A reader’s first confession. Fr. Z congratulates and then rants.

From a reader:

Just a quick ‘thank you’ for your posts on Confession. Went to first confession today (I’m a RCIA gearing up for the Easter Vigil). I was terrified. As a forty-something fella with a ‘chequered past’ my list was LOOOONG and – to put it bluntly – embarrassing. So I went to our Diocesan Cathedral instead of my Parish Church (more anonymous). The priest was lovely. Really helped me through it and was hugely encouraging. I’m so glad to put all that lot behind me so I can focus on the future. I’m definitely in the Confession & Eucharist early & often camp now! Thank you so much for encouraging the use Of this VITAL sacrament.

My work here is done.

Congratulations for making your first confession!

I am glad you added that point about anonymity making the experience easier.

This adult’s experience of 1st Confession spurs me to add a note or two.

I suspect that this person was able to deal with the anxiety of making that first confession in part because he had learned some useful things about the meaning and effects of the sacrament about what to do.

It is important when helping adult converts to get ready for first confession to give them a format and prayers they can memorize so that they know exactly what to do when they start.  Structure can relieve anxiety.

If this is true for adults, imagine how important it is for children?

Children need structure.  If adults are sometimes experience some fear when they don’t know what to do in important, solemn, formal moments, children can be reduced to paralysis.

It is cruel to bring children to do things of the religious nature without proper preparation.  Children are innately religious little creatures.  They know when something is important.  They want to do the right thing.  Help them by having them memorize well the prayers and the order of things.

For the love of God, give adult coverts and children alike an exact, traditional template, structure for what to do and say in the confessional!


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, GO TO CONFESSION, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, Our Catholic Identity, Wherein Fr. Z Rants. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. kat says:

    Confession is such a gift.
    I guess I’m slightly confused though, but I’ll chalk it up to my own misunderstanding of the situation… but if this person is preparing for Easter Baptism, wouldn’t he/she have to wait until they are accepted into the Church before he is eligible for any other Sacrament?

  2. SonofMonica says:

    kat —

    It would seem that he is already a baptized Christian from another faith community that is coming into full communion with the Church at Easter. That’s how my family did it. We went through the rites with the catechumens and then had first confession, confirmation and Eucharist at Easter Vigil.

  3. xsosdid says:

    My wife and I and our four kids have decided on a new family tradition: Saturday morning confession once per month followed by breakfast out. We went yesterday and had a lovely morning together. I have teen boys, 18 and 16, and the breakfast out is a huge draw for them. My youngest, 10 yrs, has had maybe three confessions now, and he is precisely at that place you are talking about, as he needs a lot of encouragement and primarily to know the structure.

  4. Glen M says:

    Many saints had a ‘checkered past’.

    Fr Z is quite right: having a structure makes the Sacrament easier and as a result more frequented. I find the iPhone app very useful in this regard. For those without an iPhone or other smart phone having such an app then I recommend making your own card – cheat sheet.

  5. APX says:

    Not all catechumens are baptized at Easter vigil. Those who were previously baptized in another denomination have to go to confession before Easter Vigil so they may receive the other sacraments.

    @Fr Z.
    You’re very correct about the exact structure relieving anxiety. When I was taught as a kid, the instructions consisted of things like, “When you go into the reconciliation room the priest might make the sign of the cross, or you may make it. The priest might say some prayers over you, read some scripture, or have you read some scripture. You then tell the priest how long it has been since you last went to reconciliation and tell him your sins. Once you’re done, he will give you absolution and your penance. He then may read another passage from scripture or have you read it. He will dismiss you by telling you to go in peace. If he tells you ____________, you reply back, ___________”.”

    To this day I still don’t know how to properly go to reconciliation in the new form because you never know what you’re gonna get!

    When I returned to the church an went to confession, I wasn’t anxious over embarrassing sins. I was anxious over “am I doing this right?” After much preparation I went to an FSSP priest for confession. Despite being in Latin and not having the faintest clue what the priest was saying, it was still easier than the new form of reconciliation because it’s structured. I have no problem going to other FSSP priests because I know they’re all going to be the stucture, and so far that has been the case out of 3 different priests I’ve gone to for confession. I don’t go that often in the new form because every priest seems to have his own way of doing things, and it’s difficult to get tithe same priest every time.

  6. APX says:

    *sigh* Autocorrect strikes again.

