QUAERITUR: Mind goes blank during confession

From a reader:

I went to Confession the other day, and my biggest fear came true- my mind went completely blank.

What happened was the guy ahead of me informed the priest (he’s a visiting priest) that we could hear everything he was saying outside the confessional. When I went in and started the “Bless me Father”, the priest loudly tapped on the plexi-glass glass screen (it sounded more like banging because it was loose) and told me I needed to whisper right into the screen (I wasn’t talking loudly). It completely scared me, as I wasn’t expecting that. My mind went completely blank and I couldn’t even remember the rest of the, “Bless me Father”. I knelt there racking my brain (and desperately trying not to curse) while the priest just sat there in silence. No helping me along. About a minute or two later I got the “I accuse myself of the following sins”, but as for confessing my sins, I could only remember a few after racking my brain for a while.

This was a most unpleasant Confession experience, and something I was always afraid would happen. What should I do if it ever happens again?

First, isn’t it wonderful that the priest was hearing confessions?

Everyone is going to be a different in this regard. However, perhaps using a specific method of examining your conscience could help. For example, get used to using the Ten Commandments. If you go blank, just start at the top. Also, if you are making a regular examination of conscience, you will be used to doing this.

Always keep your voice low in the confessional.

In the meantime, if you forget things, keep in mind that when you have done your best, all your sins are forgiven.  Just do your best.  That’s all God asks of us.  Be humble and sorry and resolve to be better and avoid sins in the future.

When you remember in the future, go ahead and confess your sins, perhaps mentioning that they were things you forgot the last time.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    I hate to say it, but this reminds me of the time my mind went completely blank after someone walked in on me and was trying to take my place after seeing me. The priest even had to intervene and tell the person to leave.

  2. Giambattista says:

    “Going blank” has always been a concern of mine as well. Many years ago as I was doing my examination of conscience, I started writing down what I uncovered. I then tuck this paper inside the front cover of my missal and take it to the confessional. Doing this, for me, aleviates the anxiety of “going blank” so I can try to focus on contrition, ammending my ways and etc.

    After I leave church I destroy the paper because it would not be cool if somebody found it. Since I generally drive a distance that requires one pit-stop to/from Mass, I generally tear the paper up in small pieces and leave it in the garbage can in a distant town. It probably sounds stupid, but I like the feeling of shredding the paper up and throwing it in the trash.

    On occasions when I knew I would be in a dark confessional box I’ve taken a small flashlight (the kind that takes a couple AA bateries) so that I can see the paper in the dark.

  3. I made my first Confession in two years yesterday.

    I was quite nervous and it felt like my first confession ever.
    My mind went blank a few times but I kept coming back to it.

    The priests response to my two years of being away from the church, and me asking to return, ” Well.. the doors always open.”

    During the absolution I had a huge weight lifted of my soul and had my first Communion in over 2 years.

    It is awesome to be back home.

  4. Faith says:

    The Iphone Confession App solves this problem. The examination of conscience takes you through the ten commandments with suggested sins. You then check them off. In the confessional, you turn the App on and your list is there for you to read and say.

  5. Brad says:

    It is Christ we meet in the booth! He, humble friend by our side, brought us there, driving in the car on the way, observing us chew on our thoughts and make our plans on phraseology, He waited with us in line, observing our restless hands. His sacred heart had compassion on our nervous hearts. When our minds go blank, like fainting sheep, our shepherd already knew what we had earnestly meant to say and took pity. Our judge is our friend, faithful and true. The one we were journeying to meet is the very one who had been our traveling companion, all along.

    O faithful and true, I love you.

  6. MyBrokenFiat says:

    Good to know I’m not the only one with this fear (and subsequent freeze-up when I inevitably feel like I’ve forgotten something).

    Giambattista, methinks you’re onto something. I’ve been toying with writing a list down myself, but I feel like if I did that, I’d end up in the confessional for hours and people behind me would get really angry…

  7. Dr Guinness says:

    “…someone walked in on me and was trying to take my place after seeing me…”

    Perhaps I’m not understanding you properly, but if you mean to say that someone entered the confessional while you were in the middle of the session, and tried to kick you out, that’s awful!

  8. It helps when the line begins at a reasonable distance from the confessional. Pastors may help with this by putting up a sign or something that indicates where the line should be.

