Sign posted on confessional door: “GET TO THE POINT!” Wherein Fr. Z rants.

I saw this photo on Twitter. I post just the photo and not the link because of the off-color remark that accompanied it, surely motivated by disgust.

I’m not precisely sure what motivated the off-color remark about this sign. Several things come to mind.

Firstly, perhaps the off-color remarker is a talker.  Some people get into the confessional and ramble.  That’s might stem from various reasons.  They could be under-informed about the purpose of the Sacrament of Penance and best practices of the confessional.  They might be nervous.  They might be ill-prepared They might be lonely.  They might be… whatever.

TIP: Make your examination of conscience before you get into the confessional.  BEFORE.  And if you make one each evening, remembering things becomes easier.

The priest who posted that sign clearly wants to hear confessions.  There have probably been problems of people in line who have not been able to go to confession because some few people took up all the time.  That’s really frustrating.   So… have a heart!

TIP: Remember that people behind you in line want the sacrament also.  So, don’t ramble.

The confessional is not a coffee shop or the priest’s appointment meeting room or office.  It is the tribunal in which you are your own prosecutor.  Confess sins not tendencies.  Tendencies, in themselves, are not sins.  Confess sins not temptations.  Temptations, in themselves, are not sins.  Confess sins not “struggles”.  A struggle isn’t a sin. Putting yourself in a near occasion of sin is another matter.

TIP: Use a list or standard method for your examination of conscience.  That will help clear your mind and be objective.

The sign’s diktat that you not explain “why you did it”… is right and wrong.  It is right, in that explanations are often unnecessary rambling.  However, it is wrong in that sometimes, not all the time, the motive and circumstances do matter.  If you are genuinely not sure about a particular possible sin, because of extenuating circumstances, include them… as briefly as you can.  For example, if you were under pressure or threat to do something, that lessens your free will.  If steal $x from a poor person that’s worse than stealing $x from a rich person.  If a sin involved something or someone or some place sacred, that’s also the sin of sacrilege in addition to whatever else it was.   BUT….

“Well, you see Father, I kicked my dog.  I  had had a hard day and the weather was bad.  You know how after one cloudy day after another you can get down?  Well, know… that’s how I was feeling.  It was really gloomy and my boss at work was on my case and it seems like I hit every red light on the way home and coming into the house there was the dog and the dog bowl was flipped over and there was stuff all over the floor and….”

At this point in the ramble, the people in line are trying to remember how to tie the hang-man’s noose and young Father Noob wants to commit sepuku.

TIP: Fathers! Don’t let people ramble.  And preach about how to make a good confession once in a while.

Fr. Z’s 20 Tips For Making A Good Confession o{]:¬)

We should…

1) …examine our consciences regularly and thoroughly;
2) …wait our turn in line patiently;
3) …come at the time confessions are scheduled, not a few minutes before they are to end;
4) …speak distinctly but never so loudly that we might be overheard;
5) …state our sins clearly and briefly without rambling;
6) …confess all mortal sins in number and kind;
7) …listen carefully to the advice the priest gives;
8) …confess our own sins and not someone else’s;
9) …carefully listen to and remember the penance and be sure to understand it;
10) …use a regular formula for confession so that it is familiar and comfortable;
11) …never be afraid to say something “embarrassing”… just say it;
12) …never worry that the priest thinks we are jerks…. he is usually impressed by our courage;
13) …never fear that the priest will not keep our confession secret… he is bound by the Seal;
14) …never confess “tendencies” or “struggles”… just sins;
15) …never leave the confessional before the priest has finished giving absolution;
16) …memorize an Act of Contrition;
17) …answer the priest’s questions briefly if he asks for a clarification;
18) …ask questions if we can’t understand what he means when he tells us something;
19) …keep in mind that sometimes priests can have bad days just like we do;
20) …remember that priests must go to confession too … they know what we are going through.