  7. JaneC says:

    xsosdid–that sounds like a great idea! Yet another reason, though, for me to grumble about towns where there are several parishes, all with confessions on Saturday afternoon. Please, pastors, coordinate with your neighbors and offer confessions at different times, not all at the same hour and day. My husband is an organist who plays for Saturday evening Masses, and because all the local regular confession times are Saturday afternoon immediately before Mass, he can’t go to confession across town and drive back to our parish in time for Mass. So, whenever he goes to confession, he must confess to his boss (the pastor), or to our friends (the associate pastors), and even behind the screen he has no anonymity. This doesn’t stop him from confessing regularly, but it is uncomfortable. Other people have to work on Saturdays too. Please, pastors, make it easy for us to get to confession, and be sensitive to our desire for anonymity.

  8. xsosdid says:

    @APX. By that comment I take it you mean that developing the habit of frequent confession in children promotes a lack of sincerity and “real” penitence? Perhaps you are right, but then again precisely how many children have you raised? Have you had to face the tremendous daily battle for the soul of your household and all those entrusted to you, against the backdrop of a culture that works in every way to destroy families? If you have, and if that comment was addressed at my attempts to do everything I can to win that battle, then perhaps you can enlighten me in a better way, because God knows I am not perfect and I am always eager to learn.

  9. AnnAsher says:

    Amen to my convert brother ! And amen to Fr Z’s guidance. RCIA seems to be improving in some places compared to the near total failure I experienced in the 90’s. That’s a good thing.

  10. AnnAsher says:

    I have to add something. It has been my unfortunate experience to learn that even when your children are well prepared and know the format and have practiced it extensively. It’s best only to allow them to confess to Priest you know. My daughter had a horrible experience in the confessional with a fill in priest where she ended up leaving without absolution.

  11. APX says:

    I typed my original post on my iPhone and when I re-read it, auto-correct changed some words in it to other words. It got sent to moderation so no one can see it right now except me.

    I have no clue what you’re talking about. I think you might be over-analyzing my auto-correct frustrations.

  12. xsosdid says:

    HA! Sorry APX, my misunderstanding entirely!

  13. wmeyer says:

    And please, Lord, banish from confession the face to face “reconciliation room”, as well as the “nuance” introduced by priests who refute Church teachings.

  14. Augustin57 says:

    Just took my grandson, whom we’re raising, to Confession yesterday afternoon. He likes to be first in line, for some reason. And he always comes out smiling.

    If I were bishops (or king for a day), I would decree that every parish would have Confession available daily! Preferably before every Mass. I don’t know how we got into this deal where we only offer Confession once/week for half an hour at some odd time. And there are usually only a handful of folks who go even then! Either we have a lot of Saints in our parish, or a lot of people who have somehow lost their sense of sin. I sadly expect the latter.

  15. JordanH says:


    Perhaps your grandson has acute hearing, I know I did when I was young, and doesn’t like to be in a position to hear the other confessions.

    Or, maybe he’s just impatient and doesn’t like to wait in lines. Come to think of, I didn’t like that when I was young and still don’t!

  16. MuchLikeMartha says:

    I have to give our pastor a HUGE pat on the back because he never, ever misses an opportunity to offer Reconciliation. Before he came to our parish, confessions were heard for about an hour and a half on Saturdays only. Ever. Otherwise, we were stuck with making an appointment or going to those horrible “penance services” with group absolution (talk about confusing!!) and no choice but going face-to-face while a dozen or so of your fellow parishioners are just a few feet away doing the same thing.

    When my daughter recently had her First Reconciliation, all the children had a laminated card with the (correct) form on it because Fr. wanted any assisting priests to know that that was the way our children had learned it because that’s how they do it at our parish. There was also a mandatory practice run so the kids would know what to expect with little or no freezing up. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of my kids so excited or calm about going their first time.

    I’ve made it a point to thank Fr. for offering so many opportunities. Before, they were so few and far between, I definitely got the impression that confession wasn’t that important, and my life reflected that. I think it’s one of those occasions where “if you offer it, they will come”. It’s one of the few times of my life that I’m truly happy to wait in a long line.

  17. NoTambourines says:

    My mother converted during the rockin’ ’70s, and told me she isn’t sure she went to confession as part of the process. I think the over-arching mistake that has been propagated in catechesis since from around that time is that everything is ultimately optional, including structure.

    It’s ironic that there was probably the thought that removing structure would somehow make people better, but it just makes things more difficult, and worse yet, less universal.

    The parish near where I work has the traditional directions to confess on the screen between you and the priest. It’s tremendously reassuring to know what to expect, even when you’re no stranger to the confessional.

  18. NoTambourines says:

    2nd paragraph above should read ” make people feel better.”