    Another helpful aid is a “white-noise” maker which is turned on only when confessions are being heard. There is one in use at Ss Cyril & Methodius in Sterling Heights, MI in the chapel where there are confessionals which is on only when confessions are being heard. One priest at Assumption Grotto turns one on in his confessional. It sounds similar to a fan running and diffuses noise. While voices may be heard, you don’t get the words.

    I myself am hearing impaired. I have no choice but to ask the priest to speak up and in some cases, that doesn’t even help. I make it a point to go to a priest I know I can hear. I have never had a concern at my parish that my confession or the priest talking to me will be heard, because of the distance provided.

    Confessionals with curtains, and with a kneeler on either side (usually quite old confessionals), really trouble me since it would not be difficult for others to hear the priest or the penitent. If I can avoid it, I do not go to such a confessional when it is used in this way. With so few penitents today, there is no reason for someone to be kneeling on the other side of the priest while another confesses on another. If we get many penitents in the future, I would hope that something more practical could be worked out to expedite it all.

  9. akp1 says:

    @ Brad: That is beautiful. That is our Lord indeed. Thanks!

  10. Gregg the Obscure says:

    A few times I’ve printed out an examination of conscience and added a few notes in pertinent spots, then destroyed the paper after confession.

  11. JohnE says:

    I’ve been making brief notes on a piece of paper — just enough to bring things back to memory if I forget them. I’ve thought burning them afterwards would be good, and fun for my 8-yr-old son to do with his too (fire is so cool), but just haven’t found a good way and place to do that. So usually they discretely end up buried within other trash, bagged with more trash, and then thrown in the dumpster outside.

  12. jasoncpetty says:

    Seconding the white noise machine as a remedy. They really do work. Fathers, you can buy them very cheaply on the baby-stuff aisle at your local shopping center. It also has the benefit of letting people waiting know that “the Doctor is in” if you’ve forgotten to put up a sign, turn on a light, or whatever it is you do to let folks know you’re in the confessional. If you’re a hard-of-hearing priest, just put it far enough away (where the people in line stand) and it won’t bother your hearing. (At one parish I attend sometimes, some goon contractor decided to put an air vent right next to where the penitent kneels, making essentially everything said inside audible to almost everyone in the church waiting for Mass to start. In short, Fathers, many people are nervous about Confession; don’t unknowingly aggravate this if a quick-fix is possible.)

    (Father Z, I also like the idea of a sign saying “Line for confession begins here,” etc. One could also put the scheduled times on it as a last reminder. It’d be a good reminder for people walking into church that Holy Confession exists in practice, not just theory.)

  13. Glen M says:

    If you have an iPhone then I most eagerly recommend one of the Confession apps. If I make it to Heaven, I’m convinced my Confession app will have helped get me there.

    When I unfortunately commit a sin I’ll take out my iPhone, go to the app, and record it. Somehow making this immediate record helps me to lower my sinfulness. It’s one thing to know something is a sin and to try and not do it – it’s extra incentive to not have to make a record of it.

    Prior to the Sacrament, the app provides a thorough Examination of Consciousness. To Another Person’s Sins are all there.

    During Confession you don’t have to worry about memorizing the prayers as they are accessible on the app. If you are in an traditional Confessional then you don’t have to worry about lighting as the iPhone provides a back-light.

    Once my sins are forgiven and I’m back in the good books (so to speak) I greatly enjoy erasing said sins from my app and often think something like “Go away sins. In your face, Satan.”

    Overall, I am disappointed with the iPhone and need to get a Blackberry again for my business. However, I’ll keep this invention from Mr. Jobs and the monthly bill as I sincerely believe it’s helping me follow Christ more closely and may very well help me spend Eternity with Him.

    White noise during Confession is a blessing. Whether it’s choir practice or a group Rosary, no one needs to hear other people’s sins – we’ve got enough of our own.

  14. MJ says:

    Had this happen once…I think Fr. had interjected a comment while I was talking – totally fine, but it made me loose my train of thought…I thought for a bit (felt like for-e-ver but it was probably only 20 seconds or so) and then just continued doing my best. Didn’t remember everything – but I remembered later, so at my next confession I mentioned the things I’d forgotten the last time.

