QUAERITUR: Priest says I was forgiven when I got into the confessional.

From a reader:

I went to confession on Good Friday at my parish Church. I had a new Priest who I had never seen before, a Jesuit, [Oh dear.] young, [Oh dear oh dear.] from south Asia [Oh dear oh dear oh dear.] I believe. He explained that I did not need to rattle off a laundry list of my sins, because I was forgiven when I entered the confessional space. [?!?] That my act of choosing to go to confession was a sign of God acting in me, [True enough… praevenient actual graces.] and so I should not focus on the bad that I have done, but rather on God’s goodness. [Quaint. Wrong, but quaint.]

Is this right? As a convert, I am, admittedly, and with some embarrassment, largely self catechized but I thought the point of going to confession was to confess honestly and completely my sins before God, [Yes.]so that he acting through the agency of the Priest, will forgive me my sins. If I don’t need to do this because I am somehow apriori forgiven, then I wonder why I am going to confession in the first place.

I should add that usually I seek out confession at another parish, where there is a Dominican Fr in his 80’s who has never corrected my “laundry list”.

Could you shed some light on this? Many thanks for your time and energies. Your blog has educated me in regards to tradition and confession in particular.

If you have a better and more reliable confessor whom you can trust without pause, then go to him. Furthermore, it seems that your self-catechesis has helped you more, perhaps, than some RCIA classes would have.

The priest was right that, by the fact that we are going to confession, God is giving us graces to go to confession. He helps us at every stage while nevertheless leaving us our freedom.

He is also, to a certain extent, correct that by the fact we are getting into the confessional something of that chain of events leading to God’s forgiveness is underway. In fact, depending on the person, this might be even that sign of sincere repentance and an act of penance that making one’s confession calls for. Nevertheless, it is clearly Christ’s will, and Holy Church’s determination, that we confess our sins. The sacrament, like all sacraments, must have both matter and form. The confessing and the sins confessed are the matter while the the confessors words of absolution are the form. In ordinary circumstances (not life-threatening emergencies) we are bound to confess all our mortal sins in both number and kind.

By the fact of your sincere confusion and doubt about what happened, we see the wisdom of making everything in confession clear and sure. Priests should not do or say stupid and questionable things to penitents in the confessional, or from the pulpit about confession. We need clarity. Just as in a tribunal we want everything to be clear so that the truth will out and justice be done, we want the confessional, the tribunal of justice and mercy, to be clear.

I will be the last to place any limits on God or dictate to the Font of Mercy Himself how and when forgiveness must be by Him imparted.  Nevertheless, God gave Holy Church His own power to forgive and His own authority to determine how His sacraments are administered.

Holy Church says that we confess all our mortal sins, in kind and number, and then the priest gives absolution.

Then we are sure.  Do that.  Do it that way.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    A real problem with Confession is that it cannot be effectively monitored. Being giving loony advice or being treated badly is not likely to make one write to the Bishop with chapter and verse, since it cannot be verified or corroborated: the penitent is unlikely to wish to reveal what was actually said and the confessor cannot, without permission, under pain of excommunication. Yet how often do we hear of strange occurrences or, frankly wrong advice? Everyone has their story.

    Nor is it appropriate, given the nature of the sacrament, to argue a point with the confessor in the box or, worse, walk out. Probably the best course is to simply to seek a good confessor – you will certainly know it when you find one – and avoid the poor ones. At the end of the day a more philosophical approach is simply to accept humbly that whatever shortcoming one might encounter and offer it up. A validly ordained priest will give valid absolution, which is what essentially is being sought. I maintain too that the overall responsibility for the sacrament remains the confessor’s, not the penitent’s.

    Finally, a prayer for the priest is also essential.

  2. Andrew says:

    I have experienced a very similar event at a church staffed by Jesuits. Upon entering the confessional, an elderly confessor told me to repeat after him: “I am sorry for all my sins as they are known to God”.
    While I did that, I kept thinking: “I know that God knows my sins, but you, dear Father, do not know them.” Anyway, I did what he asked me to do, and he gave me the absolution.

