While sometimes the sacrament of confession can make us nervous or afraid, it is in fact one of the most beautiful channels of grace that the Church offers. It is a sacrament instituted by Jesus Christ, allowing us to be wiped clean of our past sins and begin again, refreshed and in a restored relationship with God and others.
It is a way for us to reconnect with God and restore our relationship with him. Sin is what severs that relationship, but through the sacrament of confession, we can heal it.
Here are 5 helpful tips for those who want to go to confession, but are still a little reluctant.
Step 1: Examine your conscience
This is the most necessary part of confession. Before you can confess your sins you need to know them. Typically a person goes to confession and tells the priest the sins they can remember since their last confession. If their last confession was 20 years ago, it might be rather difficult. The key is to tell the priest all mortal sins that you remember (to the best of your ability).
We typically remember those “big” sins, but if you need some help, here is a handy examination of conscience provided by the USCCB. When telling them to the priest, say the sin itself and the number of times you committed it (or at least a general estimation, like, “I didn’t go to Mass for 20 years”).
When thinking of these sins remember that the priest has heard everything before. You are not going to surprise or shock him.
Also, think about confession as going to a doctor. If you don’t tell the doctor your arm hurts, he won’t be able to diagnose it and offer a cure. Similarly, if you don’t tell the priest a sin, he won’t be able to offer absolution for it and help heal that spiritual wound.
In many parts of the world Catholics have not been able to attend public Mass for several months. Only recently have churches begun to open, though the obligation to attend Sunday Mass is still dispensed in most areas (please consult your local diocese to confirm).
With this in mind, many Catholics are asking, “Do I need to go to confession before returning to Mass?”
The quick answer is “Yes” and “No.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “Anyone who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion, even if he experiences deep contrition, without having first received sacramental absolution, unless he has a grave reason for receiving Communion and there is no possibility of going to confession” (CCC 1457).
Basically, if you are aware of a mortal sin on your soul after examining your conscience and have the opportunity to confess your sins to a priest, then it is your duty to seek sacramental absolution.
One of the most common questions asked by Catholics is, “How often should a Catholic go to confession?”
The answer is both straightforward and complicated at the same time.
According to Canon Law the bare minimum is once a year.
After having reached the age of discretion, each member of the faithful is obliged to confess faithfully his or her grave sins at least once a year. (Canon 989)
However, this requirement is tied to the reception of Holy Communion, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains.
The second precept (“You shall confess your sins at least once a year”) ensures preparation for the Eucharist by the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, which continues Baptism’s work of conversion and forgiveness. (CCC 2042)
With this in mind, the Catechism further explains that in order to properly receive Holy Communion, one must always confess grave sins beforehand.
Here is a prayer adapted from the Golden Manual that places all of these needs before God and is a prefect preparation for confession.
O most merciful God, enlighten me, for you know all my ways and observe all my footsteps. Come, true light, and dispel the darkness of my heart, that I may see what in me is displeasing to you, and that with a contrite heart I may be sorry for my sins, rightly confess them, and amend my life. Send forth your light into my soul, and show to me all those sins which I ought to confess at this time.Assist me by your grace, and grant me courage and strength, that I may be able to declare them to the priest, fully, humbly, and with a contrite heart, and so obtain perfect remission of my sins through your infinite goodness. Amen.
St. John Chrysostom understood this common feeling, and instructed penitents in the 4th century to avail themselves of the sacrament, viewing it in an entirely different way.
Be not ashamed to approach (the priest) because you have sinned, nay rather, for this very reason approach. No one says: Because I have an ulcer, I will not go near a physician or take medicine; on the contrary, it is just this that makes it needful to call in physicians and apply remedies. We (priests) know well how to pardon, because we ourselves are liable to sin. This is why God did not give us angels to be our doctors, nor send down Gabriel to rule the flock, but from the fold itself he chooses the shepherds, from among the sheep He appoints the leader, in order that he may be inclined to pardon his followers and, keeping in mind his own fault, may not set himself in hardness against the members of the flock.
The key lies in seeing the sacrament of confession as a visit to the doctor, a doctor of our soul.
Now, for some people even this image can be frightening, because they don’t like going to the doctor. However, everyone can agree that when you are physically sick or severely hurt, you need to go to the doctor. The doctor is not your enemy, but your advocate, who is there to show you the path of healing.
How to go to confession, a step-by-step guide