The long (but good) version:
The basic requirement for a good confession is to have the intention of returning to God like the “prodigal son” and to acknowledge our sins with true sorrow before the priest.
Sin in my Life
Modern society has lost a sense of sin. As a Catholic follower of Christ, I must make an effort to recognize sin in my daily actions, words and omissions.
The Gospels show how important is the forgiveness of our sins. Lives of saints prove that the person who grows in holiness has a stronger sense of sin, sorrow for sins, and a need for the Sacrament of Penance or Confession.
The Differences in Sins
As a result of Original Sin, human nature is weakened. Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, takes away Original Sin, and turns us back toward God. The consequences of this weakness and the inclination to evil persist, and we often commit personal or actual sin.
Actual sin is sin which people commit. There are two kinds of actual sin, mortal and venial.
Mortal sin is a deadly offense against God, so horrible that it destroys the life of grace in the soul. Three simultaneous conditions must be fulfilled for a mortal sin: 1) the act must be something very serious; 2) the person must have sufficient understanding of what is being done; 3) the person must have sufficient freedom of the will.
If you need help-especially if you have been away for some time-simply ask the priest and he will help you by “walking” you through the steps to make a good confession.
Be truly sorry for your sins. The essential act of Penance, on the part of the penitent, is contrition, a clear and decisive rejection of the sin committed, together with a resolution not to commit it again, out of the love one has for God and which is reborn with repentance. The resolution to avoid committing these sins in the future (amendment) is a sure sign that your sorrow is genuine and authentic. This does not mean that a promise never to fall again into sin is necessary. A resolution to try to avoid the near occasions of sin suffices for true repentance. God’s grace in cooperation with the intention to rectify your life will give you the strength to resist and overcome temptation in the future.
What happens in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is almost more than one could imagine. If we could meet Jesus today, we would expect to be received with love and compassion, because he is perfect and knows what it is to forgive. Instead, we confess to an ordinary human being who represents Jesus Christ sacramentally. We can expect the priest to receive us with love and care and compassion as well-not because he is sinless, but because he knows what it is to need forgiveness. God transforms even our human frailty into the medium of life-giving grace.
-USCCB Subcommittee for the Jubilee Year 20001
In his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (Redeemer of Man), Pope John Paul II described the gift of the Sacrament of Penance:
In faithfully observing the centuries-old practice of the Sacrament of Penance-the practice of individual confession with a personal act of sorrow and the intention to amend and make satisfaction-the Church is therefore defending the human soul’s individual right: man’s right to a more personal encounter with the crucified forgiving Christ, with Christ saying through the minister of the sacrament of Reconciliation: “Your sins are forgiven” (Mk 2:5); “Go, and do not sin again” (Jn 8:11). As is evident, this is also a right on Christ’s part with regard to every human being redeemed by him: his right to meet each one of us in that key moment in the soul’s life constituted by the moment of conversion and forgiveness.2
1. Why do we need the Sacrament of Penance?
“Because of human weakness . . . Christians ‘turn aside from [their] early love’ (see Rev 2:4) and even break off their friendship with God by sinning. The Lord, therefore, instituted a special sacrament of penance for the pardon of sins committed after baptism, and the Church has faithfully celebrated the sacrament throughout the centuries-in varying ways, but retaining its essential elements.”3
2. What happens in the Sacrament of Penance?
In the Sacrament of Penance, “the sinner who by grace of a merciful God embraces the way of penance comes back to the Father who ‘first loved us’ (1 Jn 4:19), to Christ who gave himself up for us, and to the Holy Spirit who has been poured out on us abundantly.”4 Likewise, “those who by grave sin have withdrawn from the communion of love with God are called back in the sacrament of penance to the life they have lost. And those who through daily weakness fall into venial sins draw strength from a repeated celebration of penance to gain the full freedom of the children of God.”5
3. What is the role of the priest in the Sacrament of Penance?
According to the Rite of Penance, “the Church exercises the ministry of the sacrament of penance through bishops and priests. By preaching God’s word they call the faithful to conversion; in the name of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit they declare and grant the forgiveness of sins. In the exercise of this ministry priests act in communion with the bishop and share in his power and office . . .” (no. 9).