  3. Bender says:

    He explained that I did not need to rattle off a laundry list of my sins, because I was forgiven when I entered the confessional space.

    I don’t know how he could have known that any more than a confessor can know that a penitent is truly sorry without affirmatively saying so, as in an Act of Contrition.

    Maybe the person entered the confessional, not to confess, but to do some other act, maybe even shoot the priest like they’ve done in many movies and TV. Would an assassin such as that be “forgiven as soon as he entered the confessional”? Obviously, to say it is to see how absurd that would be.

    It may very well be that a person can be forgiven without a completed sacramental confession if he is killed in a traffic accident while driving to go to the church to go to Confession, but one cannot say that simply because one is driving to church, or driving in the general direction of the church, that he would be forgiven if he died before getting there. He might be going for some other reason.

    Forgiveness is not automatic, and although God can read minds and know what is in people’s hearts, priests typically do not have that skill and need to actually hear the person say the words out loud. Besides, if the words are not said out loud, if the contrition for specific sins is not made manifest by reducing it to tangible words that are then actually spoken, then that contrition may only be a potential and inchoate, it may never blossom into the complete thing.

  4. PhilipNeri says:

    The gift of God’s forgiveness has already been GIVEN through the death and resurrection of Christ.

    But a gift–to be a gift–has to be RECEIVED as a gift, that is, with thanksgiving.

    God’s gift of forgiveness remains a divine offer until we say, “Yes, I receive your forgiveness, Lord. Thank you.”

    The ordinary means of receiving the gift of forgiveness and saying thank you to God is by going to confession and completing one’s penance.

    The idea that we aren’t forgiven until we do something (like go to confession) strikes me as bordering on Pelagianism, i.e. I must perform some work in order to earn forgiveness.

    So, we are already forgiven. . .but we may not have yet received that forgiveness.

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP

  5. albizzi says:

    I know that the rule is to confess in kind and number, but I seldom respect that last condition, preferring to say a vague “sometimes” or “often”.
    Never any confessor corrected me in asking clearly “how many times?”
    Once a priest even said that God isn’t a scrupulous account keeper.

    [Friend, I warmly recommend that you confess your mortal sins in both kind and in number when you are able. You will be able to do this if you make a regular, even daily, examination of conscience. As for Father’s glib, but both daft and unoriginal, comment about God not being an accountant, if he persists with similar conscience dulling bòn móts, find a better confessor.]

  6. Charles E Flynn says:

    It is time for me to be more grateful to God that I have never had a priest malfunction in the confessional.

    I once went to confession in Boston, at my favorite chapel. The elderly priest, who was clearly a visitor filling in for someone on vacation, spoke with a heavy Italian accent. I could barely understand a word he said. Upon leaving the confessional, I realized that the one sentence I could clearly understand, that I should be living a life of gratitude, was exactly what the Holy Spirit wanted me to take away from that confession.

  7. mamajen says:

    Wow, if it were that easy I’d go every day!

    (And without the deterrent to sin, I’d probably need to).

  8. James Joseph says:

    Fr. Z.

    What does number and kind mean?

    Thank you.

  9. Facta Non Verba says:

    I had a similar experience with a visiting priest from Nigeria. He told me that I received the grace of forgiveness, even without confessing my sins. I had to ask him for a penance, too.

  10. jeffmcl says:

    “As a convert, I am, admittedly, and with some embarrassment, largely self catechized…” I sure know how that goes.

  11. frjim4321 says:

    I have found that it is not helpful at all to minimize that which someone feels is serious. Even if objectively a person’s behaviour is well within the bounds of ordinary and expected human activity, if they are afflicted by scrupulosity for example with regard to certain solitary sexual expressions it is an abuse to callously disregard the individuals sentiments and say “well that’s not a sin,” because frankly that does nothing whatsoever to assist a scrupulous person. Scrupulosity is a very difficult thing to treat, and a confessor who minimizes the agony of a scrupulous person does them a grave disservice.