    I’m blaming everything on the time change today.

  19. Tina in Ashburn says:

    Awesome congratulations to the writer here on your first Confession and welcome to the Church.

    Just remember, in regard to shame and embarrassment that we all suffer in Confession, that you aren’t telling God anything He doesn’t already know!!! Now. Relax, doesn’t that make you feel better?

    For those who don’t know, confession once a month works nicely with the First Friday and First Saturday devotions since you must go to confession around that time to complete the devotion. Going regularly once a month has amazing effects on me, as I start to recognize hidden sins more easily, among other benefits. Hope all here can find a way to do this.

    Here’s a benefit to Confession: When my convert fiance, now husband, came into the Church and did his first confession, he really actually looked ten years younger. Even his non-Catholic friends noticed – “what did you do? you look ten years younger”. He would chuckle, sometimes explaining, sometimes not. This is an undocumented benefit, and I’m convinced why practicing Catholics and faithful religious always look younger than their years. Laugh if you want, but start observing, and tell me what YOU think. LOL.

    Since I am sponsoring a candidate this season, a dear friend from high school, I am very interested in any recommendations for helping her with her first Confession. Anyone? She is pretty overwhelmed at the thought. The RCIA program is faithful – but I’d like to help her more.

  20. aspiringpoet says:

    I would have loved to get a typed-up “confession template” in RCIA that told me the structure it would take, what I was supposed to say, what the priest would say … would have made that first confession much less scary.

  21. AnAmericanMother says:

    Tina in Ashburn,
    I think my two cents might be helpful, because I was there myself back in 2003.
    If your friend has an iPhone, I can heartily recommend the Confession app. It’s passworded, which avoids the whole problem of writing things down and then “leaving your sins in the A&P”. And it is a little more streamlined (and thus a lot less intimidating) than some of the very, very thorough examen that you find on the internet.
    With the app, you do have to remember to check boxes and hit “next”, though — and I find that a little distracting from the Sacrament itself. If she’s not technologically inclined or might be flustered by dealing with the iPhone, a piece of paper might be better — but for goodness’ sake keep track of it as though it were an endorsed check or the deed to your house!
    A first Confession by an older person (I was 47 when I made my first Confession in the process of converting from the Episcopalians, who nominally have auricular confession but never use it) is a little different — I found it most useful to group sins into categories. The iPhone app is good for that – it didn’t exist of course back in 2003 – or the examination of conscience at iPieta.com. (another iPhone app). I just had to hazard a guess at a number (or just say, “for forty years” or whatever seemed appropriate . . . )
    And tell her to make sure the priest understands that this is her First Confession. They do usually take a different approach — my husband’s priest for his First Confession (now the Director of Vocations for the archdiocese) immediately changed course and started helping him through. Hubby was very appreciative! On the other hand, the priest I went to for my First Confession is a wonderful, wonderful man and a very holy priest, but English is not his first language and having to repeat myself (and ask him to repeat himself) was very embarrassing! If your friend is already overwhelmed, she might want to do a little “judge-shopping”, i.e. check out who is sitting in the box today.
    P.S. Please don’t forget to tell her that it is definitely a little nerve-wracking before hand, but when she receives her Absolution it will all be worth while. It is the most wonderful feeling in the world to have all those terrible burdens and awakenings in the middle of the night fall away like Christian’s burden at the Cross
    P.P.S. They don’t mind if you cry, but if she thinks she might, she definitely should carry a large handkerchief!! Thank goodness I had TWO! :-D

  22. AnAmericanMother says:

    While finding Mr. William Blake’s illustration, I found that the Pilgrim’s Progress has been tackled by some first-class illustrators . . . . Alan Parry and Robert Lawson among them.
    I was not aware that Barry Moser, of all people, had given it a shot. He can be brutal (his macabre woodcuts for the King James Bible and for Alice are not for the faint of heart), but Christian as Bubba, complete with cat hat and the red shop rag tied on the back of his load (which looks like he’s got a washing machine or the engine from a ’56 Chevy) is a new way of looking at the story.

  23. Gail F says:

    No Tambourines wrote: “It’s ironic that there was probably the thought that removing structure would somehow make people better, but it just makes things more difficult, and worse yet, less universal.”

    You said this was a typo, but I think it’s partly true. Many people I know who favor the sort of “free form” way of doing things think that structure is bad because it makes you do things, while having everything optional is good because it will make you be a better person — doing things because you want to, rather than because you have to; feeling real repentance and gratitude instead of “going throught he motions.” But I think the opposite it truth. People really can’t be concerned about every thing they do being perfect and for the “right reason.” You say thank you and excuse me when you don’t mean it, so that they are already on your lips when you DO mean it.

