ASK FATHER: Father said say Act of Contrition afterwards. Fr. Z rants… at priests.

12_03_31_confessionFrom a reader… who recently went to confession!



I just went. Yay! After confessing my sins I had a question about a friend who fell away from church. It took 2 minutes, 3 tops. I don’t usually get into asking for advice in the confessional. Then he gave me my penance including an act of contrition to be said right there in the church– find a quiet place. Then – ‘Now I will say a prayer granting you absolution’. I was a bit confused and started to say the act of contrition but he was praying kinda loud so I waited. Then I asked -‘Don’t I say the act of contrition now? Right? He said ‘no- I told you to say it after you leave here…’ I said ‘Really? That’s okay?’ I was confused and it didn’t feel right- maybe because I always follow the formula. He says again -‘Yes it’s okay’…so I responded -‘if you say so’. He told me to tell the next person they could come in. (?) I went out into a pew & said my penance & my act of contrition. I’m asking you just because it wasn’t feeling right…I thought I had to say it in the confessional in the presence the priest and then he gives absolution.

I general, yes, the Act of Contrition should be spoken after you confess your sins and before the priest gives absolution.

There are good reasons to say the Act of Contrition when it is classically assigned.  First, it helps you truly to be sorry for your sins and to deepen your resolve to amend your life.  Also, 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.  The Act of Contrition says, first, that you are sorry for your sins because you fear punishment.  That kind of sorrow is called attrition.  A more perfect sorrow for sins comes from love of God.  This is contrition.  Both attrition and contrition are sufficient for receiving absolution validly.  Once the priest knows you have at least sufficient sorrow, and a purpose of amendment, he should give absolution.

However, 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.  That’s a good thing, right?

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.

If you are reasonably sure that a) there isn’t anyone in line behind you and b) you can truly be concise with a question and c) Father isn’t up against a schedule and d) your question doesn’t pertain to your own confession, then you might ask that question after making your confession and receiving absolution and after asking if it is okay to ask a question.

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


Don’t ramble!  Some of you guys go on and on and on and on and we penitents have to just kneel there and take it.  And, often, you are not… how to say this… terribly inspiring.

If we want our penitents to be brief, then we should do unto them as we would like them to do unto us.  Right?  RIGHT?

There we are… kneeling there… and we know there are people in the line.  Of course, we are imagining that everyone out there thinks that we are the ones keeping the line from moving.  Until, of course, the next penitents get into box and you get your garrulous clutches on them, too.

Just… please… do us all a favor.  Keep it brief.

We penitents thank you in advance.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    I believe I’ve run into this once at a basilica right before Easter, and it seemed strange but I knew there were many people waiting on line. I go to a monthly men’s evening of reflection in which confession is always offered, so there is normally not time constraints.

  2. Giuseppe says:

    I can say a reverent Act of Contrition in less than 20 seconds. (I just timed it.)
    Any faster, and ‘heartily’ comes across as ‘hardly’, which undoes the whole thing.

  3. clarinetist04 says:

    Where I’ve been in Europe outside of the Anglophone countries (France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, Germany have all been this way), the priest usually never asks for the Act of Contrition. I’ve amended my confessions to adding a very brief act of contrition at the end of my list of sins just to make it feel right to me. Sometimes they don’t even assign a penance – for this I ask clarification.

    I find when I go using a non-English language (French usually), I translate them out completely ahead of time, on paper, and then when I am saying them to the priest it goes extremely fast – then I burn the paper.

  4. Kent Wendler says:

    I believe I encountered a “loquacious” confessor, once, at St. Peter’s in Rome no less. It was during the last jubilee year (2000) on a pilgrimage. There was only one English posted confessional available, and I had a looong wait. The organ behind me started, so I assume a papal Mass had begun. The priest (a Franciscan if I properly recognized his habit) took a very long time for each penitent. When I finally approached I chose the center (face-to-face) position – and found out how hard those kneelers are, especially for arthritic knees. And it wasn’t until I confessed back at home that I was given to understand that the assigned penance was – improper (one with no definite completion).

    I think those kneelers themselves may go a long way to providing penance. I had difficulty rising to my feet afterwards, and Father was not, well, very sympathetic, shall we say.

  5. lmgilbert says:

    In general, I am completely with you on the subject of garrulous priests. Usually what they say comes off as theo-pastoral boiler plate that bears no relation to what I just confessed. My attitude then is, “okay…whatever.”

    However, we once had an Indian priest at our parish who took his time with us. It was completely alarming, and proportionally effective. He would launch into a scriptural meditation that bore directly on the matter confessed, and two minutes into this would say something like, “and if you think about this it will help you not to” . . . and here he would mention all the sins that I had confessed some minutes before! It was astonishing, humbling and reassuring all at the same time. My sins clearly had been heard, and though heard and understood, now were swept away by priestly absolution.

