Getting the Most from Confession
One of the biggest privileges of my life has been able to celebrate confession, both as a penitent & today, as a confessor.
As a Catholic, I’m always aware there are two sides of the coin. On the one hand, I can honestly say I’ve seen growth over the years; were I to go back in time I’d probably say to my younger self “don’t do that” or “that’s not going to work out well.” I think most of us can say the same thing. I’ve also had moments where I can look back and say “I handled that situation well” and “I’d make that same decision.”
But I’m also aware that there are many things I do that I’d do differently. As Saint Paul says in Romans 7:15, why do I do what I hate? Meaning all sin looks good at the time, but then we look back and realize that the decision was bad.
This is where we experience the infinite mercy of our God who is so loving; its why God time and time again reaches out to the sinner, most amazingly in the birth, death and resurrection.
This Monday evening we celebrate our parish confession service for Lent. I’ll be joined by 7 brother priests and we’ll have 8 stations set up for people to celebrate this beautiful sacrament.
So how can one get the most out of confession? Odds are it’s been a while since your first confession where you learned the “basics” of what to do when we go. It’s a good idea to look again, not just at how to celebrate the sacrament, but to think a little more deeply about how to make the experience a good one.
First, as a quick refresher, when we go to confession we either kneel or sit across from the priest, and then say “bless me Father for I have sinned it’s been x amount of weeks/months/years since my last confession.” The priest is there to help you; and so I’ll start with some words of encouragement for the person. You don’t need to have an exact number when saying how long it’s been, but that is helpful for the priest because if a person says it’s been 20 years, they can welcome them back; or perhaps a person says it’s been a day; the priest may want to try to discern that the person is coming to confession for the right reason and not suffering from undue scrupulosity or anxiety. Whether it has been a day or a decade (or most likely somewhere in between) don’t worry about what the priest will think about the number.
Then, the penitent names the sins. Again, do not worry what the priest will think. We’ve heard it all. In nearly 16 years as a priest, I’ve only been what I’d say “shocked” a time or two; and even then I don’t let that be known. I’m just happy to have the person there, as are all priests. When you are thinking of what to talk about, bear in mind a few things:
1) Think outside the box before going into “the box.” Sometimes we confess the same things; and indeed often we do. That is fine, but it’s worthwhile to do a good examination of conscience. You can find some good ones online, including at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website usccb.org. Just click the magnifying glass and do a search for the examination of conscience. Here you’ll find some great examinations geared for different situations and stages in life (e.g., children, married, single.) We have similar ones available at the penance service too for you to look at as you are preparing for confession.
2) Remember confession is not spiritual direction. The priest tries his best to listen attentively to what the penitent says; and I try to highlight something that stands out. Sometimes I can tell by the voice or how they talk about something in particular, and have a short conversation with the person. However I also have to be attentive to time and other folks in line, so it’s a balance. As I mentioned at Mass once I had been in confession for less than 2 minutes as a penitent a few years back and the priest (politely) said “could you hurry it up, there are people in line.” I haven’t said that, but at times I have to gently re-direct a person who may start talking about other things in life like their family, their job, things they are trying to do, etc. That’s great, but confession is where we confess our sins. Remember a priest is also not a therapist; he may recommend one if he thinks it could help a person, but confession is not like the “Psychological Help 5 cents” booth in “Peanuts.” Priests do spiritual direction though, and if you’d like to talk about something more at length, consider making an appointment for a private confession where the priest can talk one-on-one with you for a longer period of time.
3) If there’s something you’d like to talk about, ask for clarity. A priest tries his best to pick up on things, but we are also not mind-readers. Sometimes a person is really troubled by something, and the priest will proceed to absolution. If you’d like clarity on something, such as “is this a serious sin or not” or maybe an insight into how to battle something, ask. The priest is there to help. While confession is not the same as spiritual direction, it does afford time for questions to be answered and for a short conversation.
4) Don’t be afraid to ask for clarity on the penance. The penance assigned is something we do to show our thankfulness for being forgiven. As a wise theology professor taught us, have it be simple, something they can do on the spot. However sometimes a confessor gives something that may be a little vague. If you have any confusion at all, just ask.
5) Learn from your mistakes. Confession is a great experience of mercy, but also hopefully we learn from it. Ideally we want to do better at avoiding whatever it is we said. So like an athlete who looks at the tape from the game, I think after confession is a great time to do this with our sins. What was the context of the sin? Was there something you could do to avoid it, such as maybe having an action plan when tempted, or looking at if others influenced you to commit the sin, or maybe you were tired or stressed. Making a commitment to change and putting yourself in a better situation are good habits to develop going forward.
6) Be at peace, knowing you are loved. Lastly, listen to the words the priest says at the end. “Your sins are forgiven, go in peace.” Sometimes a person can be their own worst critic; they are so hard on themselves for being human. Know that you are good, created in God’s image. Know that you are loved. And know you will sin again, but you are trying to become a saint and make better choices, which is why you are at confession in the first place. So allow the peace of Jesus to be with you.
Confession then ends with the assigning of the penance, the absolution, and the priest saying “your sins are forgiven, go in pace.”
I hope your Lent is off to a great start as you strive to better yourself. If you can’t make it Monday, confessions are permanently now at 3:30 (I moved it up a half hour during the pandemic’s height and kept it that way) and I’ll have them at 3 pm the Fifth Sunday of Lent and Palm Sunday. Of course I am available by appointment too. Have a blessed Lenten journey, and may your experience of God’s mercy be frequent as you never forget how precious you are to God.
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