    I think sincere and perfect contrition is more important than fretting over whether we remember everything…just do your best, and if you remember something you forgot later on just confess it next time around.

  15. okiesarah says:

    I usually write my list on my hand in pen. That way there is no list to lose later,.and it gives me particular satisfaction to wash it off after I’m done.

  16. Sliwka says:

    I made a wallet sized copy of this Examen: http://www.thelightisonforyou.org/pdfs/TheLightIsOnForYou_ExaminationForMarriedCouples.pdf

    I can carry it in with me so that even if I forget, which I tend to do, I do not even need a list, I just go through me examen.

  17. In my Episcopalian days, the priest who instructed our group taught us to prepare for confession by setting aside some time for examination and to make a written list to use in the confessional. That was nearly 50 years ago and over those years I doubt I have made as many as 25 confessions without a list. It works. Almost always I later burn the list, a very satisfying way to get rid of it.

  18. APX says:

    I’ve been toying with writing a list down myself, but I feel like if I did that, I’d end up in the confessional for hours and people behind me would get really angry…

    Personally, I find the list makes it go faster as it:
    a) keeps me on track and prevents rambling
    b) 100% prevents me from forgetting and having to stop to remember
    c) gives me a chance to organize and combine related sins into one sentence and prevent confessing duplicate sins

    I’m the type of person who will start talking to someone and then my mind will go completely blank and I’ll forget why I’m talking to them. I write everything down from the “Bless me Father…” to the “for these and all the sins of my past life…” and if I’m going someplace I’ve never been and don’t know if there’s an Act of Contrition posted (most Reconciliation Rooms don’t have seem to have one) I also include the Act of Contrition, just in case I forget that too.

  19. Norah says:

    This is so embarrassing – don’t look at my name! lol I am in a wheelchair and at Christmas we went to confession. My daughter wheeled me to the confessional but my chair wouldn’t allow the door to close and so my daughter said she would stay outside to let people know that someone was in the confessional. I had to confess my sins with my daughter listening!! She said she didn’t hear anything but she would say that wouldn’t she!! I still haven’t recovered.

  20. RMT says:

    I make a list sometimes, but I try to do it in a discreet shorthand with tally marks–that way I can confess kind and number, but if it slips out, it won’t be seen as a list of sins

  21. James Joseph says:

    I have found it helps to write on a chit of paper the numbers 1 through 10. Next, I systematically go through the Ten Commandments. I also give acknowledgement to which Christian Virtues I believe I have violated; so that, when in the Confessional I am able to relay these to the priest in an expedient and efficient manner as there are, what seems like always, others waiting for access to the Sacrament of Mercy.

    i.e. I have sinned in violating the twelfth commandment nine times due to my sloth and three due to my anger, etc.

    The paper is promptly destroyed.

  22. My pastor always plays Gregorian Chant while he is hearing Confessions. It keeps the penitent or priest from being heard, and is very comforting for those waiting in line praying, or examining their conscience.

  23. twsumrall says:

    Indeed, one of my great fears. But I found early on a great solution. My former Anglican priest had a great card printed off for the order of confession, and ended it with “for these and all other sins which I know in my heart but cannot recall with my lips, I commend myself to the mercy of Almighty God.”
    I still use the phrase to end my confession, because it both a. covers my forgetfulness and b. gives the priest a clear statement that I’m done and he can proceed with assigning penance.

  24. FrPaul says:

    If you go to fathersofmercy.com you will find a free examination of conscience. It is on the homepage just below the picture of their chapel – the Divine Mercy painting. You must download the examination of conscience. The Fathers of Mercy give excellent parish missions all over the place and they are solid in their teaching. Since they began giving missions at my parish I now make available their examination of conscience when Confessions are being heard. Why? They hit all the major points for Confession. Also as a Priest, it is easy for me to point out to a penitent that the examination of conscience is NOT written by me but by the Fathers of Mercy. That’s what I like about the Fathers of Mercy: they confirm what they already hear from their Pastor, from the Catholic Church. Fr. Paul

  25. Bender says:

    Although it may be useful when young and first starting out with Confession so that you have some idea of what to do, it is so much better to move beyond a ritualistic mindset of strict rules and, instead, understand that, in Confession, you are having a loving conversation with the Lord.