These tips are always available through a link on the right sidebar and HERE.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    I almost always write down my confession, so that it can be as clear and concise as possible.

    If I recall correctly, it was said of Caesar Augustus that he would always compose his addresses, even those of a private nature, so as not to waste words and impair the “majestas” of his office. A little stiff, perhaps, but perhaps it would be a good idea for us to take serious things seriously again, and prepare.

  2. sjoseph371 says:

    I’d also recommend that if one has a long list, needs to do a FULL confession if one hasn’t gone in a while, or otherwise know that you’re going to be “that guy”, then make an appointment with the priest so you can take as much time as you need. (With the caveat that you should STILL go to confession as soon as possible to briefly go over your list of sins)

  3. The Masked Chicken says:

    While confessing tendencies is not part of a good confession, some people who say, for instance, “I have the tendency to gossip,” really mean ,”I have gossiped, but I can’t remember how many times.” They really mean to be confessing a sin, but they do it in an amorphous way. They should confess, “I have gossiped, maybe ten times, but I am not sure exactly how many.” The priest will, hopefully, help them to monitor their behavior more precisely (an evening examen is good), so that their number won’t have such a large error bar. [This is also part of regular pulpit instruction on how to make a good confession. “Tendency to do something isn’t sin. DOING it is the sin.]

    Unfortunately, there are some sins that are hard to track for some people, especially habitual sins, because habits tend to go less noticed.

    The Chicken

    P.S. You are supposed to explain mitigating circumstances, so this priest is sacrificing an important part of the sacrament. “Bless me, Father. I slapped my wife…She was hallucinating and thought I was a zombie and lunged at me with a knife.” You get the idea.

  4. Rich Leonardi says:

    There have probably been problems of people in line who have not been able to go to confession because some few people took up all the time.

    This is almost certainly what prompted the sign, and, as you indicate, Father, the rambling penitent unfairly inconveniences the people in line behind him. You can chalk up some of the chatter to our therapeutic culture, which tells everyone they have a right to be heard, and on their own terms.

  5. redneckpride4ever says:

    Is it advisable during a typical confession to alert the priest if you have either a scrupulous or calloused conscience? Or is that best left for general confessions? [Something like: I am a little scrupulous so, please Father, interrupt me if I am digging a hole.]

    Speaking of general confessions, I had one last year and it took away that feeling of “did I confess like I should?”. Since then I feel more confident that I’m doing what I need to when I go to confession (which is typically 1-3 times a month).

  6. ChiaraDiAssisi says:

    For someone who can lean towards scruples and sensitivity -which is not a bad thing when it pertains to sin, I know- this is actually extremely helpful. I would even narrow it down, “confess only your sins”. The weird scrupulous tendency laughably says..what are sins AND offenses!? Gaaah! [Not well worded. I thought about commenting on it, but… oh well.] In all seriousness, surely there are a million reasons people ramble. I can imagine it being very difficult to listen and spend oneself no matter how good of a heart the priest has been blessed with. I can only speak for myself and say usually I can tell instantly if I want to explain for prideful reasons. The struggle there can be great for some temperaments. Probably even greater if one is lonely and does not feel listened to often even by God Himself. So, though easier said than done, it is a beautiful suffering to offer up in reparation for the times one has not followed the prompting of the Holy Spirit and spurned God’s grace.
    Also, for each person there are many good reasons one might want to give circumstances, one of them being for the sake of humility but in this case, charity for others waiting in line trumps one’s mortification of pride by giving circumstances.
    One more thing, when one is lonely, is tempted to ramble and they have a priest who wants to hear confessions and although human, has a golden heart…think of all of the people who don’t know God AT. ALL. Who have fallen away or have no idea that there is a merciful God who desires their salvation. Some people go through their life never having really known deeply Our Lord’s love and have no idea what their hearts truly seek. That thought humbles me very much.

