QUAERITUR: Priest asked me to say Act of Contrition after getting out of the confessional

From a reader:

During Confession, the parochial vicar at my parish insists that I say the Act of Contrition after absolution, when I have left the confessional. So I say it in the pew prior to doing my penance. I think he wants to move the line along, but it seems strange to me.

It is not the norm, to be sure, but it is not unheard of.

The priest has to be reasonably certain that the penitent is sorry for her sins.  One could argue that the fact of the confession itself is the minimum adequate to convince him of the sorrow.   That, however, has to be the exception rather than the rule.  Hearing at least attrition during the Act of Contrition is the normal way that Father comes to reasonable certainty that you are sorry and have a firm purpose of amendment.

There are times when the line of penitents is quite long and the confessor is up against a scheduled event, such as the beginning of Mass at the top of the hour for a church full of people.  In that case Father might try to move things along so that more penitents can be heard.  That is usually why a confessor might occasionally ask penitents to say the Act of Contrition afterward.  Again, that is not the optimal practice, but, if you are sorry for your sins and made your good confession, it would not invalidate the absolution.  And during “high volume” times, that can get a few more people in.

This situation prompts me to remind everyone reading this not to “ramble” when there is a line of people behind you.  Be thoughtful!

Please, friends, be clear, be concise, be blunt, and be gone.   Get in there and confess those sins in number and kind, and include just the details that might aggravate or attenuate the sins.  Under the normal circumstances of regular confession times, priests don’t need the story of your life or account of your week.  It isn’t chat time.  Nor is it a psychotherapy session.  You don’t have to speed talk, like the disclaimers at the end of a radio commercial.  Just be clear, be concise, be blunt, and be gone.

To this end, examine your conscience beforehand.  Pretty please?  You should know what you are going to confess before entering the confessional.  Before, right?

And, please, pay attention to that request for “bluntness”, above.  Be blunt.  Don’t beat around the bush.  Use the clearest words, even if embarrassing.  “Father, I did ___ X times, ___’d X times, I failed to ___ although I must add that the house was on fire at the time, I ___’d my ___ X times….” etc.  There is very little that a priest hasn’t heard before.  He usually has no idea who you are, especially if you whisper.  He can’t reveal anything to anyone.  He usually – and this is something just about every priest you will ever meet can verify – he usually forgets what you told him even as he goes to the next penitent on the other side of the box.  It’s weird, but true… at least for me and priests I know.

Making a good confession regularly will help you with being clear, concise, blunt and gone.

In the meantime, if you are really nervous or haven’t gone to confession often for a long time, Father can help you out, but ask him to help you out so that he doesn’t wonder about intervening.  Be direct.

And please be patient and understanding with priest who try to get a few more penitents in before being forced to get out of the box.

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, Priests and Priesthood and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. WesleyD says:

    I prefer saying the Act of Contrition while in the box, but occasionally a priest has asked me to do it with my penance, and I’m fine with that.

    Once or twice the priest has simply gone on to the absolution without giving me a chance to say the AOC, in which case I say it during my penance.

    I have also encountered at least one priest who asks me to say the act of contrition, and then while I am saying out loud, he says the formula of absolution out loud. Obviously that doesn’t affect the validity, but it’s very distracting to me, because I like hearing the absolution!

    I must say that having gone to many confessions at many churches in multiple states of the United States, I have never had a priest be rude or mean in what he said to me. I have met a few people who have a story like that — but even they have only had one in their lifetime. So I think that such things (thanks be to God!) must be very rare.

    What I love the most about going to Confession is that the people in line always seem a bit uncomfortable or nervous, and the people leaving the box always seem calm and even joyful!

  2. jcr says:

    Let’s not forget the other reason why the act of contrition is normally said before absolution: to increase the penitent’s contrition, thereby disposing him to receive more grace from the sacrament. It can’t have this effect in the pew afterwards. Granted, if the penitent zips through his act of contrition without thinking, he might as well say it later and save everyone some time, but if the classic act of contrition is said thoughtfully (not necessarily slowly), the penitent first exercises himself in attrition, to ensure the validity of the sacrament, and then attempts perfect contrition, so as to receive the sacrament more fruitfully.

