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How to make your best Confession ever

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith urges Catholics to enter the confessional with newfound courage

By on Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Confession is about our failure to respond to the Father’s love offered to us in Christ (Photo: PA)

Confession is about our failure to respond to the Father’s love offered to us in Christ (Photo: PA)

The Sacrament of Penance, which involves confessing your sins to a priest, is dying out in Britain. Here few people come to confess their sins and, while all churches advertise times of Confession, it may soon be the case that, as in other countries, they may stop bothering if no one comes.

So, when people give up Confession what replaces it? I take it as read that people keep on sinning. What changes is that they get their absolution elsewhere. Either they absolve themselves, telling themselves that God has forgiven them, or they persuade themselves that their sins are not sins after all. The falling off in Confession goes hand in hand with a falling off in the sense of sin.

Some may think that a good thing. I do not. It is healthy to have a realistic sense of one’s own sinfulness. We need to acknowledge the truth about ourselves: that we need God’s help, His grace, if we are to be saved. Our sins stand between us and God. Without true repentance for sin, there can be no spiritual progress.

So that is the first step in preparing to go to Confession. You go because you need to go, because you are a sinner, and because you wish to grow closer to God. One should put oneself into this frame of mind: you approach Confession as a humble petitioner, coming to Him who has all the graces and gifts that you so sorely need.

The next step is to consider that God, the fount of all grace, is generous in His gifts. He wants to give us His grace, even though we may not deserve it. The best way to appreciate this is to remember that Jesus never turned anyone away. Neither will He turn us away. So we approach the sacrament with confidence in God.

But what should one say as one confesses one’s sins? After these generalities, what particularities? At this point one should not slide into the composition of a list, the so-called “laundry list”. Rather, one should think of the goodness of God as it has been manifested to us personally, through our baptism, and in all the years since then. That was the moment when He chose us to be His adopted children. We can compose a laundry list of our blessings and then ask ourselves how we have responded to His loving adoption.

It is only in this light that sin makes any sense. There is a difference, after all, between mistakes (things that no one should undertake if they have any sense) and moral faults (things that are of themselves wrong) and sins: the things we do which offend the love of God. None of us like making mistakes, and most of us despise moral faults in others and, if we are honest, in ourselves. But Confession is really about pinpointing our failure to respond to the Father’s love offered to us in Christ. Breaking the speed limit without a compelling reason to do so is mistaken, and it is a moral fault; but we need to repent of it as a sin against the Father’s love, which is rather different. If I do 48mph in a 30mph zone, I am not causing offence to the law of the land, which is administered impartially, but I am failing to live as a responsible adult, in that I am abusing my God-given freedom. I am acting irresponsibly.

After all, at baptism I was anointed prophet, priest and king, and yet here am I not really acting as a thinking person should. The speed limit and other laws are impartial and impersonal. But the Law of God is a law given in love, given to us to keep because God loves us. Sin is, in a sense, an infraction of law, but in a deeper sense it is a failure to love the One who loves us.

It is only when considering one’s vocation as a baptised person, called by Love to love in return, that one can see sin in its true light, as anything that damages that vocation.

It is at this point that one can look at the Ten Commandments, not as 10 laws, but as 10 consequences of our baptismal call. Because we are baptised we will have no truck with strange gods, and we will reject theft, murder and adultery. Thus, bearing in mind our call and our covenant, we can formulate our list of ways in which we have failed to live up to the covenant.

This list will not consist purely of actions as such (though sinful actions are clearly to be confessed). As well as actions that cannot be reconciled with the covenanted relationship, there are attitudes as well which damage our relationship with God. Worst of these is pride, but let us not forget greed, envy, laziness and lust.

One does not have to take the Ten Commandments as one’s textual help. Another good passage is this one from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13, from the fourth verse onwards: “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing. For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.

“When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

Here is love in its fullness, a clear exposition of what we are called to: against this positive we can measure our negatives, and confess our sins, desiring with all our hearts to experience more love, until love shall be all in all.