  7. bekah687 says:

    Thank you Father Z for providing insight on this and providing the wonderful tips. For the longest time I went to confession specifically because of a sin I committed that was weighing on my conscience rather than making it a habit. I would tell the priest it had been many months since my last confession, confess the one or two sins I felt especially guilty about, and say “and anything else I have forgotten”. I never deliberately left anything out, but I know now that becoming complacent in thinking ‘well I haven’t committed any mortal sins’ is a dangerous path to take. After I met my current husband my confession habits changed, he had long been in the habit of going at least once a month, probably closer to every other week. When I started going with him I realized I clearly had to change the way I went to confession. The “Laudate” Catholic app was a lifesaver for me. It has a Confession tab, with Examinations of Conscience for, “Anyone” “children”, “Young Adults”, “Singles”, and “Married”. I use it every time I go and has really helped me realize areas in my life that I have sinned that I normally wouldn’t have thought of. Just a little tip for anyone trying to find a way to improve their confession, because it certainly helped me.

  8. Lepanto ! says:

    Be brutal (accusing oneself). Be brief. Be gone.

  9. Lepanto ! says:

    Also, writing down the details runs the risk of losing the written item….having once found someone’s “list” on the church floor, in a crumpled booklet for notes, obviously dropped accidentally, I wish I could “unsee” what I read in the simple observation on the open page of the found item. Write if you must then eat it or burn it!

    [Oh, definitely eat it. I suggest a good hot sauce, like the one on my wishlist. It has a good balance of heat and tartness. If the list is long or particularly heavy, you might want to sauté it in pieces.]

  10. TimInMiami says:

    How do you handle a rambling priest? I have one wonderful priest who must spend 10-15 minutes with you giving you cura personalis but I feel anxious of those waiting outside.

    [GOOD POINT! Thank you for bringing it up. Priests are tricky critters to deal with. I entirely agree with you that sometimes it is the priest who goes on and on and on, often with pious gas as if he is rehearsing his upcoming, not to interesting homily. It’s torture. It can be useful to interrupt and “Respectfully, Father, there are 8 people waiting. What, please is my penance?” I suspect that some priests get started and they don’t know how to stop. BTW… it is easier as an increasingly senior priest to say, “Sonny, let’s get on with it, shall we?”]

  11. Sportsfan says:

    Succinctness could be a sub-virtue of any of the four cardinal virtues.

  12. mysticalrose says:

    I thought that in confessions of devotion it was ok to confess temptations so that you would get the extra grace not to fall. [IF you are there for the sacrament of penance, then the sacrament needs both form and matter. The matter of the sacrament of penance are the sins that are told. Temptations are not sins. They are not the matter of the sacrament. Even if you have no mortal sins to confess, you can from devotion go to receive the sacrament through the confession of venial sins and even of sins that have been forgiven. But the confessional shouldn’t be a place for long conversations. Much depends on the amount of time and how many people are waiting. If you want to talk about temptations it would be better to have an appointment. Now lets be CLEAR about something: There are not hard and fast rules for each and every confession. There must be and shall be flexibility.
    At the same time, exceptions are exceptions.]

  13. billt says:

    Be brief.
    Be blunt.

  14. ALL: There will always be someone whose says, “But Father! What about this?” or “What about that?” or “Some people need special attention because this and that!” or “Don’t be mean to people just because that or this!”

    Folks, these are general guidelines. They are TIPS. I called them TIPS. I did not call them COMMANDMENTS.

    But here is a commandment about the confessional: Don’t treat it, for the love of God (and I mean that literally), as if it were a torture chamber instead of the embrace of the patiently waiting father waiting for his prodigal to return. Yes, it is a “tribunal” because there are accusations (from yourself) and judgment (by you and by the priest) and the dispensation of justice and mercy (by you, by the priest and by God through him and in your midst).

    GO TO CONFESSION! (Use my tips.)