4. What is the role of the community in the sacrament?
According to the Rite of Penance, “the whole Church, as a priestly people, acts in different ways in the work of reconciliation which has been entrusted to it by the Lord. Not only does the Church call sinners to repentance by preaching the word of God, but it also intercedes for them and helps penitents with maternal care and solicitude to acknowledge and admit their sins and so obtain the mercy of God who alone can forgive sins. Furthermore, the Church becomes the instrument of the conversion and absolution of the penitent through the ministry entrusted by Christ to the apostles and their successors” (no. 8).
5. When should the Sacrament of Penance be scheduled?
The sacrament should be regularly scheduled at times convenient for the faithful.6
“The season of Lent is most appropriate for celebrating the sacrament of penance. Already on Ash Wednesday the people of God has heard the solemn invitation ‘Turn away from sin and believe the good news.’ It is therefore fitting to have several penitential celebrations during Lent, so that all the faithful may have an opportunity to be reconciled with God and their neighbor and so be able to celebrate the paschal mystery in the Easter triduum with renewed hearts.”
-Rite of Penance, no. 13
6. What are the different forms of the Sacrament of Penance?
The Sacrament of Penance takes three forms. Pope Paul VI’s eloquent explanation of each rite is provided below.7
The Rite for the Reconciliation of Individual Penitents-“The first [form] is the reconciliation of an individual . . . with a new emphasis on the demand for personal dispositions and on the relationship to the word of God. . . . This form of reconciliation is the accustomed one, but enriched by a greater awareness, seriousness, listening, and so to speak, by a new outpouring of divine love and our own inexpressible joy in the knowledge of being restored to divine life. . . .”
The Rite for the Reconciliation of Several Penitents-“The second way of reconciliation is that of a communal preparation followed by individual confession and absolution. It combines the two values of being a community act and a personal act. It is a preferable form of reconciliation for our people when it is possible but it usually presupposes the presence of many ministers of the sacrament and this is not always easy.”
The Rite for the Reconciliation of Several Penitents with General Absolution-“Then there is the third way, a collective form of reconciliation with a single, general absolution. This form, however, is by way of exception, of necessity, in cases sanctioned by the bishops, and with the continuing obligation of individual [confession] of grave sins, that is, mortal sins, at a later time.”
7. When the Reconciliation of Several Penitents is celebrated, is it allowable for each penitent to confess just one sin?
No. In recent years the practice has grown in which, in consideration of a large number of penitents, each penitent is asked to approach a priest and confess only one sin. Such a practice does not allow for an integral confession as required by the Rite of Penance. In order for a valid confession to take place, a full and integral confession must be provided for in every instance. Canon 988 §1 refers to the obligation to confess all serious sins in “kind and in number.”
8. When the Reconciliation of Several Penitents is celebrated, can a “common penance” be given?
No. The Rite of Penance makes clear that “after the Lord’s Prayer the priests go to the places assigned for confession. The penitents who desire to confess their sins go to the priest of their choice. After receiving a suitable act of penance, they are absolved by him with the form for the reconciliation of an individual penitent.”8
9. When the Reconciliation of Several Penitents is celebrated, can a “common absolution” be given?
No. “Each penitent who makes an individual confession during such services is to receive absolution individually from the confessor involved.”9
10. What is “General Absolution”?
The third form of the Sacrament of Penance, “General Absolution,” is designed for extreme situations.
Such absolution is in fact “exceptional in character” and “cannot be imparted in a general manner unless: (1) the danger of death is imminent and there is not time for the priest or priests to hear the confessions of the individual penitents; [or] (2) a grave necessity exists, that is, when in light of the number of penitents a supply of confessors is not readily available to hear the confessions of individuals in an appropriate way within an appropriate time, so that the penitents would be deprived of sacramental grace or Holy Communion for a long time through no fault of their own; it is not considered sufficient necessity if confessors cannot be readily available only because of the great number of penitents, as can occur on the occasion of some great feast or pilgrimage” (Code of Canon Law [CIC], c. 961 §1).10
11. May General Absolution be given simply because not enough confessors show up for confessions?
No. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the CIC specifically address this point: “A large gathering of the faithful [such as] on the occasion of major feasts or pilgrimages does not constitute a case of grave necessity.”11
12. Does a penitent have to confess the sin forgiven in General Absolution again?
According to canon law, “a person who has had serious sins remitted by a general absolution is to approach individual confession as soon as there is an opportunity to do so before receiving another general absolution unless a just cause intervenes” (CIC, c. 963). Through individual confession, the penitent experiences the healing power of Christ through a personal encounter not made present in the anonymity of the third rite.
