ASK FATHER: How to make a good confession, especially after many years

From a reader…


Hello, Father. I have a request. Since you often exhort people to go to confession, and since many haven’t gone in years and have anxiety about the form it takes, what to do or what to say, please provide a concise primer on the basics. Thank you.

This is a good question.  Thanks.

It is good to have a solid structure to rely on and a dependable priest who gets it and doesn’t throw any surprises at you.  It is hard enough to make a confession.  Penitents are generally a little nervous.  Being a little anxious can provoke clear thinking, but a lot of anxiety can produce paralysis.  Hence, structure.  This is especially important for children.   When children get into the box and I can tell that they haven’t been prepared, taught what to do, I could seriously beat the people responsible for their neglect… tantamount to cruelty.

I cannot do better than the concise lessons of the trusty Baltimore Catechism, especially Lessons 19 and 20. 

Lesson 19 goes into the background and Lesson 20 explains the nuts and bolts of getting into a confessional and making a good confession.  It’s masterful in its comprehensive clarity.

I also have my 20 Tips For Making A Good Confession.

On the last point in Baltimore Catechism Lesson 20, namely, “While the priest is giving us absolution we should from our heart renew the Act of Contrition”, I’ll add this.

Sometimes priests will begin the form of absolution without having told you to say the Act of Contrition, or they will start it while you are saying the Act and say the final part, the “meat” of the form, when you are done.  Don’t worry.  This is a long established, traditional way to proceed.  Sometimes a priest will ask a couple questions: Are you truly sorry for your sins? Do you promise to amend your life?  After he hears the answers, he might then just launch into the form of absolution.

As far as the Act of Contrition is concerned, the one which I think superior to others is:

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance and to amend my life. Amen.

This is popular in these USA and it is so for a reason: it is comprehensive and concise.  A variation is, “… to confess my sins, to do my penance, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.”

May I stress a couple things?

The three pillars of a good confession are a) knowing what a mortal sin is and knowing what grave matter is b) a good (ruthless and brutally honest) examination of conscience and c) absolute sincerity when making your confession.

My good friend Fr. Tim Finigan has a great aid for making an Examination of Conscience.  The one for adults is HERE.

You can take some notes with you into the confessional, if you need to.  It’s okay.  Just make sure that you don’t forget the list on the counter at the coffee shop.

Also, if you get stuck, Father can help you if you ask him.

All of the above aside for a moment, I’ll end with this.

  • Don’t hold anything back.  Just say it.
  • When you say you are sorry – either out of love of God or simple fear of the loss the Heaven – really mean it.
  • Be sincere when you state your intention to avoid sin in the future.
  • Do your best and God’s forgiveness will be yours.

The confessional isn’t a torture chamber.  It is the most consoling place in the universe.

There is nothing so bad that we can do that God won’t forgive, provided we ask for forgiveness.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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One Comment

  1. Animadversor says:

    Sometimes priests will begin the form of absolution without having told you to say the Act of Contrition, or they will start it while you are saying the Act and say the final part, the “meat” of the form, when you are done.

    This is a beautiful custom and very gratifying for the penitent. It reminds me so much of the the father of the prodigal son, who ran to meet him as he was approaching the house. So eager is God to forgive us that as soon as the first bit of the first phoneme of our expression of sorrow tumbles from our lips, He rushes up to forgive and to embrace us.

    [That’s a great image. I hadn’t thought of that.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

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