  15. mo7 says:

    You won’t believe this, but it is true. Once I got to church early well before mass to go to confession. I got in line maybe number 4or 5. Each person ahead of me took no less than 15 minutes. I have to admit I was pretty sore. When I finally got in there I found that it was Father who was the chatty one! And chatting away about any old topic from baseball to the weather like we were old pals 15 minutes!. I mostly just listened. Finally, with no end in sight, I had to tell him that people were waiting behind me and it was time to wrap up. I had to ask him to give me absolution so I could go. I thought someone was playing a joke on us.

  16. Gregg the Obscure says:

    @mo7 i know a priest like that. sweet old fellow – nearly 80 years old. i avoid his line as it’s a near occasion of impatience (0r worse) for me.

  17. Fr. Reader says:

    21)… Usually the priest understands what the penitent wants to say, even if the penitent is struggling to say it. If the priest does not understand he will ask. If the priest does not ask, please do not explain the same thing three times from different perspectives.

  18. JustaSinner says:

    Confess sins not tendencies… sounds like a Panic! at the Disco emo hit from 2005–I Write Sins Not Tragedies.

  19. redneckpride4ever says:

    Here’s one.

    I personally do not care for classic double sided confessionals. The reason is years ago I heard the voice of a distraught penitent on the other side, prompting me to immediately block my ears.

    I will take what I heard to my grave.

    Is it okay to, say, give a light knock on the wall to let Father know the seal of confession is leaking? Or should one simply block out the sound and wait?

  20. Imrahil says:

    Well, although the motivation is quite right, the sign here is … not ideal. I would hesitate to Confess there as what I am, someone who does confess regularly even if he sometimes falls slightly short of the once-a-month-recommendation. I would no way, absolutely no way, go there to Confess if I were a somewhat believing Catholic who were absent a long time from the Confessional while still hearing Mass every once in a while who thinks that maybe maybe it’s time to go to Confession once again.

    When the penitent does ramble, he should be corrected on the spot. It’s hard enough to take. It’s happened to me once when I confessed something that was, I still believe, at least slightly a sin (along the lines of “I have not, which would have been my duty to do, watched my mouth and stopped short of saying something imprudent to say”), but, to my emotions chiefly, socially embarrassing and which I really want to be done with. It was much harder to Confess than much much more serious sins, and took a lot of rambling which was duly reprimanded.

    The experience of “yes, I know that A was a sin which is why I confessed it; yes, I also know that I shouldn’t really worry so much about B, which is why I don’t, I only confessed it because even so it’s a sin; and you really could have taken less time to explain me that” is a much more frequent one though.

    – But the one thing I really disagree not only with the tone but also the content of the sign is the “don’t explain why you did it”. It’s a tribunal, yes, but in a tribunal the accused is actually asked why he did it. And tribunal or no tribunal, the penitent is still a human being. It will feel natural for him to, after saying “I kicked the dog”, explain slightly by saying, “I had had a hard day, felt downcast and let myself go”. It’s human to explain as much; in this case, it’s even of some import to the Confessor because hurting an animal while letting oneself go is a sin of a different kind than hurting it in a moment of conscious malice (by which I do not mean “mortal vs. venial”, but it is different). After that sentence, the penitent should perhaps be stopped, though.

  21. PadreRon says:

    The reasonableness of that sign depends totally on how many hours of confession are offered per week. We offer 7hrs a week and have several hundred penitents. If you are only offering 30 minutes of confession a week then someone should write a nastygram sign for the priest about acedia. [Good point!]

    That said… while I understand the sentiment of desiring to move things along when you have dozens of penitents waiting, it strikes me that it exemplifies an Obama care approach to encountering the Divine Physician.

  22. Tradster says:

    I sometimes struggle to keep it short simply because of the previous Confession. I certainly don’t want my penance to be reading the entire Old Testament or 15 Rosaries, but too often I get one Our Father or one Hail Mary. Granted, it’s better than the frustratingly nebulous “do something nice for someone”. But such a token penance often leaves me feeling like my confession was too trivial. So sometimes I find myself over-compensating with the next one.

