How to Make an Examination of Conscience

Preparing for Confession

Let's face it: Most of us Catholics do not go to Confession as often as we should—or perhaps even as often as we want to. It's not just that the Sacrament of Confession is usually only offered for an hour or so on Saturday afternoons (often not the most convenient time of the week, especially for families). The sad truth is that many of us put off going to Confession because we don't feel truly prepared to receive the sacrament.

That nagging sense of doubt about whether we're prepared can be a good thing, however, if it convinces us to try to make a better Confession. And one element of making a better Confession is taking a few minutes to make an examination of conscience before we enter the confessional. With a little effort—perhaps ten minutes total for a very thorough examination of conscience—you can make your next Confession more fruitful, and perhaps even start wanting to go to Confession more often.

Flying Dove

Before you dive into the heart of the examination of conscience, it's always a good idea to call upon the Holy Spirit, our guide in these matters. A quick prayer like Come, Holy Spirit or a slightly longer one like the Prayer for the Gifts of the Holy Spirit is a good way of asking the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and to remind us of our sins, so that we can make a full, complete, and contrite Confession.

A Confession is full if we tell the priest all of our sins; it is complete if we include the number of times that we committed each sin and the circumstances in which we committed it; and it is contrite if we feel true sorrow for all of our sins. The purpose of an examination of conscience is to help us call to mind each sin and how often we've committed it since our last Confession, and to awaken sorrow in us for having offended God by our sins. More »

The Ten Commandments
The Ten Commandments. Michael Smith/Staff/Getty Images

Every examination of conscience should include some consideration of each one of the Ten Commandments. While at first glance, it may not seem like some of the commandments apply (I haven't cheated on my wife! I haven't killed anyone! I'm not a thief!), each of the commandments has a deeper meaning. A good discussion of the Ten Commandments, like this one, helps us to see how, for instance, looking at immodest material on the internet is a violation of the Sixth Commandment, or being excessively angry against someone violates the Fifth Commandment.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has a downloadable Brief Examination on Conscience Based on the Ten Commandments that provides questions to guide your review of each commandment. More »

Elevation of the Host during Mass at St. Mary's Oratory, Rockford, IL (Photo © Scott P. Richert)
Fr. Brian A.T. Bovee elevates the Host during a Traditional Latin Mass at Saint Mary's Oratory, Rockford, Illinois, May 9, 2010. (Photo © Scott P. Richert)

The Ten Commandments are the basic principles of a moral life, but as Christians, we're called to do more. The five commandments, or precepts, of the Catholic Church represent the indispensable minimum that we must do in order to grow in love for both God and our neighbor. While sins against the Ten Commandments tend to be sins of commission (in the words of the Confiteor that we say near the beginning of Mass, "in what I have done"), sins against the precepts of the Church tend to be sins of omission ("in what I have failed to do"). More »

The Seven Deadly Sins
The Seven Deadly Sins. Darren Robb/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Thinking about the seven deadly sins—pride, covetousness (also known as avarice or greed), lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth—is another good way of approaching the moral principles contained in the Ten Commandments. As you consider each of the seven deadly sins, think of the cascading effect that the particular sin might have on your life—for instance, how gluttony or greed might prevent you from being as generous as you should be to others less fortunate than you. More »

Every person has different duties depending on his or her station in life. A child has fewer responsibilities than an adult; single people and married people have different responsibilities and different moral challenges. As a father, I am responsible for the moral education and physical welfare of my children; as a husband, I must support, nurture, and love my wife.

When you consider your station in life, you begin to see both sins of omission and sins of commission that stem from your particular circumstances. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offers special examinations of conscience for children, young adults, single people, and married persons. More »

Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Mount, from The Life of Our Lord, published by Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (London c.1880). Culture Club/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If you have the time, a good way to bring your examination of conscience to a close is to meditate on the Eight Beatitudes. The Beatitudes represent the summit of the Christian life; thinking about the ways in which we fall short of each may help us to see more clearly those sins that are holding us back from growing in love for God and for our neighbor. More »

Priest in Confession Booth with Cross
BanksPhotos / Getty Images

Once you have completed your examination of conscience and have made a mental note (or even a printed one) of your sins, it's a good idea to make an Act of Contrition before going to Confession. While you will make an Act of Contrition as part of the Confession itself, making one beforehand is a good way to stir up sorrow for your sins, and to resolve to make your Confession full, complete, and contrite. More »

Don't Feel Overwhelmed

It may seem like there's an awful lot to do in order to make a thorough examination of conscience. While it's good to perform each of these steps as often as you can, sometimes you simply don't have the time to do them all before going to Confession. It's OK if you, say, consider the Ten Commandments before your next Confession, and the precepts of the Church before the one after that. Don't skip Confession just because you haven't completed all of the steps listed above; it's better to take part in the sacrament than not to go to Confession.

As you perform an examination of conscience, in whole or in part, more often, however, you'll find that Confession becomes easier. You'll begin to zero in on the particular sins that you fall into most often, and you can ask your confessor for suggestions on how to avoid those sins. And that, of course, is the whole point of the Sacrament of Confession—reconciling to God and receiving the grace necessary to live a more fully Christian life.