QUAERITUR: Confessor asked if I believe in “reincarnation” because I said I was sorry for the “sins of my past life”.

From a reader:

I was wondering the correct formula for confession. I read online somewhere “Bless me father for I have sinned it has been X weeks since my last confession… I accuse myself of the following sins…” (list in kind and number) and when I finish the list state “For these and the sins of my past life I ask for forgiveness and absolution”

I said this in a confessional and the priest wanted to make sure I knew there was no such thing as reincarnation [?!?] and wanted to make sure I was Catholic. I appreciated his concern for my soul, and I don’t want to make the same mistake again. [You didn’t make a mistake.] Was the whole formula wrong or just the “sins of my past life”? What should I say instead? – I find that using a formula for confession makes it easier to confess and I am less likely to panic and forget all of my sins.

What you have been doing is just fine.  It was pretty clear what you were asking for.   I am surprised by that question, however.  It may be the confessor was just being a little facetious, about that “past life” thing.  I believe that many people, in making their confessions, will express sorrow again for past sins, but you don’t need to ask for past sins to be absolved unless you have never confessed them before.

Even though it was obvious what you are asking for, perhaps a better way to phrase the statement could be something like: “for these sins and all those which I cannot now remember, I ask a penance and absolution”.

When you make a sincere confession of everything that you can remember, all your sins are forgiven.  And, unless you are sinning while making your confession, all your sins are “past sins”.  Still, it was clear to me what you were driving at.

If you wind up in the box with that same confessor, and he again asks about about “reincarnation”, you might just smile and say “Of course not, Father, do you?”

I would not give his question about “reincarnation” a second thought.  Your style of going to confession is just fine.  The formula you follow is a good one.  Consider the little tweak and keep doing what you are doing, especially confessing your mortal sins in both kind and number!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box, GO TO CONFESSION, Lighter fare, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000 and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. mysticalrose says:

    I sometimes use the “sins of my past life” phrase or I say “for these and all my sins I am truly sorry” to ensure that there is sufficient matter for the confession. It is my understanding that if you confess venial sins out of devotion, you still need sufficient matter (mortal sin) for it to be effective. No?

  2. APX says:

    @Mystical Rose
    Venial sins are sufficient matter for absolution, but imperfections are not. Sometimes people who are advancing in the spiritual life are not necessarily confessing sins, but rather imperfections. As you said, in order to ensure the priest has sufficient matter for absolution, it is advised that the penitent confess at least one sin from their past life. It also helps the priest know you’re done confessing.

    I’m amazed by the reincarnation question, unless maybe this was a mission priest from India and has experience with Hindu converts still believing in reincarnation.

    I took it as being seen as a conversion point. So in my case, when I refer to my past life, I’m literally referring to all those sins I committed prior to my reversion.

  3. ajf1984 says:

    I think the matter for the sacrament is “contrition [for the sins committed], confession [of those sins], and satisfaciton [penance]” (cf. the Catholic Encyclopedia, citing, inter alia, St. Thomas, Eugenius IV, the Council of Florence). Since one can presumably express contrition for venial sins, confess those sins, and perform the penance assigned, I don’t think there is a requirement for there to be mortal sins “in the mix” for validity.

  4. ajf1984 says:

    Sorry–meant to provide a URL for the above: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11618c.htm.

  5. Father K says:

    No you don’t. Confessing venial sins is just fine; but never, ever consciously omit a mortal sin. As one priest in Bruce Marshall’s wonderful book, ‘All Glorious within,’ said, ‘Don’t confess to stealing a rope unless you mention there was a horse attached to it!’

  6. mike cliffson says:

    Hmm Father
    Our family having recently had a few brushes with someone who you’d never said supect, in a traditionally catholic country, of being a reincarnationist, but is, I can’t help wondering just what the last two or three people who had been to confession before this occasion were like.
    Purely worldly, on occasions where my job has meant seeing a large crosssection of the general public , it sometimes happens, esp. once tired, that you get two or three in a row of the same sort of statistically insignificant wierdos, so you automatically expect the next person to be that too, and using the same code words, and so on.
    The sacrament of confession is a mystery, holy orders is a mystery, maybe we expect too much of the man of God, as a man, who is one of the visible signs? (I know what Im talking about but I don’t know if Ive got the theology right?)

  7. Scott W. says:

    Like mysticalrose, I use “for these and all my sins I am truly sorry”. It doubles as a cue to the priest that I am done.

  8. The Masked Chicken says:

    The formula, including, “For these and all of the sins of my past (life),” is the exact formula we were taught.

    “And, unless you are sinning while making your confession, all your sins are “past sins”.”

    But what about Minority Report? You mean the Department of Future Crimes isn’t real?

    The Chicken

  9. wmeyer says:

    Reminds me of the time I was told in the confessional that the Church teachings on sexual matters were “not very nuanced” and really needed to be updated.

  10. Frank H says:

    I’ve been saying that same “past life” thing since second grade…around 50 years now!

  11. Choirmaster says:

    @mysticalrose: I never heard of absolution not being effective unless you confess mortal sins. I always assumed that confession and absolution, whether done simply out of devotion (venial sins confessed) or out of necessity (mortal sins), is real and sacramental forgiveness. The only difference being that there are many ways to be “absolved” from venial sins, but only sacramental absolution would absolve mortal sins. Right?