    Or again, if a priest takes his time with me to ask why I think such and such is happening, and engages me personally with priestly wisdom directed to my situation, I am very grateful. For example, if I mention that I have let my prayer life fall off, he might say, “And why is that do you suppose?” Such respectful and thoughtful questions can find their way to the heart of the matter.

    That is the very opposite of the sacramental assembly line where priest and penitent have briefly followed the correct form , but one comes out of the box without any sense that there has been an encounter with God. This, too, seems to be a mistaken approach.

    Parenthetically, one thing I have noticed over the years is that priests who have a fervent devotion to the Sacred Heart make wonderful confessors. Brief he may be, but his confessional is supercharged with grace.

  6. Jeannie_C says:

    Thank you for encouraging us in the correct way to confess, Fr. Z. In my previous parish our pastor often stated he didn’t want us to enter the confessional with a “laundry list of sins”. Without my mental list I didn’t know how to go about confessing, didn’t want to express tendencies or attitudes. I knew what my sins were and needed to just state them. Now in another city a priest walked me through the process as you describe. Between the two of you this has enabled me to celebrate Reconciliation. Please don’t ever stop reminding us of the need and the method – you have no idea how many souls you may be saving in the process. We don’t need priestly hand holding we need to confess and be absolved.

    As for the Act of Contrition, we should have it memorized, not depend on a piece of paper tacked to the wall of the confessional. We may one day find ourselves at the point of death fully conscious and should be able to make this our last heartfelt prayer before departure.

  7. Thomas Sweeney says:

    It upsets me that the Novus Ordo mentality has drifted into the confessional. After all, a penitent maybe spiritually dead before confession and absolution. To tell him to say his act of contrition after he leaves the confessional, in such an off handed way, is disrespectful, not only to the penitent but to the sacrament as well. Granted, there is a shortage of priests, but nothing is more important than hearing confessions, our eternal life may well depend on it. I remember reading, that in the past, priests have been known to spend the bulk of their time in the confessional. Of course, if they really want to save time, they can give a general absolution, similar to what men receive before going into battle, especially if there is a long line.

    [Easy for you to say. You haven’t experienced people begging you to hear just a few more confessions when you are supposed to be somewhere else. Novus Ordo mentality? Perhaps you think everything was Shangri-La in the confessional before the Council.]

  8. Nan says:

    I couldn’t have been the only one to question it afterwards; I had gone to confession before a daily Mass and when directed to say the act of contrition outside the confessional, did so, but didn’t receive communion because the whole point of confession was so I could receive and I had no idea whether it was allowed to say the act of contrition outside the confessional so I didn’t receive. I went to talk to Father after Mass, in the Sacristy, so upset that I was shaking, and asked him how he knew I was contrite if I said the act of contrition outside the confessional? He said the fact that I had gone to confession told him and accused me of not trusting him; if that were true, I’d have gone straight to the Department of Faith with my question.

    There’s a note in the confessionals asking people to use the short form, and providing a short form. The lines are long so that makes sense but any time there’s something questionable, I’m going to question it.

    Fr Chattypriest sometimes offers advice in the confessional. Last time that happened, he offered exactly the advice I’d expect my mother to have given me, in approximately the same tone of voice. I now go to a place with curtains and whispering for confession.

  9. Nicholas says:

    We have a priest at my college who, when pressed for time, will instruct us to say the Act of Contrition afterwards, but will first say, “You are sorry, right?”

  10. Fortunately around here, most priests are good at the correct form for confession.

    Although I say the Act of Contrition in the confessional before the absolution, I also say it again after I am out, can concentrate better, and am reciting my penance – just to make sure I have that required repentance thing down.

    It happens very rarely, but the priest who is in ‘transmit’ mode rather than ‘receive’ mode is hard to deal with in the confessional. These are the priests that interrupt and launch into some sort of opinion, advice, comments before I am finished reciting my list of sins and give a little context.

    Again, its very rare, but I wonder if the few priests that do this are aware that a priest must listen and ask short, related questions for clarification, in order to understand the penitent. Please dear Fathers, yes I need advice, direction, observations but only after the INPUT is sufficient.
    After all, this is my confession…not yours. lol.

    [d’ya know what a computer program does without sufficient input? it does the wrong actions, incorrect output.]

    I really appreciate the confessor who sits silently, still, and attentive. [No I don’t mean you can’t cut off a rambling description and allow time for all the other penitents in line.]

    We may have run out of the old practiced priests of yesterday. Priests are more and more insufficiently trained for confession. Not just in Form but also the way to listen, knowing what pointed questions to ask, receptively observe, or knowing the logical paths to discernment by prayer and book instruction. I can’t even get mad at priests today – too few have been led in this subtle art! As with the Faith today in all areas, priests must be self-taught in knowing how to hear confession and be spiritual directors. Find some REALLY old books on spiritual direction and examination of conscience, and start reading! please? I can’t do this Sacrament by myself. ha.

    All of that aside, yes, the words “I absolve you” are the crucial words.
    Thank you Father Z for encouraging me to get to confession. I generally go at least once a month because of your good-hearted nagging.

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