    Instead of being overly concerned with, OK, I have to do this a certain way, and say that a certain way at a certain time, just relax. Just relax and tell the priest, “um, Father, I can’t remember what I was going to say.” No need to freeze up and get stage fright, worrying about whether you say your lines right. If you go totally blank, just excuse yourself and tell the priest, “sorry Father, my mind’s gone blank, I’ll go out and come back.” If you’ve forgotten a few things, just tell him that, just be up front about it — “Father, I’ve done A, B, and C, and there was something else, but I can’t remember exactly what it was, but I know that I was sorry for that too.”

    Besides, regardless of the BEST possible examination of conscience you can imagine, unless you are going to Confession every couple of hours, there will be something that you have done, or something that you have failed to do, that you will not remember or will not even realize that it was a sin, even if only the imperfection of not asking for enough grace, or not fully accepting the grace offered, to comprehend all the ways you have fallen short of perfection.

    So you have forgotten something between the time you examined your conscience and knelt down in the confessional? It happens. If you are contrite about it, whatever it was, no need to get anxious about it. Be open and honest enough in Confession to admit that you know that there are other sins you did, but you can’t remember them. But be sorry for those too. You can mention them next time after you do remember.

  26. Kaneohe says:

    Brad, your words are very profound and really touched my heart. Thank you for reminding me that it is the Lord who brings me to confession and that He is with me all through the journey. Seriously, what you wrote could not be any truer, yet perhaps it is something few of us are truly conscious of. Your description is humbling, wonderful, and gave me such a sense of grace, peace, and love. This will be forever in my mind as I prepare for confession. Thank you and God bless.

  27. Supertradmum says:

    I make a list, really, and carry it into the Confessional. Although I may be in the minority in the Magisterium of Nuns Party, the dear ones taught me this and it works.

  28. Supertradmum says:

    PS, May I add that the list is based on an Ignatian examination of conscience we were taught. It covers pretty much everything-interior and exterior sins, sins of omission and commission, sins against God and against people, etc .

  29. Josephus Muris Saliensis says:

    Sounds like a good priest, he just sat silently until you were ready, no chivvying, nor impatience, just sitting, like his God, waiting for you to be ready. A blessing indeed.

  30. alexandra88 says:

    It happens to the best of us. Two Saturdays ago, I forgot to confess what I believed was a mortal sin. It wasnt until 2mins before Sunday mass that I remembered this. However, I knew that my conscience was clear during the actual confession itself and my mistake was purely unintentional, so there was no need whatsoever to beat myself up about it. I brought this subject up in a confession the following week, and the priest commended me for it. I’m glad Our Lord understands our minds.

  31. Dax says:

    I use the 1962 Missal as a guide and write what I need to confess in a little notebook I always carry with me. I once left it out before I went to confession and my wife found it and gave me a puzzled look for a few days because it contained things I know she does not consider sinful. ( Ooops. Whatta gonna do?) Our church was blessed with a new priest last year and the first time I had him as confessor, he closed by saying “please pray for me.” I really liked that so I will add ” and I will pray for you” after absolution and act of contrition. It reminds me of St. Sugustine – “For you I am a bishop, with you, I am a Christian.”


  32. Ana says:

    Sadly, Dr Guinness, you are on target. This person tends to be very anxious while waiting for confession and unless there are people there already waiting, will walk right into the confessional even while it is occupied.

  33. smad0142 says:

    Is that Examination available anywhere? It sounds really good and I could definitely benefit from it!

  34. irishgirl says:

    I know exactly what you were talking about with regards to the Fathers of Mercy and their ‘Examination of Conscience’! Here in Upstate NY we had Father Wade Menezies of the Fathers of Mercy here for a ‘Family Rosary Crusade’ and then a three-day parish mission. I went to confession to him and told him that I find it hard to go to confession. He asked me if I took one of the ‘Examinations’, and I said I did (they were snapped up pretty quick, BTW).
    But I still ‘go blank’ anyway when I go to confession. I don’t want to take up a lot of the priest’s time, especially when I know there is a line of other penitents outside impatiently waiting. So I try to ‘be blunt, be brief, and be gone’!