    As for the priest, I wonder why, after hearing someone confess their sins using such a traditional Catholic formula, would assume “past life” has anything to do with reincarnation. I bet any Hindu would love to gain absolution for sins in a “past life”! LOL that would seem to blow the whole caste system out of the water!

    However, in the priest’s defense, it may very well be that he has had a lot of trouble in his parish/diocese with Catholics believing in reincarnation. Such that, he automatically associated the phrase “past life” with a concept of reincarnation, and wanted to make sure that the penitent demonstrated true Christian contrition, unmingled with pagan doctrines of the soul, sin, guilt, death, heaven, and hell.

  12. mamajen says:

    I was taught to say “I am sorry for these sins, and all the sins I have ever committed.” I think “past life” does sound a little bit odd, unless it is someone who has really completely turned their life around and/or converted. Still, it’s hard to believe the priest didn’t understand what was meant.

  13. CatholicMD says:

    I have never heard that one must confess a mortal sin for confession to be effective.

  14. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    My problem is not ‘having enough matter’ for Confession, but rather having too much matter. Any way, mortal sin is not necessary, venial sin suffices. And the renewal of sorrow for confessed/forgiven sins is also regarded as sufficient. The phrase ” for these and for all of my sins” is always a good idea lest one be inadvertent to sins requiring absolution. I include it every time.

  15. Speravi says:

    The phrase used is fine. Fr. Kelly in “The Good Confessor” frequently used this phrase. Among other things, he suggests that when it is dubious whether sufficient matter for absolution has been confessed, a priest could ask the penitent, “And do you include the sins of your past life in this confession?” I think there are very few priests who would think that a Catholic coming to confession and mentioning the sins of their “past life” was talking about “a previous life” in the sense of reincarnation. The situation was just a fluke.

  16. anilwang says:

    It may simply be that he misheard or there is a lot of new age belief in that parish and the priest wanted to make sure.

    I remember hearing a story about a faithful daily mass attending Catholic that went to her priest and asked him about the “inspirational” book she was reading because she found some parts were confusing. The book was A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. Needless to say, the priest had a few words with her. But it does highlight why a priest might want to use the opportunity to do impromptu catechesis, since even faithful Catholics might mistakenly believe things about the faith that are wrong.

  17. Faith says:

    Just put a period after “past,” in that sentence. “I am sorry for these and my sins in the past.”


  18. rcg says:

    IIRC, that exact phrase is in the ’62 in the section on Reconciliation. I have seen it and chuckled to myself wondering if anyone would think it meant like when I was a Gila monster or some other ‘phylogeny’ in the past. I never would have thought it would be a priest…

  19. Sandy says:

    What a strange question from the priest! I’m sure many of us have used that phrase, but one might use instead – “all my past sins” or “all the sins in my life”, etc.

  20. acricketchirps says:

    mysti-rose. I hope that’s not true. It would seem there could be a lot of young children who’ve never committed a mortal sin offering ineffective confessions all over the place.

  21. Gail F says:

    Maybe he just knows people who DO believe in reincarnation, and he’s sensitive to the idea. I’m sure if you have a New Age relative, former roommate, or neighbor, it’s a red flag!

  22. Alice says:

    I have said “sins of my past life” at the end of my confession at times. I haven’t had a priest ask me if I believed in reincarnation, but I have had a priest check to make sure that I understood that I couldn’t avoid confessing things I hadn’t previously confessed that way. I just assumed he’d run into poorly catechized people and wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing.

    Mysticalrose, venial sins are sufficient matter for confession. Otherwise the Latin Church would not require that children make their first Confessions before first Communion since some children (hopefully, most children) will not have committed a mortal sin at age 7.

  23. I too end my confession with –
    ” ….Its for these sins and all my sins that I’m sorry for”

    Seems to work well and give Father a lead into the penance etc.

    Good Luck and like Fr. Z said – Keep it up!

  24. Precentrix says:

    Last I checked, venial sins were still sufficient matter. I’m not sure if imperfections would be… but it’s a moot point since I still, very much, do sin. And if you can’t think of things you’ve done or said, try considering sins of *omission*. They’re kind of tricky to pin down, but boy do I commit a lot of ’em.

  25. I use that line at the end of every confession. Once I was on travel in another city, and the confessor actually engaged me in an argument about expressing sorrow for sins which supposedly would have already been confessed. I took him on and held my own.

    I also stayed for the Mass. His homily didn’t make much sense either.

  26. Precentrix says:

    NewAdvent says: “While mortal sin is the necessary matter of confession, venial sin is sufficient matter, as are also the mortal sins already forgiven in previous confessions.”

    It is also worth remembering that attrition (i.e. the resolution not to sin from fear of hell/punishment) is also sufficient for confession.

  27. Aquinas92 says:

    The formula I was taught and still use today is very close to that, and I wondered if someone just made a mistake writing it, but from a few other peoples comments it sounds like they were taught the same. The one I was always taught and still use goes “…I am sorry for these and the past sins of my life.”

Comments are closed.