  3. I never do the “box”, only f2f, but I wholeheartedly agree with what you say, Fr. Z., about being concise and blunt; only adding absolutely relevant details and confession not being therapy, chat or an occasion to rant. Even if there is time. I believe it is also ok to just talk – but only at an appointment made specifically for talking. A priest can not refuse confession except in specific circumstances, while he has more liberty at giving and scheduling appointments for talking and it’s unjust and unreasonable to abuse confession time.

    I went to confession last Saturday and after I confessed my sins and received advice, Fr. said: “Now make a good act of contrition.” He waited while I said it and then gave me absolution. It warmed my heart.

  4. daughter of poor gemma says:

    Right next to the confessional, our church has a sign that says “Please say the Act of Contrition before entering” just above a poster displaying one such Act. Being a recent convert still attending the parish where I was baptized, the only time I’ve been asked to say the Act in front of the priest has been at the group Reconciliations during Advent and Lent, when I join the line for a priest from another parish.

  5. Lepidus says:

    Great post Father. Especially, the little sample. (Although, I think I committed a couple filling in your blanks there! HA!). Sometime I’m thinking I’m doing something incorrect when I go in there and get done with “the list” in 30-40 seconds while the guy ahead of me is in there 3-4 minutes (and this particular priest is not one to do a mini-sermon – at least I never had one). As far as bluntness is concerned, providing there are no circumstances that increase or decrease the nature of the sin, I tend to tie it to the applicable “deadly sin” rather than spelling out the details – maybe that’s why I’m in and out – but I figure the priest knows full well what I’m saying anyway.

  6. majuscule says:

    Like daughter of poor gemma said above, our confessional also has a sign requesting us to say the Act before entering the confessional. It’s confusing because our priests always ask us to say it in the confessional.

    I am thinking the sign is left over from another era, a different pastor. (The priest enters from the other side and may not even be aware of the sign.)

    I am going to ask about it and have it removed if possible.

  7. Fr AJ says:

    At every Penance Service I attend the Act of Contrition is said beforehand and the penitents are told not to do the Act during their confessions. Towards the end of hearing, I always ask penitents if they had been present during the Service and have said their Act of Contrition or not.

  8. Jeannie_C says:

    Love the statement the priest forgets all he’s heard upon leaving the confessional. This is because priests are men. Yet another reason to preserve a male only priesthood.

  9. APX says:


    There’s nothing wrong with penitents reciting the A of C before Confession. It’s actually a good thing and a good practice to get into as it helps to excite contrition before one goes to confession in order to make a more humble confession. Furthermore, the way the standard A of C is written, it’s designed to be said prior, hence the line, “I firmly resolve with the help of The grace to confess my sins…”. Let’s not discourage people from exciting contrition and sorrow for their sins before confessing them.

    I don’t know about anyone else, but whenever I’m told to “make a good act of contrition, not to just recite it mechanically” right after confession, I can’t do it because I feel likeI’m having an anxiety attack and can’t breath. The faster I get it said and get out, the better. My contrition comes well before I get to confession, and up until the moment I get into the box. After that it’s in and out as quickly as possible. I imagine I am not entirely alone with this.

  10. APX says:


    Lol! I think God knew what he was doing when he created the male-only priesthood. Could you imagine the Seal of Confession if women could actually be priests? I know I can’t. I don’t trust women to keep anything secret. Too gossipy.

  11. Mark H. says:

    So in other words, don’t pull a Luther and stay in confession for 6 hours.

    Also, since I have wondered about it a little while I have gone to school at a Catholic university, is it permissible for a Lutheran such as myself to go to confession with a Catholic priest if something is truly weighing heavily on me (as in extraordinary circumstances)? Or would it not be permitted on the basis of its sacramental character?

  12. APX: it’s in and out as quickly as possible – For me confession is an encounter with Christ and I like to live it (=experience it) while I am in in it. I like saying the Act of Contrition at the end of my confession, I say it slowly and think about the words, sometimes pausing between the phrases. Fr. waits for me to finish and then says the absolution in the same way and it fills my heart with joy when I can hear the words and take them in.