  12. pelerin says:

    It is always interesting and informative to read other people’s experiences with Confession. A friend once told me about her pastor who had heard confessions while he was on holiday in a foreign country. She was impressed as she did not know he understood the language of that country. He replied that he did not and had no idea what the penitents had said but because they had come to Confession he absolved them all anyway. I found this very strange at the time but reading Fr Z saying that the mere fact that they are there is what is important now makes it more understandable.

  13. Darren says:

    This reminds me of a time I went to confession at a certain parish and after I confessed my sins, this older Conventual Franciscan Friar priest told me that as soon as I left home to come to confession, that my sins were then forgiven. At least he said this after I confessed. Then he proceeded to tell me, “You need to change the way you pray… ” before telling me to “do a good deed today” for my penance. * sigh *

    Regarding “kind and number”. When I remember the number, I give the specific number. Otherwise, if I lose track but am reasonably aware, I’ll say “5 or 6 times”, or “about 8 times or so”, etc… just as an example. Sometimes I feel as if I am keeping track as if, “rats! I did it again!” and I add one more mark to the count in my head.

    This reminds me of the time I went to confession for the first time in 15 or so years… which was about 10 years ago. I was nervous, and when I looked back… it was am ok first effort in a long time, but I later made a much better confession as I examined myself much better for the sins I was then continuing to commit. What was funny was that I later learned that the priest I went to for that first confession in years (it was not my own parish) had the last name of “Blind” (rhymes with “rescind”, not “kind”)

  14. Glen M says:

    In other news, there’s a young Jesuit somewhere.

  15. Padraig Smythe says:

    Well I hope this priest is right, just as I hope all non-Catholics will be saved (and all Catholics as well). But prudence always trumps presumption. I on occasion confess to a Jesuit, and almost always get told “that is not a sin.” Yet he still gives absolution correctly…I guess the Jesuits need to work a little harder on their brainwashing.

  16. Andrew says:


    “Even if objectively a person’s behaviour is well within the bounds of ordinary and expected human activity, if they are afflicted by scrupulosity for example with regard to certain solitary sexual expressions …”

    Are you saying what I think you are saying? If you are, I sincerely hope that the “fr” in your name does not refer to “Father”.

  17. Tina in Ashburn says:

    I have often wondered if scrupulosity isn’t the result of avoidance of a real sin somewhere hidden within the penitent’s conscience. As long as we are busy apologizing for actions we aren’t responsible for, or insignificant actions, we can ignore the elephant in the room. Scrupulosity has many causes, and I’m wondering if this isn’t one cause.
    I don’t always agree with frjim4321, but in this case frjim is correct, scrupulosity is a symptom of something, and confessors should pay attention to such penitents, and not just wave them off.
    The art of true spiritual direction is almost completely lost today, and most priests have no idea how to work with a penitent to discover the root cause of repeated sin. In defense of such priests, they aren’t taught how to anymore, have never studied the spiritual masters such as St Teresa of Avila nor St John of the Cross, nor are the zillions of books on priestly spiritual direction that were available for such formation even in existence anymore.

    In regard to ‘number and kind’, where the penitent describes how many times they committed what kind of sin, its true that a daily examination is crucial for tracking this. Frequent confession, at least once a month really helps keep you up, and really does assist in uncovering hidden sins.

    Yea, specifics by the penitent is important. One result that I wasn’t taught early on is: when you confess a sin, you receive grace to combat that sin.

  18. Ben Trovato says:

    Abusing your hospitality, Father, but this seems a good cue to mention that I posted my favourite joke about confession yesterday: http://ccfather.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/catholic-joke.html

  19. aviva meriam says:

    How does one find a good confessor?

  20. acricketchirps says:

    Actually, frjim4321, [I]f objectively a person’s behaviour is well within the bounds of ordinary and expected human activity you can pretty safely bet the farm it is a sin.

  21. FTSOHSP says:

    I go to a large secular state university and our Catholic Center is to the left and this reminds me exactly of a book we’re reading (I go to keep conversation “interesting”). But the book was by an Indian Jesuit priest, who said that Confession isn’t a laundry list and used a lot of the exact same wording as this young Jesuit priest.

