It felt as though the world had stopped, as though time stood still and was holding its breath for me — my sweaty hands clasped in front of my jittery body, waiting for what felt like eternity. I was in line for confession and what should’ve been a rewarding anticipation, felt more like a punishing dread.
I’d love to tell you that this was a singular event in my life — that as a 27-year-old, I’ve graduated from the nervousness that is stereotypically reserved for first time confessions or mortal sins, but this is the story of pretty much every confession I’ve encountered since I was seven. To some degree, I’ve anticipated every confession with gravity as to the weight of my sin. But, over the years, I’ve learned that the nervousness I encounter is more a recognition of a deep desire to apologize and move forward in my relationship with God than a fear of expressing my sins to a priest.
The day I recognized that the priest is merely a vessel of God’s love and mercy, everything changed. The day I recognized that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is solely about amending an active and living relationship instead of (what I felt was) a “one-time exam” that I will either pass or fail, the whole entire process became less daunting. Confession is meant to be frequented and approached with great joy! And, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the best ways to grow in our relationship with the Lord.
It is truly in the preparation that we set ourselves up for a fruitful confession. So, how do we ensure the confession of a lifetime? We continue to pursue it for a lifetime.
Make a Daily Change
1. Make a daily examination. The first step in pursuing this beautiful sacrament with regularity is to start examining your relationship with God regularly. Saint Ignatius of Loyola famously preached about the importance of a “daily examen.” When you take time each day to examine your gratitude and short-failings, the process of examining your conscience before confession will feel less laborious and more of a natural extension of your life. A great guide for the daily examen can be found here.
2. Research and have the local confession times on hand. Start by checking your home parish’s confession times on its website or bulletin, and then make a list of confession times at three or four other parishes near you. Pick parishes near your school, workplace, or home that will be easy to hit up after school or work. Keep a note of these times on your phone or write them into your calendar so you can easily access the next available confession. Even better, pick a parish that works best within your schedule and stick to a regular confession time. For example, if you work from 1-5pm on Saturday and there is an 11am Saturday confession time near your workplace, make this your weekly confession time!
Approach the Sacrament with New Conviction
1. Schedule the time into your day/weekend. As soon as you feel the pull to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, schedule the best confession time into your week. Make it non-negotiable and consider asking a friend to hold you accountable or go with you.
2. Make a good examination. The day before or morning of your pre-planned confession, take at least 30 minutes to ask yourself how (since your last confession) you have closed yourself off from God’s grace and chosen your will over His. Begin with the big sins — mortal sins (CCC 1855-1861) — or ones of great frequency; note them or write them down. Then turn to the smaller sins — the venial ones — and note them or write them down. Reflect not so much on which “rules you’ve broken,” but pray for the clarity to know how you have chosen yourself over God and others. Some great guides for a good examination can be found at the end of this blog!
3. Approach Jesus in the Sacrament with a contrite heart. It is ideal that you approach the Sacrament not solely out of a sense of duty or obligation, but with a true heart of sorrow for your sins and a desire to never sin again. If you were to approach a friend and apologize for spreading a rumor about him but weren’t truly sorry, only apologizing because your parents told you to, would that be an honest apology? God deserves honesty when we approach Him in the Sacrament. Approaching the Sacrament with a contrite heart also heightens our disposition to avoid sin again. To be truly contrite is more than a passing feeling or mood; you must make a firm commitment not to sin again. Like in the case of the friend, the most honest apology would be to apologize because you were wrong and to commit to never doing wrong to him again.
4. Go to confession. Approach the Sacrament with peace and courage! Once you’ve taken time to examine your heart and actions, go confidently to the Sacrament! If you haven’t been in a while or have forgotten the steps, here they are:
- Once you enter the confessional, kneel or sit wherever it is designated.
- Begin with the Sign of the Cross and then say: “Bless me father for I have sinned. It has been _____ (list the time — weeks/months/years) since my last confession and these are my sins.”
- State your sins honestly and freely. Make sure to name any mortal sins and number of times you’ve committed them. Remember, this is not about confessing to the priest, it is about admitting your guilt to God through the ministry of the priesthood, and seeking your heavenly Father’s forgiveness, which He gives so generously and freely when we ask Him.
- When you have stated all of your sins, indicate to the priest you are finished by saying something like, “for these and all of my sins I am truly sorry.”
- Listen with an open mind and heart to the priest as he offers you any words of counsel and assigns you a penance (a prayer or an act to make reparation for your sins).
- Make a good act of contrition. Often the priest will ask you to pray that act of contrition or to answer if you are truly sorry for your sins. A good act of contrition is as follows: “My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against you whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with your help, to do my penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Amen.” Try to memorize this or a similar prayer, otherwise print it out and keep it in your wallet or Bible. If you happen to forget the prayer or paper, do not fret, simply ask the priest to help guide you in making your act of contrition.
- Listen attentively as the priest prays the prayer of absolution and close with the Sign of the Cross.
5. Follow through on your penance. It is ideal to schedule ten extra minutes into your day to remain in the church to pray your penance. If you were assigned an act of charity or something that will need to be acted upon over multiple days, write it down or set an alert in your phone as a reminder until that penance has been completed. Offer these prayers or actions with a grateful heart, praising God for His great mercy and love.
6. Go forth and pursue a life of virtue. You’ve come seeking forgiveness. Now that you’ve received the Sacrament, go forth with joy and gratitude in knowing that God has poured out His great mercy and love on you! But don’t forget to keep your eyes wide open to sin. Pray for the grace each day to avoid sin and the near occasion of sin. Remember the Sacrament isn’t just a “one time deal”; the grace God offers through the confessional is available to you no matter how long it’s been since your last confession. We are all human and no matter how hard we try, we all sin. The grace of the Sacrament will help to strengthen you as you grow in faith and continue this journey toward heaven. The Church requires practicing Catholics frequent confession at least once a year, but a good healthy practice is to frequent the confessional once a month.
“Christ Himself is waiting for you. He will heal you, and you will be at peace with God” (St. John Paul II). Today is the day, my friends! Christ’s Sacrament is not meant to frighten or deter, but to heal, mend, and grow. Satan would rather you stay quaking in your boots unable to move forward, but Christ tells us in truth that this is the way to good, the way to truth, and the way to everlasting peace.
Ask God to help embolden you to this truth today, and go and enjoy the fruits of His mercy!
USCCB Examination of Conscience
Make a Good Confession blog
Forgiveness is Waiting blog
Tips from Pope Francis
My Side of the Confessional: What is it Like for a Priest?
Everything You’ve Ever Felt if You’ve Ever Gone to Confession