ASK FATHER: When you remember, past, forgotten sins?

penance_confession_stepsFrom a reader…

 I’m a convert to the Church, so I have a large span of my life with sins that I’m not entirely sure of. I confessed a series of sins (all of the same kind) as doubtful, but then a while later remembered extra details that made me realize that I probably did consent to the sin at least once. Do I need to mention this in my next confession? I know that the sin is forgiven for now because the confession was honest and sincere, but I am unsure if I am strictly obliged to reconfess this sin as certain next time, or if it is all ready covered.

QUAERITUR:

It’s a helpful thing to add, at the end of one’s confession, a short statement like, “for these and for all the sins I cannot now remember, I am truly sorry and I beg the Lord’s forgiveness.”

Firstly, this helps the confessor know that your confession of sins has ended and it’s time for him to weigh in with counsel. Otherwise, if you simply stop, he may be thinking that you are summoning the courage to reveal The Big One™.

Second, it can help to ease your own conscience if, later you recall sins or details which you should have confessed.

Be clear about something. Not remembering one’s sins is one thing.  Deliberately concealing them from your confessor is another (really bad) thing.

Do not omit sins. Do not lump them into the “all the sins I cannot now remember” category if you truly do remember them. God is not mocked.  He cannot be deceived and He knows you better than you know yourself.

Whether or not a statement like this is made, if, at the time of your confession, you truly and sincerely did not recall certain sins, or certain details, relax. They have been forgiven. You have been absolved and your soul is as fresh and clean as the day of your baptism. God’s mercy is indeed great!

After you’ve confessed, if there are sins you forgot which later come to mind, especially if they are serious sins, the next time you go to confession, you can mention to the confessor:

“Father, it’s been two weeks since my last confession. I failed to remember and confess that, in the time prior to my last confession, I did with willful intent, take up arms against the Sovereign Pontiff on two occasions; I consecrated five bishops without a pontifical mandate; and I stole three pennies from my mother’s purse; I used air conditioning…. Since my last confession, I have committed the following sins:…”

While you are not strictly required to confess sins that have already been forgiven, it can be beneficial to your confessor to help to know and understand any habits or patterns of sin that you’ve fallen into. There’s no need to be obsessive about details. If you confessed that you stole a car, and later remember that it was actually a minivan and not a car, you’re probably in the clear. But if you confessed you stole a car and later remember you actually stole a fleet of cars, you should bring that up.

In your particular case (and the case of other converts who make a general confession before being received into the Church, or the case of those who’ve been absent from the sacraments for some time and are making a general confession covering a long period of time) rest easy.

If you made a good, thorough examination of conscience (as it seems you did), and freely and openly confessed your sins to the priest including everything you recall at that time, you are forgiven.

It’s not necessary constantly review to your past life to remember every details or the possible motives you may have had. Instead, turn toward the new life you’ve been given through the grace of the sacraments and the ministry of the Church. Thank God for the gift of forgiveness he lavishes upon you.

Thank God for the gift of the priesthood through which your sins have been forgiven.

Try not to dwell on past sins. Satan wants us to wallow in our sins rather than rejoice in the mercy of God.

Keep up your resolve to avoid sin and occasions of sin, and enjoy the freedom you’ve been given!

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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13 Responses to ASK FATHER: When you remember, past, forgotten sins?

  1. Imrahil says:

    While you are not strictly required to confess sins that have already been forgiven

    Aren’t we? Nice to know.

    I had hitherto assumed that, sure, forgotten sins are forgiven and, sure, we must not deliberately conceal (and – I might say, for those not very scrupulous – it is regularly easy to make out whether something is “forgetting” or is “concealing”), but we were required – not because they are unforgiven, but because the Church says so and so that the forgetter isn’t better off [and we fall subconsciously into forgetting as the easy way out] – to confess them afterwards, in as much detail as if they had been since our last confession, once they are remembered.

    Which may pose the problem that “not particularly investigating, in the examination of conscience, the time before last confession” may be something more than forgetting, at least to scrupulous minds.

    That said, what about making up one’s examination of conscience, but not writing it down on paper (or, there’s not sufficient light in the confessional to read one’s paper), and then forgetting one sin immediately while confessing? Note that that happens most regularly (typically, you remember it immediately after doing your satisfactory work or so)…

  2. Nicholas says:

    I laughed very hard at your hypothetical list of sins. Very funny, father.

  3. hmf10 says:

    Love, love, love those Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism illustrations!! Remember the one about the Seal of Confession showing the drawing of the priest with a padlock through his lips? Kids remember this stuff…….like forever. It’s very effective and it ropes the imagination in to help learn and recall the only things in life that really matter. Genius.

  4. Aquinas Gal says:

    I did use air conditioning in the past two weeks, but then I also recycled lots and lots of paper, besides saving water by skipping my shower one day…. so maybe I can qualify for a special environmental indulgence :)

  5. Patti Day says:

    Thank you Father. I feel so much better.

  6. Sonshine135 says:

    Father,
    I am in very grave persistent sin, because I use air conditioning… and I’m not sorry for it! I suppose I ought to enjoy it now since I will suffer in the eternal heat wave. If I turn it up to 80 degrees F, will that absolve me of the sin? We need more concise catechesis around air conditioning.

