How to Make a Better Confession

Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Sacrament

Pews and confessionals, Shrine of the Apostle Paul, Saint Paul, MN. (Photo © Scott P. Richert)
National Shrine of the Apostle Paul, Saint Paul, MN. Scott P. Richert

Just as daily Communion should be the ideal for Catholics, frequent reception of the Sacrament of Confession is essential in our struggle against sin and our growth in holiness.

For too many Catholics, however, Confession is something we do as infrequently as possible, and after the sacrament is finished, we may not feel as we do when we have received the Sacrament of Holy Communion worthily. That's not because of a flaw in the sacrament, but because of a flaw in our approach to Confession.

Approached properly, with some basic preparation, we can find ourselves as eager to partake of the Sacrament of Confession as we are to receive the Eucharist.

Here are seven steps that will help you make a better Confession, and fully embrace the graces offered by this sacrament.

1. Go to Confession More Often

If your experience of Confession has been frustrating or unfulfilling, this may seem like odd advice. It's like the opposite of that old joke:

"Doctor, it hurts when I poke myself here. What should I do?"
"Quit poking yourself there."

On the other hand, as we've all heard, "practice makes perfect," and you're never going to make a better Confession unless you're actually going to Confession. The reasons we often avoid Confession are precisely the reasons why we should be going more often:

  • I can't remember all of my sins;
  • I get nervous when I get in the confessional;
  • I'm afraid I'm going to forget something;
  • I'm not sure what I should or shouldn't confess.

The Church requires us to go to Confession once per year, in preparation for doing our Easter Duty; and we must, of course, go to Confession before receiving Communion whenever we're conscious of having committed a grave or mortal sin.

But if we want to treat Confession as an instrument of spiritual growth, we need to quit viewing it simply in a negative light—something we do only to cleanse ourselves.

Monthly Confession, even if we're only aware of minor or venial sins, can be a great source of graces and can help us to focus our efforts on neglected areas of our spiritual life.

And if we're trying to get over a fear of Confession, or struggling with a particular sin (mortal or venial), going to Confession weekly for a while can help greatly. In fact, during the Church's penitential seasons of Lent and Advent, when parishes often offer additional times for Confession, weekly Confession can be a great aid in our spiritual preparation for Easter and Christmas.

2. Take Your Time

Too often I've approached the Sacrament of Confession with all of the preparation I might make if I were ordering fast food from a drive-through. In fact, since I get confused and frustrated by the menus at most fast-food joints, I usually make sure that I know well in advance what I want to order.

But Confession? I shudder to think of the number of times that I've rushed to make it to the church mere minutes before the time for Confession has ended, uttered a quick prayer to the Holy Spirit to help me recall all of my sins, and then dived into the confessional before even figuring out how long it had been since my last Confession.

That's a recipe for leaving the confessional and then remembering a forgotten sin, or even forgetting what penance the priest prescribed, because you were too focused on getting the Confession done, and not focused on what you were actually doing.

If you want to make a better Confession, take the time to do it right. Begin your preparation at home (we'll talk about that below), and then arrive early enough so that you won't be rushed. Spend a little time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament before turning your thoughts to what you will say in Confession.

Take your time once you get in the confessional as well. There's no need to rush; when you're waiting in line for Confession, it may seem like the people in front of you are taking a long time, but usually they aren't, and neither will you.

If you try to rush, you're more likely to forget things you intended to say, and then you're more likely to be unhappy later when you remember them.

When your Confession is over, don't be in a hurry to leave the church. If the priest gave you prayers for your penance, say them there, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. If he asked you to think about your actions or to meditate on a particular passage of Scripture, do that then and there. Not only are you much more likely to complete your penance—an important step in the reception of the sacrament—but you'll also be more likely to see the connection between the contrition you expressed in the confessional, the absolution provided by the priest, and the penance you performed.

3. Make a Thorough Examination of Conscience

As I mentioned above, your preparation for Confession should begin at home. You'll need to recall (at least roughly) when your last Confession was, as well as the sins you've committed since then. 

For most of us most of the time, that recollection of sins probably looks a lot like this: "All right—what did I confess last time, and how many times have I done those things since my last Confession?"

There's nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. In fact, it's a pretty good starting point. But if we want to embrace the Sacrament of Confession fully, then we need to break out of old habits and look at our lives in a critical light. And that's where a thorough examination of conscience comes in.

The venerable Baltimore Catechism, in its lesson on the Sacrament of Penance, provides a good, short guide to making an examination of conscience. Reflecting on each of the following, think of the ways in which you have either done what you shouldn't have done  or have failed to do what you should do:

The first three are self-explanatory; the last one requires thinking about those aspects of your life that set you apart from everyone else.

For instance, in my case, I have certain duties that arise from the fact that I am a son, a husband, a father, a magazine editor, and a writer on matters Catholic. How well have I performed those duties? Are there things I should have done for my parents, wife, or children that I haven't done? Are there things that I shouldn't have done to them that I did do? Have I been diligent in my work and honest in my dealings with my superiors and subordinates? Have I treated with dignity and charity those with whom I've come into contact because of my state in life?

