So you hear your priest preaching about confession all the time, but maybe you’re still nervous to go? You’re just not sure how? It’s been a while, so you don’t know what to do? You show up, but you don’t get a ton out of it and you think somehow it’s a waste of time.
While I’m no expert by any means, I’ve only been ordained less than three years, I thought I would share a few tips or suggestions that might make your experience more fruitful.
- Prepare: Make an Examination of Conscience
When you’re a student, it’s always best to study BEFORE the exam. If not, we all know what can happen… If you’re an adult and you have a big job interview, do you prepare, or go in blind? If you want the job, it’s best to prepare. So just as it is with tests and interviews, so it is also true with confession. It is best to prepare before you walk into the confessional, this can be done best through an examination of conscience. This helps to make sure we don’t forget something.
- Arrive Early
If your parish lists confession times from 4:30-5:15, then be sure to get there at 4:30. This will give you time to complete tip #1, if you haven’t already. It also guarantees that you’ll be able to go to confession. If you get there too late, the line might already be too long. If you try sneaking in at the end, you might feel forced to rush. In short, confessions are no different than life, “you snooze, you lose.”
- Be Specific, but not Detailed
First we must be specific. The Church asks us to confess our sins in both kind and number. This is where we must be specific. For instance, one might confess, “bad thoughts.” Well, did you think about killing someone? Eating an extra cookie last night? Lustful thoughts? Robbing a bank? Punching someone? Distractions during prayer? Struggles with depression or suicidal thoughts? I am not trying to make light of any of those things, I’m merely trying to show how different they could all be, yet still just, “bad thoughts.” Another part of being specific is to say the number of times. Again, someone having too much to drink just once is different than someone who gets drunk several nights a week and struggles with alcoholism. It’s good for the priest to know if the particular sin is a fluke occurrence or habitual.
While it’s important to be specific, it’s not necessary to be overly detailed. God knows what happened, in confession he wants to hear you name the sin and express your sorrow. So take the following example, it isn’t necessary to say, “Well I stayed up late, so I was tired in the morning, then I was out of coffee, one kid was sick, then there was traffic on the way to my in-laws, then we got there another kid threw a fit, and my mother in-law’s cooking is terrible, so I barely ate, therefore I was hungry, and on the way home my husband wanted to listen to sports on the radio, so I yelled at him.” Just try, “I lost my patience and took it out on my husband.” Or another example, “well it was a beautiful day out, and my girlfriend just broke up with me and I was walking down the street on the sunny side, so the sun was shining on this woman perfectly and she as wearing a beautiful red dress, and red lipstick, and did you know, red is my favorite color, so I began to stare at her and think maybe she could be my girlfriend and have lustful thoughts about her.” Just try, “engaging in lustful thoughts, fantasies or impure thoughts.” This can help allow you to focus in on the sin to make it clear to you, the confessor and God. Again, you still want to be specific, giving any important pertinent information (i.e. if you are married etc.), but it can be unhelpful and confusing to go into too many details.
- Remember it’s a confessional, not a counseling office.
It’s important to remember that confession is a sacrament, it’s a place to experience God’s powerful, healing and merciful love. That should be our purpose or intent in participating in the sacrament, to be forgiven by God’s grace. Yes, the priest might offer a few words of counsel, but that’s not the purpose per se of the sacrament. If you come out of confession saying, “well the priest’s advice was terrible, I got nothing out of that confession, I don’t know why I should even bother going anymore,” then there’s a problem. That’s like walking out of the butcher shop saying, “the lettuce was terrible there, I’m never going back.” If you need counseling, make an appointment with the priest, if you want God’s healing grace, go to confession.
- You don’t have to be a theologian, just a contrite sinner
When confessing your sins, you only have to mention the sins, it’s not necessary to then explain the theology behind why that something is a sin. First of all the priest already knows. Secondly, just like the confessional is not a counseling office, it is also not an oral exam to prove how much theology you know. Going into these kind of details can get distracting and take one away from the point of confessing one’s sins. If there is a question, the priest will ask. Now, if you are not certain if something is a sin, then by all means, ask away, better to be safe rather than sorry. If you are still confused or want to learn more, then make an appointment outside of the sacrament.
- Go regularly…once a month
The more often one goes to confession, the more they will grow in self-awareness and in their relationship with God. He has a great gift, his mercy, that he wants to share with us. Why do we reject that gift? Furthermore, just as you regularly go see the doctor, or clean your house, or take a shower etc., why not regularly take care of your soul?
- Be not afraid!
We come up with a lot of excuses not to go to confession. We need to get over our excuses, and be not afraid of receiving God’s merciful love. Why would we not want that love? One of the big ones I hear is a fear that the priest will remember your sins. Firstly, the priest doesn’t desire to remember your sins. Secondly, ask yourself this question, “Do I remember how my favorite baseball team got the third out of the 4th inning last April 19th? Was it a pop up, strikeout, or a groundout?” A baseball team gets well over 4,000 outs in a year. Priests hear lots of confessions, so just like you don’t remember the third out of the 4th inning last April 19th, they don’t remember your sins.
The point of this list is not to be exhaustive or a guaranteed recipe for the perfect confession. Rather, just some practices that might lead to a deeper experience of God’s healing grace in this most wonderful of sacraments.
UPDATE: Also see my column on confession and going to the dentist, published by Catholic News Service.