For Catholics, the sacrament of Confession (also known as Reconciliation or Penance) is a wonderful opportunity to encounter the mercy of God through the ministry of the priest. God always offers grace and forgiveness through Confession, but you can increase your openness to this grace by making Confession a prayerful experience before, during, and after confessing.
Sometimes the hardest part of Confession comes before we even receive the sacrament! It is common to feel anxious about going to Confession and to be ashamed of our sins. What is important to remember, however, is that going to Confession is like going to see a doctor. The more honest we are about what is wrong (whether it is being honest about our sins in confession or being honest about our symptoms with a doctor), the easier it will be for us to experience healing. Preparing well to go to Confession can help you not only make a good Confession, but also feel less anxious about going to Confession.
Preparation for Confession can be broken down into three steps:
- Invite the Holy Spirit into your preparations
- Do an Examination of Conscience
- Write down your sins (this is optional but can be very helpful)
Invite the Holy Spirit
In the spiritual life, we are always guided by the Holy Spirit, so the first step to spiritual preparation for Confession is to invite the Holy Spirit into your heart. Ask him to show you your sins and to inspire in you a proper spirit of repentance. This can be a simple prayer, as simple as saying,
“Holy Spirit, come into my heart and show me my sins. Give me a proper spirit of repentance and the grace to make a good confession. Give me your peace that I might not be anxious but rather trust in your abundant mercies.”
Examination of Conscience
Once you have invited the Holy Spirit into your preparations, it is time to make an examination of conscience, searching your conscience to discern where you have fallen short through actions, thoughts, words, and even inaction.
Fortunately, there are many resources to help with your examination of conscience. Sometimes your church will have pamphlets that contain an examination of conscience. You can also find several examinations of conscience online. Today, there are even phone apps for Confession that include examinations of conscience. If you are not sure what prayers to say during Confession or how to respond to the priest, or if you don’t have an Act of Contrition memorized, these resources often also have guides to Confession that will walk you through the process of receiving the sacrament. Here’s one we have put together.
Many examinations of conscience are organized along the themes of the Ten Commandments, listing specific sins that violate each commandment. Some of them also include the precepts of the Church as part of the examination. You should also try to be aware of other ways you may have fallen short not mentioned in these guides. The more frequently you examine your conscience, the more you will be aware of sins you have committed. It is a good idea, although not required, to examine your sins on a regular basis even when you are not going to Confession immediately afterwards.
Write Down Your Sins
It may help to write down your sins as you examine your conscience. This way you will not have to worry about forgetting your sins when you walk into the confessional. This will help the process of confessing your sins because you will know exactly what to confess. It can also help the final stages of preparation for Confession, because instead of trying to make sure you remember all of your sins you can spend the last moments before you enter the Confessional saying a final prayer that you may make a good Confession. You might have to wait in line, and this can be a helpful time to say some final prayers of preparation.
You might pray along these lines:
God, thank you for showing me the things that wound my relationship with you. Calm my nerves and give me the grace to make a good Confession, not holding anything back due to shame or anxiety. Thank you for the gift of this Sacrament.
Depending on where you go to confession, you will usually have a choice of going face-to-face with the priest or behind a screen. Either way is fine; it’s just a matter of what you prefer. The priest is not allowed to tell anyone your sins, so don’t worry about the priest knowing who you are if you go face-to-face. The priest will keep your confession a secret whether or not he knows who you are.
When you enter the confessional, the priest will begin by making the Sign of the Cross. Make the Sign of the Cross along with him and say, “Amen.”
Then, say, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was [then tell him how long ago your last confession was].”
Now it is time to confess your sins. You should begin by saying, “These are my sins.” Then list your sins. It is not necessary to go into great detail as long as you confess your sins fully and honestly. For example, if you lied to a friend, you don’t need to talk about all of the circumstances surrounding the lie. You can just confess that you lied, and if the priest thinks he needs to know the circumstances, he can ask you when you are done confessing your sins. You must confess any mortal sins you have committed. It is also a good idea, although not required, to confess your venial sins. When you have confessed your sins, finish with, “For these and all my sins I am heartily sorry.” This will cover confessing any sins you may have forgotten about or are not aware of committing, as well as letting the priest know that you are done confessing your sins.
The priest may offer you some advice or ask further questions about what you have confessed, but this is not essential to the sacrament.
Next, the priest will ask you to make an Act of Contrition. Although you are not required to say any particular Act of Contrition, and you can even make up your own, most people like to have an Act of Contrition memorized or written down. If you don’t have one memorized, the same places you can get an examination of conscience (a pamphlet about confession, a phone app, or the internet) will often provide you with an act of contrition. If you do not have it written down or forget the words of the Act of Contrition when you are in the confessional, you can also ask the priest to guide you through an Act of Contrition.
One common Act of Contrition is:
Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee. I detest my sins because of thy just punishment, but most of all because they offend thee, my Lord, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin. Amen.
After you have gone to Confession, there are several steps you can take to integrate the graces of this great sacrament into your life as you leave the confessional and head back into the world.
- Do Your Penance (this is required)
- Pray in thanksgiving for God’s mercy
- Resolve to avoid sin in the future
How to Do Your Penance
When you confess your sins, the priest will give you a penance. Usually your penance will involve saying certain prayers. Sometimes the priest may ask you to do a good work in addition to or instead of saying a particular prayer or prayers. Often you can pray these prayers before you even leave the church building and go out into the world again.
Thank God for His Mercy
In addition to your penance, there are other ways you can prayerfully respond to the experience of Confession. Thank God for the grace of a good Confession and for his forgiveness and mercy in the sacrament. You may want to pray a prayer like this:
God, I thank you for your abundant mercies. No sin of mine is beyond your power to forgive, and your forgiveness has restored my soul to friendship with you. Thank you for never ceasing to love me even when my actions show that I do not love you fully. Thank you for seeking me out as the shepherd seeks the lost sheep.
You may also want to pray for the priest who heard your confession.
Resolve to Avoid Sin
If you have written down your sins, it can be very satisfying to rip up the paper on which you wrote your sins and throw it away as a gesture expressing your freedom from the sins you have confessed and your resolve not to sin again. Whether you do this or not, you should ask God for the grace to sin no more, to avoid the near occasion of sin, and to resist the temptation to sin.
God, I always want to live in friendship with you. I ask that you give me strength to resist and reject sin in all of its forms as I continue to grow in love of you and in my understanding of your immense love for me.
One wonderful thing about the sacrament of Confession is that it provides you with the grace to resist sin in the future. That means that in addition to absolving you of your past sins, Confession also helps your future growth in holiness.
Image by Alexandre Eggert from Blumenau, Brazil – esperança – hope, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7211444