A thorough examination of conscience may uncover habits of sin that have become so ingrained that we hardly ever notice or think about them. Perhaps we put undue burdens on our spouse or children or spend our coffee breaks or lunch hours gossiping with our fellow employees about our boss. Maybe we don't call our parents as often as we should, or encourage our children to pray. These things arise from our particular state in life, and while they are common to many people, the only way we can become aware of them in our own life is to spend some time in reflection on our own particular circumstances.

4. Don't Hold Back

All of the reasons that I mentioned why we avoid going to Confession stem from some sort of fear. While going more frequently may help us overcome some of those fears, other fears may rear their ugly head while we're in the confessional.

The worst, because it may lead us to make an incomplete Confession, is a fear of what the priest may think when we confess our sins. This, however, is probably the most irrational fear we could have  because unless the priest hearing our Confession is brand-spanking new, there's a very good chance that any sin we could mention is one he's heard many, many times before. And even if he hasn't heard it in a confessional, he's been prepared through his seminary training to handle pretty much anything you could throw at him.

Go ahead; try to shock him. It's not going to happen. And that's a good thing because in order for your Confession to be complete and your absolution to be valid, you need to confess all mortal sins by kind (what you did) and number (how often you did it). You should do that with venial sins as well, but if you forget a venial sin or three, you'll still be absolved of them at the end of Confession.

But if you hold back on confessing a grave sin, you're only hurting yourself. God knows what you did, and the priest wants nothing more than to heal the breach between you and God.

5. Go to Your Own Priest

I know; I know: You always go to the next parish over, and you choose the visiting priest if there's one available. For many of us, there's nothing more terrifying than the thought of going to Confession with our own priest. Sure, we always make a private Confession, rather than face-to-face; but if we can recognize Father's voice, he has to be able to recognize ours too, right?

I'm not going to kid you; unless you belong to a very large parish and rarely have any interaction with your pastor, he probably does. But remember what I wrote above: Nothing you can say is going to shock him. And even though this shouldn't be your concern, he's not going to think worse of you because of anything you say in Confession.

Think about it: Rather than staying away from the sacrament, you've come to him and confessed your sins. You've asked for God's forgiveness, and your pastor, acting in the person of Christ, has absolved you from those sins. But now you're worried that he is going to deny you what God has granted to you? If that were actually the case, your priest would have bigger problems than you.

Instead of avoiding your own priest, use Confession with him to your spiritual advantage. If you're embarrassed to confess certain sins to him, you'll have added incentive to avoid those sins. While ultimately we want to get to the point where we avoid sin because we love God, embarrassment over sin can be the beginning of true contrition and a firm resolve to amend your life, whereas the anonymous Confession at the next parish over, while valid and effective, may make it easier to fall back into the same sin.

6. Ask for Advice

If part of the reason you find Confession frustrating or unsatisfying is that you find yourself confessing the same sins over and over again, don't hesitate to ask your confessor for advice. Sometimes, he'll offer it without you asking, especially if the sins you've confessed are ones that are often habitual.

But if he doesn't, there's nothing wrong with saying, "Father, I've been struggling with [your particular sin]. What can I do to avoid it?"

And when he responds, listen carefully, and don't dismiss his advice out of hand. You may think, for instance, that your prayer life is just fine, so if your confessor suggests that you spend more time in prayer, you might be inclined to regard his advice as well meaning but useless.

Don't think that way. Whatever he suggests, do it. The very act of trying to follow your confessor's advice can be a cooperation with grace. You may be surprised at the results.

7. Amend Your Life

The two most popular forms of the Act of Contrition end with these lines:

I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life.

And:

I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more, and to avoid the near occasion of sin.

Reciting the Act of Contrition is the last thing we do in the confessional before receiving absolution from the priest. And yet those final words too often vanish from our minds as soon as we step back through the confessional door.

But an essential part of confession is sincere contrition, and that includes not only being sorry for the sins that we have committed in the past but resolving to do whatever we can to avoid committing those and other sins in the future. When we treat the Sacrament of Confession as merely medicinal—healing the damage we've done—and not as a source of grace and strength to keep us on the right path going forward, we're more likely to find ourselves back in the confessional, reciting those same sins once again.

A better Confession doesn't end when we leave the confessional; in a sense, a new phase of Confession begins then. Being aware of the grace we have received in the sacrament, and trying our best to cooperate with that grace by avoiding not only the sins that we confessed but all sins, and indeed even occasions of sin, is the best way to ensure that we've made a good Confession.

Final Thoughts

While all of these steps can help you make a better Confession, you should not let any of them become excuses for not taking advantage of the sacrament. If you know that you need to go to Confession but you don't have the time to prepare as well as you should or to make a thorough examination of conscience, or if your priest isn't available and you have to go to the next parish over, don't wait. Get to Confession, and resolve to make a better Confession next time.

While the Sacrament of Confession, properly understood, is about more than healing the damage of the past, sometimes we have to staunch the wound before we can move on. Never let your desire for making a better Confession keep you from making the one you need to make today.