  24. SrMarieAugustinFCR says:

    Perhaps I’m a bit old fashioned, but I write my sins down on a piece of paper during the week and take that into the box with me. I read exactly what I have written down. Writing down your sins, prompts one to do a daily examine of conscience and also helps one overcome that particular recurring sin. When I taught the faith to children preparing for the Sacrament of Penance, I gave each of them small votive candle holder with multi colored and sized jewels, all fake of course. I taught them to think of their day before going to bed at night, and for each nice/good thing they did, place a pretty jewel in the vase. For each ugly action, remove one. Then hold it up and give all your jewels (good deeds) to Jesus. Likewise, notice how many or how few gifts you have to give to Our Lord. Parents were encouraged to remind their child of the big sacrifice they had just made and reminded them to go place a big jewel in their vase. Many of those parents said they saw a big difference in their children’s behavior and some said they began the practice themselves!

  25. APX says:


    Perhaps I’m a bit old fashioned, but I write my sins down on a piece of paper during the week and take that into the box with me. I read exactly what I have written down. Writing down your sins, prompts one to do a daily examine of conscience and also helps one overcome that particular recurring sin.

    I started doing this too. I have my little black book of sins that I write everything down on at the end of the day, and then when it comes time for confession, I consolidate everything onto a piece of paper I take with me to confession and read off verbatim. If it’s been an especially rough week, I just confess the most serious/re-occurring sins. Slowly but surely, some sins get removed off the list each week. At first I thought this would be time consuming, but it’s actually less time consuming than trying to do one mass examination of conscience at the end of the week when I can’t remember anything. It also makes things go a lot quicker in the Confessional. This will also make my next general confession a lot easier too.

  26. gradchica says:

    How wonderful that this new convert’s RCIA staff mentioned the possibility of going to another priest/parish and the ability to go anonymously. My–admittedly wonderful in all other respects–RCIA instructor/priest told us to make an appt with him for first confession. I’m sure he meant to help us through it, but I was mortified to be knee-to-knee with this man I saw every week, having to go over the past 25 or so years of sins. How I wish he had chosen to the confessional or told us we could go at another time to another priest and just tell them it was our first confession! It would have been much easier for me not to have to go face to face. That being said, he did prepare us well by giving us the prayers and going over the format a few times, even doing a “mock” confession with one of the sponsors to show us how it goes.

  27. Tina in Ashburn says:

    AnAmericanMother, thank you. she doesn’t have an iPhone, and the priests at that parish are extraordinarily kind and will be wonderful for her first Confession. she doesn’t know where to start on her long list, and the examination is a new thing to her. Thanks – I will tell her about the relief she will feel.

    I know how hard an examination of conscience is for ME, with all my self-deception and misunderstanding of the true root cause of sin. How do you prepare someone who may not be familiar with the Catholic twist on things, and finding the sins in that long life in general? My friend is extraordinarily sensitive to sin [as I have told her all these years, ‘you’d make a great Catholic” when I see her unerring sense of right and wrong] so her sensitivity to what she wants to confess seems to be more detailed that other converts I have known.

    Has anybody got a good guide or recommendations for converts’ first confession? I know there are converts reading this. how did you approach this? there are priests here who have dealt with converts, what can you suggest?

  28. happyhockeymom says:

    As a convert of almost 15 years, you would think I would have been comfortable with confession by now. But I would always get jumpy and nervous right before confession, and now matter how thorough my examination of conscience, I would forget everything when I walked into the confessional (face to face, BTW). I began writing everything down, but that still didn’t help my nerves. And it’s not like I didn’t know about God’s mercy and forgiveness and the graces available in confession.

    But I finally discovered the wonderful, freeing anonymity of confessing behind the screen. For the first time in almost 15 years I am comfortable in confession! Deo Gratias!

    I heartily recommend the anonymity of behind the screen to all!

    I still may take up someone’s idea of doing a nightly examen and writing it in a little black book. It is a great idea!

  29. my kidz mom says:

    Fr. Z said “Children need structure…Help them by having them memorize well the prayers and the order of things…[give] an exact, traditional template, structure for what to do and say in the confessional!”

    The Holy Spirit is speaking directly to me through you, Father! Your advice is appreciated and couldn’t be more timely. I teach 2nd grade RE at night, and “my kids” will celebrate First Confession March 24. They’ve been working hard on memorization and now are getting a little more nervous as the Sacrament approaches. Please pray for us :)

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