ASK FATHER: Kids told to confess one sin only.

From a reader…


At a local youth rally, the kids were told to confess one of their sin in the confessional. There were multiple priests present along with the bishop.

Are their sins forgiven?

First, if that recounting is accurate, telling people to confession only one sin is WRONG WRONG WRONG!

The bishop present ought to have immediately gone to the microphone to correct that.

I can’t say for sure what God did in regard to what these kids confessed.   God gave the Church the ordinary means for the forgiveness of our sins, provided we do what the Church requires.  Outside of doing what the Church requires… we get into swampy terrain.

Every sacrament has both form and matter.  The form of the Sacrament of Penance is the absolution spoken by a priest with faculties from the Church to absolve.  The matter is the telling of sins, all mortal sins, to the best of one’s ability.

If a person deliberately hides known mortal sins during confession, then she is not forgiven.

This situation, however, is complicated by the fact that the kids were told to confess only one sin.

It is entirely possible that these young people have never been properly trained or catechized.  Thus, they might do in good faith what they were told, not knowing that it was wrong.  What God does with that… I don’t know.

The way to deal with long lines is not to compromise the sacrament!   To keep things moving teach people what to confess and how to confess!

So, I don’t know for sure if they were absolved of their sins or not.  I suspect not, not in any regular way.  I can’t speculate much about what God might grant to them.

The Sacrament of Penance must not be compromised in this way.  Priests should never leave people wondering whether or not their sins were absolved.  That is why they must teach people to confess all mortal sins both in kind and in number, to confess everything, and to exclude nothing of mortal sins.  Then priests must must must use the proper form of absolution as the Church has given it, not making it up, not personalizing it, not elaborating on it.

Just say the black words and do what the red letters say.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    The adults at my parish get told this too at the Penance service at Christmas and Easter. Individual confession is to a priest, there’s lots of priests throughout the church, but there is a feeling of time-pressure and visibility (everything is out in the open, and though music conceals the penitent’s voice, it feels exposed). We were told last time to confess 3 sins or less. [WRONG WRONG WRONG]

  2. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Magpie, that’s atrocious.

    Venial sins can be confessed generically, so “I took a cookie. For these and all my sins, I am sorry” covers all venials. Grave sin is another matter (no pun intended). My guess is, probably invalid in such cases, though not sacrilegious, and, as Pater says, God might have another way to handle it. But it is not for us to assume it.

  3. Bob B. says:

    This seems to be commonly done in Catholic schools, usually because there were other grades coming in or that the priests have to be somewhere else soon. Most students, no matter the age, are intimidated to begin with and adding the time constraint only adds to their apprehension, which invariably makes them stumble over their words. The priest(s) mistake this for not knowing how to confess their sins, too. If it looked like this was going to happen, I’d jump to the top of the line (instead of being last) and take my time – so the students could have a general time period to shoot for, if needed. The students are a teacher’s first responsibility.
    I always asked the priests to hear Confessions in the “box” using the reasoning that we wanted them to use the sacrament often. I would always take my classes to see a confessional early in the school year (as part of introducing them to the various parts of the church, altar vessels and vestments, etc) – there were very few who had even been inside one and they were unsure what to do. This is because the norm for schools are for priests to be spaced all around the church to hear Confessions. I was successful only once in convincing the pastor to use the box.

  4. Paulo says:

    My children have gone through the Religious Ed program in my parish (in Vancouver, Canada), and have been told the same on occasion of their first reconciliations: just tell Father one sin. Now you can all imagine that it is not easy to convince children otherwise once they have been so instructed (“No! My teacher said ONE sin! And Father too!”)

  5. Uxixu says:

    The pastor of my parish did once told me that due to how busy it was (he came a bit later and the lines were still fairly long) to pray my act of contrition with my penance and a much briefer absolution.

  6. acricketchirps says:

    My old pastor (RIP) used to plunk any and every visiting priest in one of the confessionals before, during and, often, after every Mass. If there was still a line-up at the end of the Mass, he’d announce he’d open up the other box as an express lane, “Five sins or less.” Pretty sure everyone knew he was kidding, though.

