The Sacrament of Confession is the surest way for a sinner to receive God’s forgiveness through the hands of a priest. Jesus gave this power to the Church: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (Jn 20:23)
1. Understand Confession
What is Confession?
As weak humans, God created us with tendencies that often lead us to choose evil, selfish or prideful things.
In other words, no one is perfect. “All have sinned” says St. Paul. (Rom 3:23) Thus we are all in need of the mercy and healing that comes to us through Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, and which is made possible for us through the sacraments of the Church instituted by God.
Forgiveness is not a one time event, but must be received again and again, as we continually “fall short of the glory of God.”
Learning to take full advantage of the sacrament of penance, as a gift of God’s love and mercy, can have a powerful and lasting impact on our lives, as we learn to always rely on God’s strength, and to unite ourselves in prayer with our sinful brothers and sisters, our family in Christ.
From the Catechism
CCC 1422: “Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from God’s mercy for the offense committed against him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example, and by prayer labors for their conversion.”4
St. John Marie Vianney
St. John Marie Vianney was the fourth of six children, born in France in 1786 during the French Revolution. Despite witnessing men and women lose their lives because of their faith, he knew from a young age that God was calling him to the important, but dangerous mission of becoming a priest.
He struggled so much with school that he wasn’t sure if he would be able to follow God’s call, however, with the help of a private tutor, and hundreds of hours of extra study, St. John persevered, and was able to learn the necessary Latin to be ordained at the age of 29.
The bishop assigned him to a poor, not very fervent parish in the village of Ars, France, but St. John made it his life’s mission to bring them back to God. Through ministry, preaching and countless hours spent in the confessional, St. John Marie Vianney slowly won over the hearts of his parishioners.
St. John often heard over 100 hours of confessions each week, sitting in the confessional for 12-16 hours a day. His fame as a holy confessor spread, and penitents began traveling from all over the world to confess their sins to the “Curé of Ars”. He continued to hear confessions up until his death at the age of 73.
He was known to have said: “the Lord is more anxious to forgive our sins than a woman is to carry her baby out of a burning building.” As an example of love for God and an instrument of mercy, to this day his heart remains incorrupt.
2. An Examination of Conscience Based on the Main Virtues
- Do I try to do good and avoid evil, out of love for God and others, in preparation for Heaven? Is there anything in my life that is more important to me than becoming a saint?
- When I make daily choices – family, school, work, friends, sports, relaxation – am I guided by my conscience? Or do I sometimes follow the crowd, or choose what’s easiest, or seek what gives me the most pleasure?
- Am I proud of my faith and profess it openly, or am I sometimes ashamed and hide the fact that I believe in God?
- Do I spend time daily in prayer, thanking God for His love, asking for help, and praising Him for His goodness? Do I sometimes forget to pray at all?
- Have I used God’s name disrespectfully or as a curse?
- Have I gone to Sunday Mass only out of duty? Or do I have a close trusting relationship with God and look forward to spending time in Church?
- Are there physical things that I am overly attached to? Have I asked God to help me detach myself from things that will not last, and to attach my heart to the things that will last forever? (Confession is a good place to start.)
- Do I trust that God is taking care of my needs, through the good times and even when there are hardships? Do I ever worry too much about external things like clothing, food or money?
- Do I tell Jesus frequently that I trust Him? Do I meditate often on all the things Jesus does for me?
- Do I complain a lot? Do I often want things to go my way?
- Do I love myself as God loves me? Do I ask for help when I really need it?
- Do I talk a lot about myself? Do I tend to get into arguments?
- Do I avoid people I don’t like?
- Am I mean to others, either physically or emotionally? Do I talk about people poorly behind their backs? Do I make fun of people I don’t understand?
- Do I hold grudges? Do I sometimes refuse to ask for forgiveness?
- When I enjoy good things, do I spontaneously thank God for them?
- Am I grateful towards others? Do I show appreciation for people when they do a good job at work: cashiers, tellers, teachers, waitresses, etc.?
- Do I ever treat people unkindly just because they are poor or simple or have jobs of service?
- Do I thank God for the talents He has given me?
- Do I reflect often on the fact that God created me out of nothing?
When I am successful, do I give praise to God?
- Do I give back to God a percentage of what I earn?
- Have I been respectful of those in authority?
- Am I generous with my time towards those who are less fortunate than I am?
- Have I lied to cover up my ignorance?
- Am I vain about my looks or the way I dress? Have I accepted the body that God has given me?
- Am I balanced and healthy in what I eat and drink?
- Do I dress modestly and carry my body with respect?
- Have I looked at indecent images or videos or shared them with others?
- Have I acted impurely, either alone or with others?
- Do I spend too much time watching TV, wasting time online, or playing games?
- Have I failed to stand up for what is right and true because I was embarrassed?
- Do I give in to discouragement or quit when things get hard?
- Do I defend the weak and offer to be friends with people who are rejected when they seem different, or handicapped, or awkward?
- Do I put things off because I don’t want to make an effort? Do I usually choose the easiest or most comfortable option?
- Have I done things rashly without stopping to think about what was best?
- Do I ask for advice when I’m confused? Do I ever pretend to know the answer?
- Do I hide my mistakes? Or do I try to be honest about my failures and to learn for the future?
- Do I take full advantage of school, or books, or other opportunities for intellectual growth, to learn and constantly become a better person?
- Do I try to bend or change the rules so that I can win? Have I cheated?
- Do I treat others the same way I would like to be treated? Have I gossiped?
- Do I take things that are not mine? Am I faithful to paying my debts?
- Am I jealous of other people’s talents or looks?
- Have I treated anyone unfairly? Do I hold prejudices against any race or group?
- Do I make promises that I cannot keep?