13. What authority does the bishop exercise in relationship to General Absolution?
The diocesan bishop is the sole competent authority for determining the appropriateness and conditions that must be met for the celebration of General Absolution in a particular diocese (see CIC, c. 962 §2).
“Through the sacrament of penance, we, the faithful, acknowledge the sins we have committed, express our sorrow for them, and, intending to reform our ways, receive God’s forgiveness and become reconciled with God and with the Church.”
-USCCB Committee on Pastoral Practices, Penitential Practices for Today’s Catholics
Examination of Conscience
Before going to Confession you should make a review of mortal and venial sins since your last sacramental confession, and should express sorrow for sins, hatred for sins and a firm resolution not to sin again.
A helpful pattern for examination of conscience is to review the Commandments of God and the Precepts of the Church:
Have God and the pursuit of sanctity in Christ been the goal of my life? Have I denied my faith? Have I placed my trust in false teachings or substitutes for God? Did I despair of God’s mercy?
Have I avoided the profane use of God’s name in my speech? Have I broken a solemn vow or promise?
Have I honored every Sunday by avoiding unnecessary work, celebrating the Mass (also holydays)? Was I inattentive at, or unnecessarily late for Mass, or did I leave early? Have I neglected prayer for a long time?
Have I shown Christlike respect to parents, spouse, and family members, legitimate authorities? Have I been attentive to the religious education and formation of my children?
Have I cared for the bodily health and safety of myself and all others? Did I abuse drugs or alcohol? Have I supported in any way abortion, “mercy killing,” or suicide?
Was I impatient, angry, envious, proud, jealous, revengeful, lazy? Have I forgiven others?
Have I been just in my responsibilities to employer and employees? Have I discriminated against others because of race or other reasons?
Have I been chaste in thought and word? Have I used sex only within marriage and while open to procreating life? Have I given myself sexual gratification? Did I deliberately look at impure TV, pictures, reading?
Have I stolen anything from another, from my employer, from government? If so, am I ready to repay it? Did I fulfill my contracts? Did I rashly gamble, depriving my family of necessities?
Have I spoken ill of any other person? Have I always told the truth? Have I kept secrets and confidences?
Have I permitted sexual thoughts about someone to whom I am not married?
Have I desired what belongs to other people? Have I wished ill on another?
Have I been faithful to sacramental living (Holy Communion and Penance)?
Have I helped make my parish community stronger and holier? Have I contributed to the support of the Church?
Have I done penance by abstaining and fasting on obligatory days? Have I fasted before receiving communion?
Have I been mindful of the poor? Do I accept God’s will for me?
After examining your conscience and telling God of your sorrow, go into the confessional. You may kneel at the screen or sit to talk face-to-face with the priest.
Begin your confession with the sign of the cross, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. My last confession was _________ weeks (months, years) ago.”
The priest may read a passage from holy Scripture.
Say the sins that you remember. Start with the one(s) that is most difficult to say. (In order to make a good confession the faithful must confess all mortal sins, according to kind and number.) After confessing all the sins you remember since your last good confession, you may conclude by saying, “I am sorry for these and all the sins of my past life.”
Listen to the words of the priest. He will assign you some penance. Doing the penance will diminish the temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven. When invited, express some prayer of sorrow or Act of Contrition such as:
An Act of Contrition
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. But most of all because I have offended you, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of your grace, to confess my sins, to do penance and to amend my life. Amen.
At the End of Confession
Listen to the words of absolution, the sacramental forgiveness of the Church through the ordained priest.
As you listen to the words of forgiveness you may make the sign of the cross with the priest. If he closes by saying, “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good,” answer, “For His mercy endures forever.”
Give thanks to God for forgiving you again. If you recall some serious sin you forgot to tell, rest assured that it has been forgiven with the others, but be sure to confess it in your next Confession.
Do your assigned Penance.
Resolve to return to the Sacrament of Reconciliation often. We Catholics are fortunate to have the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is the ordinary way for us to have our sins forgiven. This sacrament is a powerful help to get rid of our weaknesses, grow in holiness, and lead a balanced and virtuous life