  7. mike cliffson says:

    When the priests are few and/or penitants many and/or time presses Ive been told to be telegraphic.
    DONT OMIT mention of sins , JUST OMIT the literature of every surrounding detail who when where how why , most of which is usually justification .Eg ” I comitted adultery in my heart” … Does God , or Fr, need to hear that was last thursday, 747pm chill factor five below, I was wearing a soggy Tshirt and I had had two beers and a row with my wife and and and and ?
    Omission and/or comission
    10 commandments to sin against – (probably a good idea to be specific with exact sins against chastity, but thats still only one word)
    7 deadly sins
    mortal and venial
    How many/often :once twice, up to more times than i can remember, habitually?
    How much longer than 60 seconds is that going to take?
    If Fr wants/is inspired to interrupt with a question , whatever, add maybe more time.
    Time Saved with confessing only one sin; 50 seconds per? ..What’s the point.

  8. MustangSally says:

    Absolution cannot get much briefer. Probably it’s about 30 seconds!

    I love to hear those words, and a priest should love to say them. That is one of the ONLY 3 reasons he’s a priest! Shrive, Confect, Anoint. To be technical, he’s not needed for anything else.

    What are we “saving” by this desecration of the Sacrament of Penance? Time? The priest’s? The children’s? A TV show, a phone call? And if the whole process took an hour longer for everyone, what might we gain?

    I never heard of this bizarre practice and it seems to deprive everyone of grace and some sense of quiet and peace that should go along with Confession.

    Maybe do away with these big group penance “services” at the holidays would be a good idea. Instead, have Confessions before every Mass. The people will come if it’s available, I’ve seen that happen.

  9. Gail F says:

    The mind boggles at the inanity of that statement!!!! Anyone who would say it has no idea of what confession IS! “One sin per person please” — ROTFL. Of course it’s not funny if it’s YOUR soul, but really… that’s like a line from “The Simpsons.”

  10. Joseph-Mary says:

    Yes, I have seen this too but it has been at least 10 or more years. I remember thinking how convenient to be able to confess something that perhaps we are not so ashamed of doing. For example “I stole a cookie” vs “I robbed a bank”. Thought this nonsense had gone the way of the dodo. Sorry but that bishop was a dodo here.

  11. The Cobbler says:

    On the bright side: I went to Confession last week and guess what Father came out and said before getting into the box? To save everybody time with the long line, examine your conscience while waiting in line, before you get into the confessional, and just list your sins in kind and number. I couldn’t help but grin, seeing as that’s already my standard protocol for making a Confession — and yet obviously the best advice you can give for keeping it quick.

  12. Vecchio di Londra says:

    The horrifying thought that occurs is that the priests who have catechized in this way – in the example in the OP and in the examples given by contributors, and other cases I’ve heard about in the UK and elsewhere – those priests (and, even more shockingly if it was accurately reported, the Bishop) were all taught at seminaries. At different seminaries, by different teachers.
    Something wrong there.
    One might want to recommend more stringent and frequent episcopal visitation, but as to the bishop himself, “quis custodiet custodes?”

  13. Vecchio di Londra says:

    The horrifying thought that occurs is that the priests who have catechized in this way – in the example in the OP and in the examples given by contributors, and other cases I’ve heard about in the UK and elsewhere – those priests (and, even more shockingly if it was accurately reported, the Bishop) were all taught at seminaries. At different seminaries, by different teachers.
    Something wrong there.
    One might want to recommend more stringent and frequent episcopal visitation, but as to the bishop himself, “quis custodiet custodes?”

  14. Vecchio di Londra says:

    Apologies – my message was duplicated!

  15. jfk03 says:

    A friend just gave me a 1941 edition of Fr. McGuire’s Baltimore Catechism. It says a good confession means (1) humble, (2) sincere, and (3) entire. “Entire” means: all mortal sings told according to (1) kind, (2) number, (3) circumstances.

    We need to bring back the Baltimore Catechism or one very like it. Our Church is suffering from 40+ years of non-catechesis.

  16. Bob B. says:

    For some reason, the Baltimore Catechism is virtually banned from many/most schools – I used it for the pictures and for getting to the point, as your example points out (which helped students remember). Often, it was a launch point into another area as well (e.g., changes in terminology, such as extreme unction).