3. Making a Good Confession
A Prayer for Confession
Jesus, I believe that You suffered and died to forgive my sins. Help me to know my sins, feel sincere sorrow for offending You, confess well, and firmly reject evil. I recognize my weakness and trust in Your strength. Amen.
St. John Marie Vianney // Pray for us
Practical Tips for Making a Good Confession
- Prepare your heart: Confession is primarily about our relationship with God. Preparation should be mostly about examining the desires of our heart, choosing to be truly sorry for our sins, and making a firm purpose of amendment with God’s help. We should take the time necessary to prayerfully prepare.
- A thorough examination of conscience: Self examination can help us understand ourselves better. The point is not to just find a list of sins, but to take the pulse of our spiritual health. Discovering venial sins in our life doesn’t mean that we have to confess them all, but that we are aware of them and sincerely repentant as we approach the throne of grace.
- Prepare a concise list: The only sins we are required to confess are our mortal sins – what sins (kind), and how many times (number). However, it can also be helpful to confess a few other venial sins that we struggle with, in order to grow in humility and receive guidance from the priest.
- Concise: A confession should be brief and precise. We must confess all mortal sins in kind and number, however details are unnecessary. Leave time for Father to provide practical spiritual advice.
- Listen to the Holy Spirit: Make sure to collect all the wisdom that is shared in that moment of grace. It can be helpful to bring a small notebook to write down any lights and to make sure nothing is lost or forgotten.
- Pray: Pray the act of contrition with fervor and meaning. Don’t rush it; don’t just get it done.
- Gratitude: God provides us with a fresh start! We should thank Him like the leper who returned after being healed.
- Penance: The priest will assign a very simple way for us to make amends for the sins we have committed. We should live or pray our penance with a spirit of humility and reparation. Remember, the most important part is the heart, not the external action.
- Take confession to prayer: A final point that can be very beneficial for spiritual growth, is to talk to God about our sins and His forgiveness during the next few days. This practice can help us make a firmer purpose of amendment and to make sure that confession is about our relationship with God.
4. Other Resources
CCC 1423 It is called the sacrament of conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus’ call to conversion, the first step in returning to the Father5 from whom one has strayed by sin.
It is called the sacrament of Penance, since it consecrates the Christian sinner’s personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance, and satisfaction.
CCC 1424 It is called the sacrament of confession, since the disclosure or confession of sins to a priest is an essential element of this sacrament. In a profound sense it is also a “confession” – acknowledgment and praise – of the holiness of God and of his mercy toward sinful man.
It is called the sacrament of forgiveness, since by the priest’s sacramental absolution God grants the penitent “pardon and peace.”6
It is called the sacrament of Reconciliation, because it imparts to the sinner the love of God who reconciles: “Be reconciled to God.”7 He who lives by God’s merciful love is ready to respond to the Lord’s call: “Go; first be reconciled to your brother.”8
CCC 2840 Now – and this is daunting – this outpouring of mercy cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us. Love, like the Body of Christ, is indivisible; we cannot love the God we cannot see if we do not love the brother or sister we do see.136 In refusing to forgive our brothers and sisters, our hearts are closed and their hardness makes them impervious to the Father’s merciful love; but in confessing our sins, our hearts are opened to his grace.
CCC 2845 There is no limit or measure to this essentially divine forgiveness,146 whether one speaks of “sins” as in Luke (⇒ 11:4), “debts” as in Matthew (⇒ 6:12). We are always debtors: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.”147 The communion of the Holy Trinity is the source and criterion of truth in every relationship. It is lived out in prayer, above all in the Eucharist.148
God does not accept the sacrifice of a sower of disunion, but commands that he depart from the altar so that he may first be reconciled with his brother. For God can be appeased only by prayers that make peace. To God, the better offering is peace, brotherly concord, and a people made one in the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.149
Quotes From Saints
Confession puts out the fires of hell for you. – Pacianus of Barcelona
Have you sinned? Go into church and wipe out your sin. As often as you might fall down in the marketplace, you pick yourself up again. So too, as often as you sin, repent your sin. Do not despair. – John Chrysostom
If you want to flee from God, flee to Him instead. Flee to Him by confessing to Him; don’t flee from Him by trying to hide. For you can’t hide, but you can confess. – Augustine of Hippo
Three conditions are necessary for Penance: contrition, which is sorrow for sin, together with a purpose of amendment; confession of sins without any omission; and satisfaction by means of good works. – Thomas Aquinas
My children, when we have a little stain on our souls, we must do like someone who has a beautiful crystal globe of which she takes great care. If the globe gets a little dusty, when she sees it, she will pass a sponge over it, and there is the globe bright and shining again. – John Vianney
Go to your confessor; open your heart to him; display to him all the recesses of your soul; take the advice that he will give you with the utmost humility and simplicity. For God, who has an infinite love for obedience, frequently renders profitable the counsels we take from others, but especially from those who are the guides of our souls. – Francis de Sales
The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for Our Lives Today – Timothy Gallagher
Introduction to the Devout Life – St. Francis de Sales
Videos en Español
El Pecado – P. Gustavo Lombardo
El regreso del hijo pródigo: Meditaciones ante un cuadro de Rembrandt – Henri J. M. Nouwen
4 LG 11 # 2.
5 Cf. Mk 1:15; Lk 15:18.
6 OP 46 formula of absolution.
7 2 Cor 5:20.
8 Mt 5:24.
136 Cf. l Jn 4:20.
146 Cf. Mt 18:21-22; Lk 17:3-4.
147 Rom 13:8.
148 Cf. Mt 5:23-24; 1 Jn 3:19-24.
149 St. Cyprian, De Dom. orat. 23: PL 4, 535-536; cf. Mt 5:24.