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The best way to walk through the door of the Confessional is to regularly pray and ask the Lord to lead you there whenever you need it. Remember this, ponder this, and let this sink in all the way:
If the soul is in a state of Mortal Sin it is incapable of repenting unless God gives to the soul an Actual Grace to do so, and even then the soul must cooperate with the grace God has freely given to it out of His Divine Mercy.
Once a soul enters into the state of mortal sin it cannot move itself toward God, for the Love of God has been extinguished within it. If God does not offer the soul an Actual Grace (a gift from God for a specific purpose, not the State of Sanctifying Grace) the soul is stuck in its sin. This is why it is so important to pray and ask God on a regular basis to keep you close to Him, even if it means repeatedly chastising you during this life; nothing is worse than ending this life in a State of Mortal Sin.
The late Father John Hardon, S.J., defined Divine Mercy as: The love of God beyond what humankind deserves… Once a soul has freely chosen to reject that Love by choosing a mortal sin, they no longer deserve the assistance of God; they are completely dependent upon His Divine Mercy to call them back to Himself through repentance.
As a side note, faithful Catholics should frequently pray that the Lord would lead as many souls to His grace as possible (including themselves), especially those who are far away from the Him.
The Sacrament of Penance (Confession, Reconciliation) has three essential elements the penitent must fulfill. Confer CCC 1450:
CCC 1450 “Penance requires . . . the sinner to endure all things willingly, be contrite of heart, confess with the lips, and practice complete humility and fruitful satisfaction. (emphasis added)”49
1. Contrition: Perfect (for the Love of God) or Imperfect (either for the fear of God due to His Just Punishment (HELL) or a combination of self-love and Love of God/Fear of God.) Confer CCC 1451:
CCC 1451: Among the penitent’s acts contrition occupies first place. Contrition is “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again. (emphasis added)”50
2. Verbal Confession of all known mortal sins (since the last worthy confession was made): this includes all committed sins (theft, lying, fornication, etc.) and sins of omission (failing to attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on Days of Obligation, failing to obey lawful authority, failing to support the Church, failing to fast and abstain when it’s required by Church Law, etc.) Confer CCC 1456:
CCC 1456: Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance: “All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession, even if they are most secret and have been committed against the last two precepts of the Decalogue; for these sins sometimes wound the soul more grievously and are more dangerous than those which are committed openly.”54
3. Satisfaction: Carrying out the assigned Penance and if necessary making restitution for sins that deprive another of their due goods (money, material objects returned or replaced, setting the record straight for having harmed someone’s reputation etc.). Confer CCC 1459:
CCC 1459: Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused.62 Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must “make satisfaction for” or “expiate” his sins. This satisfaction is also called “penance.”
As the CCC points out, Contrition is Primary; this does not eliminate the ordinary application of steps 2 & 3. However, in emergency circumstances such as imminent death, verbal confession and satisfaction may not be possible. The minister of the Sacrament (a validly ordained priest with the requisite faculties; except in danger of death, in such cases all priests — even laicized ones — have this faculty) should seek to elicit general repentance for all sins by asking the penitent (if conscious) if they are sorry for all of their sins known and unknown, to which the penitent makes some sign of affirmation (if possible), then the Sacramental Absolution is given, which removes all eternal punishment due to sin. Furthermore, the Church via the Her Treasury of Merits allows the minister to give the Apostolic Pardon, which if received with Perfect Contrition, removes all temporal debt due to sin.
The penitent must strive for Perfect Contrition (as St. Thomas Aquinas points out, this is something that God gives to the Soul, so one must beg God for it) and at very minimum have Imperfect Contrition otherwise, they can confess and the Priest may offer the Absolution, but they remain in their sins for they are not sorry for them. They may even be contrite for all but one of their sins, and because of this they are still bound by all of them.
What I find amiss in many penitents is the lack of a Firm Purpose of Amendment, which is the intention to not Sin Again. This aspect of Contrition is necessary for true contrition, either Perfect or Imperfect. Jesus regularly says things like:
John 5:14: Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.”
John 8:11: She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”
In order to be truly contrite, a person must, at the very minimum, intend to sin no more (even if they know they are weak and are afraid that they might fall into sin again.) We must begin to make the Firm Purpose of Amendment of Life a priority!
If someone has the habit of drinking too much whenever they get together with certain people, then the obvious solution is to stop getting together with those people. One cannot expect to continue to do the same thing and get different results. If a person has the habit of Missing Mass because of being out too late the night before, then they need to change the habit of staying out too late and make the offering of God His Due Worship a greater priority than their social ‘night life.’ If a person refuses to amend their life, how can they say that they are truly contrite?
Hey, can anyone else smell that? It’s the smell of Hell clinging to the soul as they exit the confessional having no intention of changing their lives in order to live in accord with God’s Holy Commandments.
If you want to make a good confession, take the time to seek the light of grace in order to know where you need to amend your life to please God. Who are you living to please? Is it yourself, your ‘so called’ friends, family, unknown Facebook friends? Guess what, none of them holds the Power of Life and Death forever…only God does. So, whom should you strive to please with your life? The First Commandment has never been abrogated: Luke 4:8:
And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’”
Once one is truly contrite they need to actually go to Confession. They need to make going to the Sacrament a priority. If you have to, call the priest and make an appointment as soon as possible. If you are going at a regularly scheduled time, get there at the start of it and get in line (if there are still actually lines for confession anywhere in the West….)