  17. Joe in Canada says:

    But Father! But Father! “then she is not forgiven”? Have you been attending the “how to prepare for your talk at the LCWR conference” workshop?

  18. frjim4321 says:

    I think many of my colleagues are unaware that there actually is a published ritual for the Sacrament of Penance. I would suggest that those who don’t own one should get one and read it.

    Imposing a limit on the number of sins is not only lazy, it’s destructive and possibly abusive when inflicted on a person suffering from scrupulosity.

    People have a right to know all of their sins are forgiven. Limiting the number of sins undercuts that principle.

  19. Uxixu says:

    I will say that I’ve found for myself with more frequent confessions this last year instead of waiting and letting them “build up,” and more sadly watching Communion for the pews, or taking it as an excuse to miss Mass entirely (mea maxima culpa), my own confessions go much quicker and by the intercession of Our Lady and more constant devotions, I’ve succeeded in mitigating that tendency of my own sins and achieved more continuous attendance.

  20. geologus petrolei says:

    Sadly, I was taught the same thing twenty five years ago. Confess one thing…we were actually encouraged to say something non-specific such as “I haven’t been as nice to my brother as I should be lately”. Nor were we encouraged to learn an Act of Contrition. I didn’t learn how to make a proper confession until I was an adult. Sad to hear that these things are still taking place.

    Along the same line, I went to a new confessor a couple months back (no normal confession times in the parish…appointment only). He told me, “don’t worry about a long list of sins…just tell me what’s going on in your life right now.” I listed my sins anyway. Then, he wanted to talk for a half an hour about my feelings. Sigh.

  21. rosaryarmy says:

    Imagine how much time doctors could save if their patients just kept it to one symptom.

  22. Priam1184 says:

    Thank you frjim4321, and thank you for hearing our Confessions.

  23. mike cliffson says:

    How come only the cobbler shares my experience? The examination of conscience (that hurts ) while you’re waiting, since the very first confession, don’t they learn that nowadays? Fogeys like me say telegram/telegraph, moderns TWEET/text/sms for terseness .

  24. Mike says:

    Wow. I am happy to say I have never heard of this kind of thing, ever. How we need to pray for all priests! and religion teachers!

  25. Sonshine135 says:

    I have been an unfortunate party to this type of confession before. Confession at this church was rare and difficult to get. If you are only going to have confession on Saturday night for 45 minutes prior to Mass, then you are going to have long lines. People end up turned away, or get limited in their confession. The church I now attend has two Priests to hear confessions on both Wednesday and Saturday. One breaks off at about 15 minutes prior to Mass to vest. The other will continue to hear confessions until the last penitent is heard. I now go to confession much more frequently (often weekly). Pray for more vocations, because I think that will certainly help.

  26. mrshopey says:

    I was restricted like this once. The only thing I could think of, because I was stunned by being forced to only confess one sin, was “Pride”. For me, I assumed all my sins start with pride.
    That priest was corrected because the next time, he was the last to leave the penance service. I guess there will always be a temptation to make our work easier, lessen it, even with priests.

  27. One of the priests that was caught on Sebastian’s Angels site during the abuse scandal and the meetings in Dallas, had a sign in his Confessional…”Only tell your top 3 sins.” I was horrified! After he left the priesthood I went into his confessional and took pics of the sign and then tore it down. I still have it somewhere.

  28. chantgirl says:

    While being told to only confess one sin is bad, a loved one went in to confess after many years away from confession and was told that he didn’t need to confess any particular sins at all. When he told me later what happened, I was furious as I had been coaching him on how to go to confession. I told him that while God may have forgiven him despite the priest’s error, that he should try again with a different priest just to be sure.

  29. Fr AJ says:

    I have heard this done in different places, it’s totally mistaken. I think the underlying assumption in those who do this is that the people to confess only have venial sins and that is quite an assumption to make.

  30. bernadette says:

    I went through RCIA in the early 1980’s and this is what we were taught. We weren’t even told that it was necessary to go to confession but only that there was a penance service being held and if we went we were to confess only one sin.
    I am surprised that this erroneous teaching is still lurking around.