  23. In 2002 when St. Sebastian’s Angels were busted there was a parish meeting at our Church concerning Fr. Cliff Garner, aka “TEX”, who was a member of that group. What a fiasco.

    Anyway I was at the meeting and the next day he had disappeared apparently in the middle of the night. Another parishioner and I went into the Church and decided we would go and check out his confessional. Hanging right in the penitent’s face was a sign that read, “Tell only your top three sins. Others are waiting. Fr. Cliff” I ripped it off the screen and I still have it somewhere. If I ever see something like that in a Confessional again I will leave immediately. It just doesn’t smell right.

  24. APX says:

    Succinctness could be a sub-virtue of any of the four cardinal virtues.

    It is. It falls under temperance, specifically modesty. Loquacity is a vice.

  25. Liz says:

    I’m a talker/rambler! (My husband once described those annoying people who sit on the airplane and start chatting on and on from the beginning of the flight. He was describing his own wife. Ha ha!) So this advice helps people like me a lot!

  26. hwriggles4 says:

    Here’s a few little things that I notice:

    1. My parish and the parish closest to me normally advertise confession to begin at a certain time. Many times the priest(s) arrives a little earlier and people are already in line. Many times the priest will begin hearing confessions earlier than the advertised time. This is something helpful to remember.

    2. If you can help it try not to arrive near the end of the advertised time. Due to the line you may not be able to get to confession that particular Saturday afternoon. By the same token if the priest doesn’t have as many people that day he might leave early (been there, done that).

    3. My Catholic brothers and sisters have told me (even at the parish closest to me where we have one priest who is predominantly Spanish speaking – personally I think his English is decent and I do speak some Spanish) that it’s harder to confess when a language barrier is present. Some priests do have a sign that says “English/Spanish” and I have directed a few people to priests who are more comfortable with Spanish. I have had fellow Catholics say “I couldn’t understand the priest so I didn’t go back to him.” Years ago one older priest had a sign on his confessional that translated into English said “I will hear your confession but I don’t speak Spanish.”

    4. Sometimes when I go to confession the priest will basically listen and make a quick comment and give absolution. Many times he will forget to ask about the Act of Contrition so I will say “I will do my Act of Contrition outside” which frees him to get to others.

    5. I agree with Semper Fi – if I saw a sign like that I would probably find another parish (Semper Fi – I didn’t know you lived not far from me either).

  27. tzabiega says:

    I completely agree with this priest and his sign if he confesses people more than on Saturday afternoon (then the only solution is more confession times). Priests need to be like the household father and stop their children’s yapping when other people are waiting in line. Simply tell the penitent to confess her sins (it is almost always a woman) and if there is a need for a longer discussion, make an appointment with the penitent inside or outside the confessional at another time.

  28. Dicop says:

    In Henry Morton Robinson’s “The Cardinal”, young Father Fermoyle discovers “women were more apt to extenuate their offenses than the men. The men would come right out with it: ‘I committed adultery four times.’ But the women would beat about the bush with all manner of fancy locutions.”

  29. Mama Jean says:

    Speaking of Confession, this is the most amazing testimony! So honest and from the heart. Esp. loved the part he shared about his Confession. This is a must share, especially with the young people you know. It’s never! too late. God bless this kid! Thank You, Jesus and Mother Mary!

  30. SimonK says:

    This reminds me of a conversation I had with a seminarian, many years ago (who later ended up being expelled from the seminary–unsure if that fact has any relevance). He told me he always liked to go to this particular parish for confession – even though it was rather out of his way – because the priests there (some religious order, I forget which) treated Confession as a counselling or therapy session, and were eager to have extended conversations with him during it, about the underlying psycho-spiritual motivations behind his sins – he was encouraging me to experience it too, but I never did. Father, you are (of course) entirely right that that’s not how it is supposed to work, but I’m sure he’s not the only penitent, and they are not the only priests, to promote that wrong idea.

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