This brings us to the Examination of Conscience. Presumably one has a reason for going to the Sacrament; however, you may have many more sins that need to be confessed that you are not aware of. There are plenty of Good Objective Examinations of Conscience available, pick one up and use it. Your sins are not subjectively based on what you ‘feel’ is sinful, they are based on the Divine Law and Natural Law and the Precepts of the Church. One should have completed the exam prior to getting to Church, that way you can get in line right away and be sure to actually be able to confess before Father has to go and offer the Holy Sacrifice. Most confession times are before Mass, because that seems to be the only time that most ‘practicing’ Catholics can be bothered with making the incredibly difficult journey to the Parish.
Once you are contrite and have examined your conscience according to the teaching of the Church (not your feelings) and have actually made it into the Confessional, one kneels down (or sits) and makes the sign of the Cross and says something like:
“Bless me Father (or Forgive Me Father) for I have sinned. I’m______ (state your state in life, married, vowed religious) It’s been ______ (you’re required to state how long it’s been, approximately, since your last confession) since my last confession…”
If the priest doesn’t know you, then you are required to tell your state in life: I’m married with dependent children, I’m single, I’m a priest, a vowed religious etc. The gravity of sin can be lessened or increased depending on your state in life.
Now say “…These are my sins.” and then you confess all known mortal sins (based on the examination you made) by their kind and the number of times committed or omitted and if desirable, one’s besetting venial sins. This is another problem with practice of Confession due to Modernism: most Catholics don’t seem to know that they have to state the approximate number of times they committed the sins they are confessing since their last confession. Sin is a crime against God and His people; each count of sin has its own penalty. If you’re going before a civil judge for breaking the law, you are going to be charged on each violation of the law, not a bunch rolled into one. For example:
“It’s been three months since my last confession; I’ve lied, missed Mass, took the Lord’s name in vain and gossiped.” And I say: “How many times did you lie, miss Mass, take the Lord’s name in vain and gossiped?” “Oh, well, I don’t know. I guess that I’ve lied probably ten times, missed Mass seven times, took the Lord’s name in vain a couple of times a day and gossiped at least twenty times.”
Anyone can see the difference between the two versions of the same confession. The first is woefully inaccurate, it suggests that: 3 sins have been committed and 1 serious obligation omitted (in my experience, this kind of inadequate confession has become the norm.) The second tells a much more serious story and is far more accurate: at least 210 counts of sin (all possibly serious) committed and 7 counts of omitting a serious obligation. If one wants to truly begin to be thankful to the Lord, then one should understand how patient and merciful He has been with them and how wretched they have really been to Him.
After you have confessed all known serious sins, end by saying “For these and all of my sins I am truly sorry.” Please, for the sake of humble honesty don’t say: “…and that’s it” when you have finished confessing. This is another bad habit that many people have fallen into. No, that isn’t it, it’s all you can remember, but it’s practically guaranteed that you have forgotten sins or have sins that you don’t know about. Don’t tell the Lord “that’s it.” It isn’t humble, it’s stupid. Be humble before the Lord and recognize your finite weakness, faulty memory and possible ignorance and finish your confession with “For these and ALL of my sins, I am truly sorry.”
After Father asks questions relating to your confession (if he deems it necessary) and gives some salient advice (again, if he deems it necessary) he will give you a penance (most probably a woefully inadequate one…) to be carried out as soon as is possible. Satisfaction is an essential element of the Sacrament of Penance, so one should fully intend to carry out the assigned penance (one can ask the confessor for a different penance if they think that they cannot fulfill the one prescribed by him.) Sin doesn’t only have an eternal effect on the Soul (Jesus makes the satisfaction for this, no one else can) it also has temporal consequences that can be far reaching. The satisfaction the penitent makes is for the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, not the eternal punishment. Therefore, the penitent should earnestly seek to carry out their penance as soon as is possible. Also, if there is confusion over it, they should ask their confessor what he means for them to do, before they make the Act of Contrition (or, at least, prior to leaving the confessional, or if necessary even after.)
One recommendation here: Start getting in the habit of gaining indulgences on a regular basis…the indulgenced prayers and acts are for the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin. If one dies with temporal punishment still required of them, then it’s off to Purgatory, and that isn’t a picnic ground.
After giving some sign as to understanding the penance and accepting it (this doesn’t have to be verbal, if one doesn’t object to or question the penance, then it is presumed that it is understood and accepted) then one makes a Good Act of Contrition. The old standard is the best one as far as expressing everything clearly, so it’s the one I’m including:
“O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.”
If you carefully examine that Act of Contrition you will see how beautiful and theologically complete it is.
Either after you have made the Act of Contrition or if Father is Old School while you are making it, he will grant you the Holy Absolution. And then dismiss you with an act of praise to God.
Now is the time for true thanksgiving to God! Be grateful for the Sacrament of Confession, don’t be afraid of it (that’s usually pride-based vanity.) If you don’t like the advice Father gives you (presumably because it isn’t sound Catholic teaching or able to be applied) seek out another confessor, it’s your right to do so.
As a priest, the most blessed things I can ever say are the Prayers of Consecration at Holy Mass, yet an extremely close second is
“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit.”
Unfortunately — and this causes me profound and almost unbearable sorrow — I say the second most blessed words far too infrequently…I pray that all who read this poor article will bless their priest and allow him to speak those words over them soon and often. Amen.
Father RP is the Pastor of two small town Catholic Parishes in the hinterland. He has served in parish ministry since ordination, and also as a priest confessor/spiritual director for a Carmelite Monastery for seven years. Prior to answering the call to the priesthood of Jesus Christ he did all kinds of things, including turning away from atheism and agnosticism. He has a few degrees from places called universities, but they don’t mean much.