  31. Christine says:

    This is awful! It’s also the reason that I homeschool. We use the Baltimore Catechism and I have my guys memorize all the questions and answers. After prayer and discernment, we have also decided to home school my son’s sacrament prep for next year (first communion and first confession). It’s my job to teach them to know, love, and serve God in this world so they can be happy with Him in the next. Many prayers going up for not only vocations to the priesthood but that we can have faithful DREs as well.

  32. The Masked Chicken says:

    I am not up on seminary training, but in most professions where one is getting an advanced degree or certification, one has to pass some sort of qualifying exam(s). I know in academia this is standard, as well in the legal profession, the medical profession, accounting, etc.

    So, aren’t these sorts of questions covered? Isn’t having a penitent confess only one sin (assuming there are more mortal sins) equivalent to medical malpractice?

    The Chicken

  33. Imrahil says:

    I’ll assume in charity that they assume the penitents know they must confess all mortal sins anyway, so “please confess only one sin”. (Behind which either a overassumption of the stand of catechesis, or a smaller catalogue of mortal sins. – But give them a person who has committed two things they too considered mortal, let’s say murder and violence against the Blessed Sacrament, they surely would say they never meant him to confess only one of them.)

    But even if that is their intention and even if all this would be true (not many mortal sins, and full knowledge that the policy does not apply to them), even then that would be wrong. Because, by the same logic one could abolish the devotional Confession simply altogether. And don’t they know it’s something different whether to have or not to have confessed a sin, even if it’s venial? don’t they want to grant that to us sinners? and don’t they not that sometimes the distinguishment of mortal and venial sins is not easily done while we know that whatever it was, it was a sin?

    Background: the “idea behind”, as presented in our 1970s prayerbooks, was for the penitents confessing on a regular basis to concentrate on one specific vice/bad habit/character mistrait or whatever, or one virtue and the sins against it, and the like, underline this with sins committed. There’s some sense to it, but they never meant to restrict that to one sin in the area, nor to exclude mortal sins that happen to have happened.

    I second what the rev’d dear Fr Jim said.

  34. PA mom says:

    Ok, I probably deserve to be shot here.

    While helping kids prepare, they got so worked up sometimes that I would basically go over the examination of conscience page and suggest that they start by identifying the biggest three, and any mortal sins, identifying kind, number and motivations and then settling their minds on sincere contrition.
    I try to follow that up with then confessing anything else they identified and could remember, but some of them would seem quite blown away by the idea of identifying and confessing EVERYTHING they had done wrong since their last confession that I was just trying to encourage them toward real effort rather than blowing it off.
    Will make a sincere effort to stay further away from a certain number in future discussions.

  35. Thank God I have never been told to limit the sins I confess. And it is a pretty interesting review of experiences and advice here in this thread, and I always appreciate the humor.

    Confessions would be a lot quicker if they weren’t turned into chatty visits with the priest.

    I wonder if some priests who limit the sin-confessing aren’t confused about the priority of what is taking time in the confessional.
    Certain priests and many penitents get very chatty and I have never understood how a long chat session increases the grace of the Sacrament. The grace comes from sorrowfully accusing oneself of sin, resolving not to do it again, being absolved, and doing the penance. The old-style priest with long confession lines before a Mass had to get through a lot of people quickly – people knew ‘the drill’ [as some have identified in this thread]. During a confession, when a priest understands that a penitent needs more attention, he might ask the penitent to confess all the mortal sins but make a later appointment with him for more in-depth face-to-face spiritual direction. Ta-dah! You don’t hurt the penitent’s feelings, the penitent gets shriven [unless its a case of a deferred absolution for some serious reason] and the waiting penitents get their turn too.

  36. aemmel says:

    Our priest tells people to confess their sins and number without exposition. Mostly because he doesn’t want to counsel in the confessional, I’m guessing. But he’s never said to do something like confess one sin only.

  37. Maybe this is a separate issue but what do you recommend as the best way to inform penitents to “go fast” and just mention mortal sins in kind and number, then just a few key venial sins? Sometimes we have 15 penitents waiting outside and someone decides to go into elaborate detail unnecessarily or tell you about other people’s sins.
    I worry about giving a general instruction to speed up to all as it may disturb those who really need a little more time because they genuinely need council on a private issue or because they’ve been away from the sacrament for a while. I don’t want to scare them off but I want to help the regular penitents to speed up if there’s a line.
    Except for the hypocrisy of confessing other people’s sins, I don’t mind if a penitent wants to give detail if nobody is waiting. I just worry about faults of charity in forcing them to wait or not finishing confessions before mass.