  35. Denita says:

    I think writing things down is a good idea. My problem is, even after a year, I still don’t know the Act of Contrition by heart. That can be embarrassing when I cant find my copy of it in my Missal.
    On a lighter note, I was in the confessional once, and Father’s cell phone went off! :P

  36. Supertradmum says:

    The basic version is a five step one from St. Ignatius. 1) To thank the Lord for the graces, both temporal and spiritual you received.
    2) Ask for the grace to know your sins and to struggle to rid yourself of them.
    3) Examine your thoughts, words and actions from one hour to the next.
    4) Ask God to forgive you for the sins you have committed.
    5) Make a resolution to amend your life with God’s grace.
    Here is another version from the great Father Hardon, Jesuit.
    Do I make an honest effort to grow in the virtue of faith by daily mental prayer on the mysteries of the faith as revealed in the life of Jesus Christ?
    Do I make at least a short act of faith every day?
    Do I pray daily for an increase of faith?
    Do I ever tempt God by relying on my own strength to cope with the trials in my life?
    Do I unnecessarily read or listen to those who oppose or belittle what I know are truths of my Catholic faith?
    What have I done today to externally profess my faith?
    Have I allowed human respect to keep me from giving expression to my faith?
    Do I make a serious effort to resolve difficulties that may arise about my faith?
    Do I ever defend my faith, prudently and charitably, when someone says something contrary to what I know is to be believed?
    Have I helped someone overcome a difficulty against the faith?
    Do I immediately say a short prayer when I find myself getting discouraged?
    Do I daily say a short act of hope?
    Do I dwell on my worries instead of dismissing them from my mind?
    Do I fail in the virtue of hope by my attachment to the things of this world?
    Do I try to see God’s providence in everything that “happens” in my life?
    Do I try to see everything from the viewpoint of eternity?
    Am I confident that, with God’s grace, I will be saved?
    Do I allow myself to worry about my past life and thus weaken my hope in God’s mercy?
    Do I try to combine every fully deliberate action with at least a momentary prayer for divine help?
    How often today have I complained, even internally?
    Have I told God today that I love Him?
    Do I tell Jesus that I love Him with my whole heart?
    Do I take the occasion to tell God that I love Him whenever I experience something I naturally dislike?
    Have I capitalized on the difficulties today to tell God that I love Him just because He sent me the trial or misunderstanding?
    Do I see God’s love for me in allowing me to prove my love for Him in the crosses He sent me today?
    Have I seen God’s grace to prove my love for Him in every person whom I met today?
    Have I failed in charity by speaking unkindly about others?
    Have I dwelt on what I considered someone’s unkindness toward me today?
    Is there someone that I consciously avoid because I dislike the person?
    Did I try to carry on a conversation today with someone who is difficult to talk to?
    Have I been stubborn in asserting my own will?
    How thoughtful have I been today in doing some small favor for someone?
    Have I allowed my mood to prevent me from being thoughtful of others today?
    Am I given to dwelling on other people’s weaknesses or faults?
    Have I been cheerful today in my dealings with others?
    Do I control my uncharitable thoughts as soon as they arise in my mind?
    Did I pray for others today?
    Have I controlled my emotions when someone irritated me?
    Have I performed any sacrifice today for someone?

  37. Supertradmum says:

    so sorry, got your numbers of your name wrong and I do apologize…I have an eye injury, really.

  38. I think we need to observe a difference between how we approach mortal and venial sins in this regard. If there is a mortal sin that we have forgotten to confess then we need to remember to do so in our next confession. In a 1665 condemnation the Church condemned the view that “We are not bound to express in a subsequent confession sins omitted in confession or forgotten because of the imminent danger of death or for some other reason”. http://www.catecheticsonline.com/SourcesofDogma12.php
    I think the implication of this condemnation, with all due respect to the excellent Fr Z, is that we can’t be overly hasty in saying as universal rule that “if you have done your best, all your sins are forgiven”. https://wdtprs.com/2011/10/quaeritur-mind-goes-blank-during-confession/#comments
    This said, until we get to confession I don’t think we need be overly anxious about any need to rush to confession, recalling the decree of Trent in 1551 which encouraged penitents to not be overly anxious in these words: “nothing else is required of penitents than that each one, after he has diligently examined himself and searched all the folds and corners of his conscience, confess those sins by which he remembers to have mortally offended his Lord and God; while the other sins of which he has after diligent thought no recollection, are understood to be in a general way included in the same confession”. http://www.trosch.org/law/trent-penance.html

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