    I am reading what you from the US are saying, and feel for you… Are there so few priests/such long queues that it really matters if people say the Act of Contrition outside? :-0

  13. Gregg the Obscure says:

    I’ve had this experience a few times, usually when there is either a long line or not much time before Mass. In my limited experience, younger priests are much more likely to do this than older priests. One older priest prays something audibly during the AoC, but he’s a thickly-accented Vietnamese gentleman and I’m pretty sure that prayer is itself in Vietnamese (besides which I can’t hear it that well over my own spoken AoC), so I have no idea what that prayer really says.

  14. APX says:

    For me confession is an encounter with Christ and I like to live it (=experience it) while I am in in it. I like saying the Act of Contrition at the end of my confession,

    Just because one takes his sweet time creating an emotional experience for himself in Confession, whereas another person who, for reasons beyond one’s control, has to suffer through it doesn’t mean the second person’s confession is any less than an encounter with Christ. Theologically speaking, the person who goes to confession out of choice, despite the anguish and suffering it causes, would gain more merit than one who goes because they like to go and find it an enjoyable experience.

  15. Jeannie_C says:

    In my parish the lines for Confession are growing, so taking one’s time means a number of people are cut off as Father has to begin Mass. We’ve stood in line, 20 people or more, waiting, waiting, waiting while someone took a very long time, and thought perhaps if they required that much attention they should have made an appointment. There is a time and place for that. On the other hand, I’ve seen people go in with a list in hand – yes, no kidding – they got down to business and it was next person in. I agree with APX, the sincerity of the confession, the words of absolution are what count.

    As for the A of C, I’ve been invited to pray it in the confessional as well as at the time of carrying out my penance prayers.

  16. Jeannie_C says:

    Mark H –
    ask the priest if you don’t get a Fr. Z answer to this. Identify yourself as a Lutheran. If he cannot absolve you based on your denomination, he can certainly advise you if he has time. The keys to binding/loosing sins were given to Peter from Christ and the church he founded which exists in our present day church, not in the protestant denominations. Have you considered becoming a Catholic? There are an abundance of graces available to you in the Sacraments. Our family converted and have never looked back. I invite you to do the same and assure you you’d be most welcome.

  17. Mark H. says:

    While I could certainly comment on a lot of the above comment, I would focus on the part of having considered becoming Catholic. While yes, as a theology student who studies in a Catholic university, I of course have to have considered it, however, (and this is where I guarantee I differ with many people, Protestant and Catholic) I also do not see as much contradiction between what Luther himself taught (I emphasize that, because many things that the EKD and ELCA are doing would make him roll in his grave) and what modern Catholicism, properly understood, teaches. So, I also don’t look at the issue in a black and white way of having choose between the real Luther or Catholicism. I see unity as the solution for the Church, and I look at the writings of Cardinal Kasper and recent statements of Cardinal Koch and Archbishop Muller as a call to action for us on both sides (as Cardinal Koch said, it is a two-way street) to accomplish that goal. I have no doubt about the welcome, as I attend mass with regularity during the school year, and simply for the sake of not offending or causing a break of rules among fellow Christians, I refrain from the sacrament, but I do receive the blessing of the priest. I have always felt quite welcome by the priests.

  18. Mark H. says:

    I should add that I enjoy this blog because I have many concerns myself about maintaining traditional worship and liturgy, traditional teachings of Christianity, etc., and because I enjoy engaging Catholicism in meaningful ways. I mean, I have a Catholic Catechism sitting next to a Book of Concord on my bookshelf if that says anything about my outlook.

  19. APX, I never intended to say that the confession you described was less of an encounter with Christ theologically; or that it was your fault in any way if you did not experience confession the way I did. Apologies if it came across so. However, the lived-through experience of an encounter with Christ is not something “one creates for oneself taking sweet time”. It is a gift from God and not something subjectively generated by the person. Our faith is not merely theology, it is the living and loving Lord Himself, a person, who comes and communes with us in various ways.

    Jeannie, around where I live in the north of England confession is after Mass, not before. At the parish where I go I am usually the only one; but for example the Wednesday before Maundy Thursday there were quite a few people. Fr. stayed beyond the originally advertised time to accommodate people, but it was “open-ended” at that time, too. Btw. I always take a written list. As my sins are going to be forgiven anyway, I don’t see any point in trying to memorise them :)

    Mark H, you can receive a valid sacramental absolution only in specific circumstances (e.g. in danger of death).

Comments are closed.