  38. Random Friar says:

    On the other extreme, I’ve had more people than I can ever remember wanting to do a “General Confession.” That’s good and all, but in a busy church at lunch hour confessions, or in a Penance Service, is probably not the best time.

    My worst children’s Confession experience was where I showed up at a large First Confession and none of the kids were prepared. At. All. “Ok, tell me your sins.” “What’s a sin?” AAAARGH! Fifty-some kids like this. Then, when it came time for a Penance, it was “Do you know how to pray an Our Father? The Hail Mary?” “Nooooo…” Never did I wish to do so much violence to a minister before or since. It was like being in a bad comedy skit.

  39. Tony says:

    Older, quite orthodox, devotional books surrounding the sacrament of penance actually often make similar advice, on the assumption that most people who frequent the Sacrament of Penance regularly sin mostly venially, and it would be better to focus on one or two sins that one can make a concrete plan to change rather than to say a laundry list. I’m wondering if this is what the person who was addressing the youth rally was getting at/maybe we should assume good faith?

  40. mrshopey says:

    I have read the same advice but my particular one was different as I was told in the confession one and only one sin. There was no distinguishing venial, mortal etc. He also threw candy at us later, while in line, so I think that priest had other issues going on.
    For my own self and children, I have told them to be mindful of the line but you have to confess all mortal sins including number. I have also told them when in doubt, ask – if it were venial/mortal.

  41. ronconte says:

    For those kids who had no actual mortal sins, their sins would be forgiven if they contritely confessed one venial sin. For those kids who had only one actual mortal sin on their conscience, and who contritely confessed that sin, they would be forgiven. A child with multiple actual mortal sins on his/her conscience would (I hope) be unusual. Perhaps a child in that situation would ignore the instruction; kids don’t always do what they are told.

    For an invalid confession due to this very harmful rule to confess only one sin, the person could be forgiven by perfect contrition. The usual condition that perfect contrition be accompanied by the desire/intention to go to confession would be satisfied by a confession that the penitent sincerely but mistakenly thought was valid. The harm that is done by the lack of sound instruction on the Sacraments is inestimable.

  42. eulogos says:

    Some years ago in the Diocese of Rochester, after they stopped general absolution, they had these “tell one sin” things at communal penance services. That was the only confession most people had. You went up in a line as for communion and whispered one thing to the priest. After that, they still had general absolution. Not quite as bad as the “write one sin on a piece of paper and put it in the fire” thing one of my kids was exposed to for confession back in Baltimore many years ago. But pretty bad. I thought this stuff was long gone. I went to mass this Sunday at my residential parish where I had not been for years and heard an orthodox sermon about the Eucharist from a young priest. I can’t imagine this young priest doing anything like that. I think the crazy time is passing, I really do.
    Susan Peterson.

  43. jdm says:

    The parish I grew up in always had me guessing what new innovations they’d introduce to their communal penance services every year. I can remember…
    -Everyone receiving a candle, and as the priest read out a list of sins you were supposed to blow out your candle when he came to your sin.
    -Writing down our sin (yes, one) on a piece of paper, taking it up to a ‘lay minister’ who would read it and then throw the paper into a fire while prayers were said.
    -Confessing your sin to the person sitting next to you.
    -Going up in groups to a ‘lay minister’ station where you shared your sins with each other and then going up to the priests’s station where you got your ‘absolution.’

    Even as a child I knew something was wrong about the whole thing. It took years to beat all that bad catechesis out of my head after I left…it was almost like converting to a new religion!

  44. Marc says:

    Wow, did this one bring back memories…bad memories! Last year, I heard the pastor tell the CCD students this when they did the annual confession as part of the class. I didn’t know what to do. I did take it immediately to the DRE who basically said “what can we do”!
    Luckily, my family left that church and are now very happily attending the TLM with a VERY faithful priest!
    We must pray for our priests! This kind of thing HOPEFULLY is the product of ignorance and not the diabolical!

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