catholic culture, more often told for laughs than not. I remember the dreaded “gauntlet” one had to navigate (the line of people waiting to confess) if your confessor was a bit on the loud side (“You did what?”) or you took a socially unacceptable length of time to confess your sins (“What did YOU do?”). The stares were unforgettable, and STILL make for funny “growing up Catholic” stories. For all that, confession was still a frequent practice in ordinary Catholic life. It kept us honest and properly contrite before God.

    I have only returned to frequent or regular confession in the past year and a half, and the difference it has made in my life is almost impossible to put into words. Once or twice a year just isn’t enough if you’re really serious about your spiritual life. Once I returned to regular confession, it was amazing how many “old sins” surfaced just because I had become sensitive once again to the reality of sin in my life. For me, it has been wonderful to “come clean” before God, and I think it is important to let the light of sacramental and sanctifying grace shine on all the areas of my inner darkness. Yes, I know that “forgotten sins” are forgiven in a good, general confession, but I think it is important to bring them to light as you remember them, not because I don’t think they are forgiven but because I don’t want to hide anything from God (as if I could), and it allows grace to work on any vulnerabilities I might still have in some areas.

    It is a “recovered memory” for me that I am a sinner, not just abstractly but really. I am fortunate to have a confessor who encourages me to remain contrite, even for forgiven sins. He encourages me to confess faults, and weaknesses, and frailties, and this has the unavoidable effect of making me conscious of my “firm purpose of amendment” in all areas of sinfulness, even the unintentional ones.

    Confession is good. I can’t recommend it highly enough!

  11. Supertradmum says:

    As one grows closer to God, one sees past sins which one did not think were sins at the time, but errors, mistakes, even serious matter which did not seem so to an untrained conscience. I think that part of growing in Christ is realizing the constant sinfulness of our nature and realizing that our entire lives have been, basically, sinful. To say otherwise is to miss out on the great Mercy of God, who is Compassionate Love. The sensitivity to sin grows, so that even so-called venial sins rightly seem horribly selfish and yet, humbling. “To be prefect even as your Heavenly Father is perfect” for most of us is a process. Therefore, going back and confessing past, un-confessed sins, does not seem abnormal, but part of the growth of humility and spiritual discernment. We should be seeing ourselves more clearly as sinners daily. That we all “fall short of the glory of God” is why we have Confession–thank God.

  12. Sandy says:

    Others have already mentioned that remembering these sins is a sign of our spiritual growth. The Holy Spirit allows them to percolate to the surface to purify us more and more. When they are confessed, we are made stronger in those areas and the devil is less able to torment us about having committed the sins. So it’s a good thing to have this whole process happen!

  13. MargaretC says:

    While remembering long forgotten sins may, indeed, be a sign of spiritual growth, might it not also be a symptom of scrupulousity?

  14. Random Friar says:

    @kat: Yes, they still do, although my experience was interesting and a little bewildering. Not doctrinally wrong, just oddly over-energetic and trying to hard, imho.

    The stories of scary confessors abound, mostly because they are the only ones people remember. Who’s going to tell a story about an ordinary confession, even if that’s 99% of them? Even positive ones rarely leave the confessional.

  15. Random Friar says:

    @MargaretC: If it’s been confessed and re-confessed, yes. Sometimes all I can do is reassure them and send them with a blessing and remind them that God has already forgiven them, since often they don’t even confess anything new. Not OCD, exactly, but hard for some of them to allow themselves closure.

  16. elestirne says:

    Thanks for this post. I had a period in my life for two or three years when I did not accept the Church’s teaching on many subjects. I went to confession, but once in a while I would remember sins that I had confessed incorrectly or forgotten. This is very comforting, especially as I have scrupulous tendencies.

  17. Catholictothecore says:

    This is such a timely post, thank you, Father. I too had wondered about the sins of my youth – did I confess them at the time many years ago. I would rationalize it by thinking yes they must be forgiven because the priest said, “I absolve you of ALL your sins.” So thank you for confirming my doubts. But just to be on the safe side I’m going to confess them soon. If it cuts short my stay in purgatory why not.

  18. Charlotte Allen says:

    I’m now totally confused. I was out of the church for a long time during my youth: Didn’t go to Mass, committed many sins, some of them mortal. Then, when I went back, I went to confession and confessed everything I could think of. During the years since, I’ve remembered sins that I didn’t confess–and right now I can’t really remember which sins I confessed and which ones I forgot to confess. I told a priest in confession a few months ago that I had old sins that I’d forgotten to confess, and he said, essentially: Forget it–that the sins had already been forgiven and I didn’t have to confess them at this very late date. Now, I’m hearing from Fr. Z that I ought to confess them. Who’s right? Especially since I can’t even remember whether I confessed some of these sins or not?

    Plus, there seems to be a theological problem: Do old mortal sins that you forgot to confess “jump back” onto your soul when you remember them, even though you were thoroughly forgiven (or thought you were) when you went to the confession where you forgot to confess them? Or do they “jump back” when you go to your next confession (after reading this blog entry) and deliberately leave them out because a priest in a prior confession told you that they’d already been forgiven so you didn’t have to mention them–but now Fr. Z. says you must mention them after all? Is the sin the “bad confession” (if it is a bad confession) or the sin you forgot about when you confessed the sins you remembered when you returned to the sacraments? If you can’t remember what you confessed and what you didn’t at this late date, do you have to start all over again and confess everything?

  19. evener says:

    Re: Charlotte Allen-
    I give an answer to your question of having to re-confess sins we’re not sure we confessed. If you are not sure, simply confess them and be done with them.
    In some old homilies recalled, we were told that the devil watches us closely, and determines how to tempt us by our reactions to things. For that reason he won’t tempt me to rob a bank I’m walking by, because it’s not one of my weaknesses. And we tend to commit the same sins again and again. But we must not accept this as our normal condition, but after our falls, head for confession. As St. Gertrude said, “Our temptations are our crosses.”

  20. Charlotte Allen says:

    @Evener: Oh, dear: My problem is that I don’t feel very tempted to re-commit most of my past sins. I have all new sins these days. Call me a confession coward, but what I think I’ll do is ask for a third opinion the next time I go to confession: Do I have to confess sins from decades ago that I may or may not have already confessed–or can I just rely on the fact, that, as a confessor told me a couple of months ago, that those old sins have been forgiven and I don’t have to trouble myself with them again? I did make a good-faith examination of conscience before I made my “big” confession on returning to the sacraments, so I’m hoping for that the answer will be the latter. [First, I think I deal with this in the post at the top. Second, it is time to relax about this a little. Third, a blog combox isn’t the place to work this out. Again… don’t fret.]

  21. Charlotte Allen says:

    Fr. Z: No worry, I went to confession today and raised this very issue. The priest said forget it, and he helped me focus on my recent sins. That sounded fine by me, so I’m never going to give old sins a second thought.

  22. celpar says:

    Father, I have to thank you for this post. I came back to the Church about 5 years ago and at the time thought I’d made a reasonably good confession, but gradually, thanks to increasing use of the sacrament and better understanding of the Church’s teachings, I began to suspect that it was imperfect. Some of the sins were, well, embarrassing, and I’m afraid I was trying to ignore the issue. And then I read the post and… it took me a few days, but I bit the bullet.
    So thanks again, you provided the necessary spiritual push.

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