  7. Augustine Thompson O.P. says:

    Father and others,

    There is a real possibility of inducing scrupulosity in those who have not confessed for years, or those who confess regularly. The sacrament is meant to be a balm for the soul, not a torment. Remember Luther who went to confession several times a day even after Staupitz told him not to. [Luther was a strange fellow.]

    I urge confessors who encounter a penitent who has not been to confession for years etc., to offer the option of a general confession in question and answer form. Then (sorry this is really Jesuit) go through the ways of violating each of the 10 Commandments and Precepts of the Church, ask the number of times, and end it. Then, remind the penitent that they need to confess sins like those confessed during this exercise at their next confession. And suggest it should be next month. And not to repeat any sins before this confession. [This is a good method when a person hasn’t been for a long time and needs help.]

    I might add that my research done for my book Cities of God, shows that the usual 13th century format of confession after the requirement of the Easter obligation expected the priest to question the penitent as to the sins. How else does a priest form conscience? Sorry, but people don’t really get the practical points about sin from a sermon, unless they already know them. [This is a terrible responsibility for those who have the care of souls.]

  8. Norah says:

    pj perhaps you could ask a Miles Christi priest who gives retreats why the retreatents are asked to make a general confession.

    Some information about a General Confession
    http://www.scribd.com/doc/11584120/Microsoft-Word-General-Confession-and-Examination-of-Conscience
    I have noticed when listening to Catholic
    Q and A and a question about confession is asked that the necessity of having a “firm purpose of amendment” is never mentioned.

  9. oldCatholigirl says:

    Now pj_houston has got me scared: Does being “merely remorseful” imply that we do not have genuine (sufficient?) contrition for our sins, so the absolution didn’t take? Is there, then, a distinction between “remorse”, “contrition”, and “sorrow” for sin–the first implying that one does not have a “firm purpose of amendment”, but merely a vague regret that one should be imperfect? Oh, dear. This seems to me to be too emotion-centered. Yet appropriate emotions inform the will….And it’s true that waiting in a long line for Confession striving to remember one’s “laundry list” does sometimes result in a salutary self-confrontation….
    Thanks for the chance to meditate on this, but “If you, O Lord, mark iniquity, Lord, who can stand?”

    [You may be over analyzing. Consider the two forms of sorrow for sins expressed in the classic Act of contrition. One expresses regret/remorse/sorrow, etc. because of fear of punishment: attrition. That is sufficient. More perfect, however, is remorse for sin because God loves us and sin harms that relationship: contrition.]

  10. Tony Layne says:

    Truly handy. I tend to get lip-locked and forget to mention the smaller stuff after I’ve gotten over the Big One. Next time, I’ll try reversing the order.

  11. joan ellen says:

    Thank you for this post Fr. Z. I love this Sacrament & go to confession often, at least weekly. For smaller stuff as well as bigger stuff. I tend towards scrupulosity, but know how to be lax. Would rather err on scrupulosity than on laxness. A friend just today said she never feels like she is in a state of grace. A priest once said to me in confession that we never know for certain,that we have to just believe that if we do what The Church asks, then we should be in a state of grace.

    Recently it came to mind that there is only one mental illness…spiritual depression. Granted, exhibited in a myriad of ways. The only antidote? The Sacraments…especially Confession and the Eucharist. Mass and prayer, and sacrifices and fasting are a help as well.

    Another thought…Don’t Catholics (and Orthodox) have the edge when it comes to examining conscience. They have been at it much longer than any others. I don’t know why Protestants, for instance, don’t ask us for examination of conscience booklets. As mentioned above for the myriad of ways that we can go against the 10 commandments.

  12. Priam1184 says:

    @joan ellen I agree wholeheartedly. Until a few years ago I had been away from the Sacrament of Confession my entire life. I think that the only really good Confession I had made was as a child before my First Communion. But once I finally went back and got over the fear of it and started to make a regular habit of receiving the Sacrament my life began to change and to improve immeasurably to the point where I began to ask myself “where was this all my life and what in the world was I thinking??!!!!”

  13. Margaret says:

    Thank God for the gift of the priesthood through which your sins have been forgiven.
    Try not to dwell on past sins. Satan wants us to wallow in our sins rather than rejoice in the mercy of God.
    Keep up your resolve to avoid sin and occasions of sin, and enjoy the freedom you’ve been given!

    SO beautiful, Father Z, thank you.

    Recently it came to mind that there is only one mental illness…spiritual depression. Granted, exhibited in a myriad of ways. The only antidote? The Sacraments…especially Confession and the Eucharist. Mass and prayer, and sacrifices and fasting are a help as well. (Previous commenter)

    Respectfully, I must disagree. I have known good, serious Catholics, of the daily-Mass/Rosary/prayer and weekly-confession/spiritual direction variety, who have and do struggle with mental illness. Sometimes it really is about brain chemistry. I knew one of these good, serious ones, who was deeply resistant to medication precisely because he felt it represented a deficiency in his faith. The help he finally got when he finally decided to try the medication was astounding.