The Sacrament of Confession

Why Must Catholics Go to Confession?

Confessionals in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Georges Jansoone/Getty Images

Confession is one of the least understood of the sacraments of the Catholic Church. In reconciling us to God, it is a great source of grace, and Catholics are encouraged to take advantage of it often. But it is also the subject of many common misunderstandings, both among non-Catholics and among Catholics themselves.

Confession Is a Sacrament

The Sacrament of Confession is one of the seven sacraments recognized by the Catholic Church.

Catholics believe that all of the sacraments were instituted by Jesus Christ himself. In the case of Confession, that institution occurred on Easter Sunday, when Christ first appeared to the apostles after his Resurrection. Breathing on them, he said: “Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained” (John 20:22-23).

The Marks of the Sacrament

Catholics also believe that the sacraments are an outward sign of an inward grace. In this case, the outward sign is the absolution, or forgiveness of sins, that the priest grants to the penitent (the person confessing his sins); the inward grace is the reconciliation of the penitent to God.

Other Names for the Sacrament of Confession

That is why the Sacrament of Confession is sometimes called the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Whereas Confession stresses the action of the believer in the sacrament, Reconciliation stresses the action of God, who uses the sacrament to reconcile us to Himself by restoring sanctifying grace in our souls.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to the Sacrament of Confession as the Sacrament of Penance. Penance expresses the proper attitude with which we should approach the sacrament—with sorrow for our sins, a desire to atone for them, and a firm resolve not to commit them again.

Confession is less frequently called the Sacrament of Conversion and the Sacrament of Forgiveness.

The Purpose of Confession

The purpose of Confession is to reconcile man to God. When we sin, we deprive ourselves of God’s grace. And by doing so, we make it even easier to sin some more. The only way out of this downward cycle is to acknowledge our sins, to repent of them, and to ask God’s forgiveness. Then, in the Sacrament of Confession, grace can be restored to our souls, and we can once again resist sin.

Why Is Confession Necessary?

Non-Catholics, and even many Catholics, often ask whether they can confess their sins directly to God, and whether God can forgive them without going through a priest. On the most basic level, of course, the answer is yes, and Catholics should make frequent acts of contrition, which are prayers in which we tell God that we are sorry for our sins and ask for His forgiveness.

But the question misses the point of the Sacrament of Confession. The sacrament, by its very nature, confers graces that help us to live a Christian life, which is why the Church requires us to receive it at least once per year. (See The Precepts of the Church for more details.) Moreover, it was instituted by Christ as the proper form for the forgiveness of our sins. Therefore, we should not only be willing to receive the sacrament, but should embrace it as a gift from a loving God.

What Is Required?

Three things are required of a penitent in order to receive the sacrament worthily:

  1. He must be contrite—or, in other words, sorry for his sins.
  2. He must confess those sins fully, in kind and in number.
  3. He must be willing to do penance and make amends for his sins.

While these are the minimum requirements, here are Seven Steps to Making a Better Confession.

How Often Should You Go to Confession?

While Catholics are only required to go to Confession when they are aware that they have committed a mortal sin, the Church urges the faithful to take advantage of the sacrament often. A good rule of thumb is to go once per month. (The Church strongly recommends that, in preparation for fulfilling our Easter Duty to receive Communion, we go to Confession even if we are aware of venial sin only.)

The Church especially urges the faithful to receive the Sacrament of Confession frequently during Lent, to help them in their spiritual preparation for Easter.