    The author of the book also said Jesus didn’t have to die for our sins, Lent is a time of celebration, and Jesus experienced the Divine when He was Baptized…

  22. Mariana says:

    Ben Trovato,

    Nice! I really did think they were playing Pooh-sticks with peanuts!

    But, the writer above mentioned the Jesuit not wanting a laundry list. I’m a convert, and to one of my early confessions I took a list I had written (as I want to be thorough and easily might forget to mention something) and the priest told me he “didn’t want to see any lists!” No priest since has objected to my having a list in front of me. Are lists particularly offensive to some priests?

  23. Bender says:

    this older Conventual Franciscan Friar priest told me that as soon as I left home to come to confession, that my sins were then forgiven. At least he said this after I confessed

    Darren, I wonder what he might say if you were to ask, “if I have left home with the firm intention to come to Confession, but on the way, I see a McDonalds and get hungry and decide to go have a cheeseburger, and then after eating I forget to go to Confession, or I otherwise think to myself, ‘that Franciscan told me that I was forgiven once I left the house,’ and I then decide I don’t need to actually go after all — are you still forgiven?”

  24. Supertradmum says:

    I heard two priests in Ireland say this…that one’s sins are forgiven just by going into the Confessional. I had not heard this nonsense before, but two in three months gave me the impression that either this is some trendy statement going around the deanery meetings, or that there is some bad seminary training.

    I have wondered why priests undermine the necessity for stating clearly one’s sins. In fact, I have had a priest, again in Ireland, doubt whether I was sufficiently following an examination of conscience because what I was confessing did not seem to be sins, or that I was missing sins. A new confessor, in France, obviously a priest who understands the subtlety of sin, is an superb confessor and guide. If one cannot deal with what one hears in the confessional, find another priest who is holy and understands the road to holiness. Too many deny imperfections and the importance of repeated venial sins, merely thinking one is out of touch or scrupulous, instead of working on all those things which stand between us and God. To the One Who is Perfect, there is no such thing as a small sin. I find that very few priests actually have a relationship with God mature enough to comment in the confessional. Sadly, sin is not seen for the horror that it is, even venial sin or imperfections, in the Face of the All Good, All Pure God.

  25. Nicole says:

    Lumen Gentium
    “11. […]
    Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from the mercy of God for the offence committed against Him and are at the same time reconciled with the Church, which they have wounded by their sins, and which by charity, example, and prayer seeks their conversion.” (Qui vero ad sacramentum poenitentiae accedunt, veniam offensionis Deo illatae ab Eius misericordia obtinent et simul reconciliantur eum Ecclesia, quam peccando vulneraverunt, et quae eorum conversioni caritate, exemplo, precibus adlaborat.)

    If this is what the Church teaches in the Second Vatican Council, Fr. Z, then why would you take exception with what this priest has told this penitent regarding sacramental confession?

  26. Tina in Ashburn says:

    “Those who approach the sacrament of Penance ” means those who actually MAKE a confession. The word ‘approach’ is used in this sense throughout a lot of Catholic writing…it can be a misleading term I guess.

  27. Nicole says:

    Tina –

    I was commanded to write this to you in response to your answer to me:

    If this is a common example of switching meanings of words, where else is there an example of what you’re saying which actually binds upon the Catholic faithful?

  28. Tina in Ashburn says:

    Nicole, I don’t know – I’m not really sure I understand your question.

    The English language has many euphemisms to confuse us and can be inaccurate by its very nature. For instance we have one word for ‘love’ but Latin has four words for ‘love’ with very different meanings. The word “approach” is commonly used in regard to the Sacraments, as in “don’t approach Communion in grave sin” or “approach the Sacraments with reverence”, its just a manner of speaking and must be taken in context. All prose can suffer from inaccurate and non-succinct verbiage [in short, really bad writers LOL]. So for instance if you compare the Catechism of the Council of Trent with the more recent Catechism of the Catholic Church, you will see a vast difference in writing style. On top of that, as Father Z here has reiterated by this very blog “What does the prayer really say”, translations are not always accurate.


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