QUAERITUR: Going to confession after many years

From a reader:

The more I read you the more I’m intent on going to Confession again.

I’m 31, and haven’t been since I was confirmed. As you know, it just hasn’t been consistently preached that it is necessary. I just have a couple basic questions.

1) What do I say? Do I immediately say, “Father, forgive me, for I have sinned,” then list my sins?

2) I can’t find the post, but I think I remember you saying that one needs to confess ALL mortal sins committed, in order for absolution to be valid. Well, quite frankly, that’s impossible. Over the past 19 years, I’ve sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed. I neither have the memory nor the time to list all my sins. Providing I could remember all my sins, my confession could take hours. Any guidance would be MUCH appreciated.

Good for you!

It is good to follow a regular format for confession. You might prepare for your confession with a good Examination of Conscience. You can find some good things here. Fr. Finigan made a useful confession pamphlet.

You should, indeed, try to confess all your mortal sins in kind and number whenever you go to confession. However, since it has been a very long time for you, and we humans just can’t remember everything, do you best, perhaps giving an indication of frequency over some period of time (month, year) while confessing those low points you do remember clearly. Just do your best. If you do your best, ALL your sins will be forgiven, whether you could remember them all or not. Then, in the future, you can be more precise when going to confession regularly.

And you can always tell the priest it has been a long time and you could use some help.

Also, down the line, you might look at my 20 Tips.

Finally, just go!  You’ll be more than fine.  Do your best and God does the rest.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. I went to my first confession ever on Holy Thursday in anticipation of being reconciled with the Church. I had a very good confessor. It took about ten minutes total, even though I used both the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly Sins as my bases for my examination of conscience. It’s about confessing sins in number and kind: “I committed/did Sin X 34 times.” The examination might take even the better part of a day, but the confession itself I’d suspect will go efficiently.

  2. Will D. says:

    The advice I was given when I made my first confession in many years (see the previous thread for details) was to confess the sins that a good examination of conscience brought to mind. As for confessing numbers, if I had no clear recollection I estimated: I confessed to doing x “every day” and y “frequently” and z “a few times.” In subsequent confessions, when older sins come to mind, I have confessed them.
    The important thing is not to make a bad confession by willfully neglecting to mention a sin that you clearly remember. Honesty is paramount.

  3. Jack Hughes says:

    Not sure whether to go tommorow or Friday, if I go tommorow I probebly won’t have the time to make a detailed confession and I’ll most likely get 7 our fathers, If I go on friday then I’ll get some acutal advice from the Priest.

  4. Dear fellow sinner, my experience has been quite similar to yours, and my advice to you is just to “go for it” and (as Fr. Z. said) do the best you can. What got me to it and through it was focusing on WHAT I had done, and I left it largely to the priest to ask about how many times or how often as he thought fit. Don’t allow worry about precision to keep you from taking this step. Make an appointment with the priest and just do it. Courage!

  5. … and here’s a practical tip: I’m an adult convert, so I had a friend meet me on the steps of the church after my first confession with a flask and a couple of shotglasses. This actually helped me while I was in the box because I knew that even after absolution (the main thing, of course) there would be a hug and a slug waiting for me at the end.

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  6. TopSully says:

    I surely would have liked to have had Brad’s ability to recall my sins when I was in that position recently. I too had been away from confession for many years. Entirely because of finding and reading this blog I made a decision to go back. I spent a long time, weeks actually, doing an examination of conscience with the intent of having as perfect as possible confession. Well, I know even after that I surely had missed many, many sins I’d committed over the years. My memory just isn’t that strong. Well when I finally went to confession I almost totally blanked out. I don’t know why, I had rehearsed the moment in my mind for weeks. I forgot to list many of my sins. I asked Father to help me along, explaining the situation. Through his kind guidance I was able to recall most of what I had come to confess. Yes, I should have made a list to bring. But I was fearful of the list becoming public. I thought I could do it by mind power. Alas I was too weak. Within hours of that confession I had remembered several sins I had intended to confess. While I realized that they too were forgiven, they were put on the list for the next confession anyways. A list I might add I now keep in a password protected iPhone app. As several people have said, honesty is the best companion for confession. And ask the good Father for help when you need it. I did and I’m very glad because of it.

  7. Phil_NL says:

    my 3c:
    1. Find a priest that is ‘on board’ with hearing confessions. Any kind of encouragement, even a small sign posted somewhere when confessions are heard or how to contact father, is a very good indicator. You vastly increase the chance that the priest has had many, many penitents in similar situations, which means he can offer guidance along the way. (see point 3 as well). Moreover, if the priest takes the sacrament seriously, then he’ll be quite happy to do so, especially if you come at a moment he’s not too much in a rush.
    2. Examine what you want (or better said, need) to confess, use some memory aids if need be (preferably those that can be destroyed), plan it. It may take some time to overcome the hurdle, examine your conscience and/or reaching a fitting state of mind / contrition, but putting it off long won’t do any good either. Plan a deadline for yourself.
    3. Don’t worry too much about the format. Just tell at the start you don’t have the habit of going to confession, and ask if the priest will help you along the way if he thinks that would be fruitful. “Kind and number” is obviously more useful for those going very regularly than for a situation where you haven’t been for ages or ever before. Approximate, don’t worry too much about classifications of sins; a good priest will sort it out, just make sure there isn’t any possibility of a gross misunderstanding. Finally, have an act of contrition handy, especially if your country doesn’t have a single standard form.

    Courage, indeed.

  8. cecelia tone says:

    As children we are taught to accuse ourselves and not your sister or brother how much more of a benefit it can be of as an adult! [See Tip #8.]

  9. cecelia tone says:

    In the parrish at the R.C.I.A. class in the 1st or 2nd class simply explain in the next 8 months we will learn there are 10 commandments, and 7 Sacraments this is how to be a Catholic!

  10. Agellius says:

    I suggest making a special appointment with a priest, both for the confession itself and to help you prepare for it. It’s liable to take quite a while, and it would be considerate to do it during a time specially set aside for it, rather than making people wait in line after you during the regular weekly confession hour. That way you’re not rushed, and they’re not stressed out wondering whether they’ll be able to get in and make their own confessions before the next scheduled time.

  11. Dear hopeful Confession-goer … just do it. I love what Rome On the Range wrote above, about having a friend meet you with a couple of shots — but you could also do what I did, which is just see it as an adventure you go through all on your own. I had been away from Confession for about 20 years. I went back, by myself, and I wish I could re-live that day, because it is a memory I treasure. I wrote about it on my blog — get through the initial couple of paragraphs which are about something else, and then I tell the whole story.
    Read it, if you like, and then go. Just go. I am so glad I did.

  12. Ellen says:

    I made an appointment. I hadn’t been to confession in over 20 years and felt the tug of my conscience pulling me. Father gently guided me through all the steps and when he said “I absolve you”, I swear it was as if a huge weight fell off my shoulders.

    People, if you have been away from confession for a long time, just go. You will not regret it, it was the most wonderful thing I have done in YEARS.

  13. Lili of the fields says:

    Going tonight, ( after two years), have my list on a piece of paper ( in code) ; took me a full week to find a parish where I can go considering my work schedule. A priest stood me up and did not show at the scheduled “reconciliation” time advertised on his parish bulletin, and my catholic friends are against confession! Go figure!
    Confession seems like a hurdle race in this area!

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