  • Sharon Taylor900

    why should I have to confess my sin to another human being???? As a born again Christian, I can go to my heavenly father’s presence in the name of Jesus Christ and confess my sins. Christ died for all our sins, and once we confess them God the father remembers them no more. It is, however, a continual process, and we need to keep short accounts with God….once a week confession just doesn’t cut it!

  • Pregis

    I don’t know what “a born again Christian” is, it is not a scriptural term, neither is self confession, in the way you describe, Jesus gives authority to the Apostles to foregive sins, why not take advantage of that authorative foregiveness? Rather than some deviant perversion of the scriptures invented in the 16th century.

  • Rhilliardkzoo

    I think of St Gaspar who kept the oratory opened all night for those who might be too embarrassed to go to confession during the day.  Priests, please stop holding confessions for 20-30 minutes on a Saturday afternoon.  Preach about confession, stop being so nicey-nice, and get in that confessional several hours a week and wait-even for one soul, it is worth it.  

  • J. Legault

    Jesus Christ himself is another human being.  Would you dare to ask of Christ, standing there in the flesh in front of you, why should I confess my sins to you, when I can confess my sins to directly to your Father?

    How would that response differ from that of the Pharisees, when they heard Jesus, your sins are forgiven you?  They cried out, who is this man, that he claims to have the authority to forgive sins, when that authority belongs to God alone?

    To refuse to confess to Jesus, the man sent by the Father to forgive sins, is to refuse both the authority of the Father and the Father’s forgiveness.

    Likewise, to refuse to confess to the apostles sent by Jesus to forgive sins, is to refuse the both the authority of Christ and Christ’s forgiveness.

    Christ praised the faith of the centurion, who knew what it was to be under authority himelf and have others under his authority in turn. “I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

    Christ judged it right and good to send men to forgive sins in his name when he was still walking the face of the earth in the flesh.  No one living at the time had the right to refuse to accept Christ’s forgiveness from the human beings Christ had chosen to send them.

    The only question remaining, then, is whether Christ continues to send human beings to forgive sins in his name.  If he does, we have the duty to confess to them.  We have no reason to assume he doesn’t, and every reason  to trust that he does.

  • Diffal

    If its that much of a problem and confession doesn’t seem to work for the majority of catholic society, why doesn’t the church just end this pointless “war on sin”? Clearly the current model isn’t working.

  • Emerald Negron

    Wow, thanks, Fr. Alexander.  Especially today I need to meditate on the 1Cor. passage.  I am grateful for your words.

  • ColdStanding

    J. Legault laying it down like a boss!  

  • Jolliest_jan

    We are blessed in our parish with priests who really listen. Then they take the time to offer spiritual direction which many in our parish have said is “the cheapest therapy available.” As Catholics, we are called to be holy…so if we want to work on changing our sinful behavior, we need reconciliation, not only absolution but direction, so that we can grow closer to God. Reconciliation is a gift!

  • ColdStanding

    Exchange your sins for God’s grace.  You’ll find the defective goods return counter in the confessional.  

  • susan

    If you really knew how much GRACE you get from confession, you would not say such thing, why dont you try it?

  • Pregis

    But it isn’t about LISTENING it is about ABSOLUTION, and it is certainly not about therapy, it is about foregiveness, God’s not the priest’s.
    This highlights the crisis in Confession: it is not what we do but what God does to us. We don’t need skilled priests, though it would be nice, we need priests to say, “I absolve you ….”

  • dmw

    Sharon, clearly you misunderstand the Catholic Church’s teaching on confession. I would urge you to read what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, not forgetting to reference the footnote citations to Sacred Scripture: In sum, confession to a priest and the reception of God’s absolution of sin through the ministry of ordained priests of Jesus Christ finds its scriptural basis beginning in John 20:21-23, when Jesus gives the authority to “forgive” and to “retain” sins of others.

  • Jolliest_jan

    I agree with you that what is primary here is the absolution from the priest and the forgiveness of sins by God acting through the priest. But Jesus also said more than once to “go and sin no more.” We are all sinners and we will continue to sin but if we are going to “confession” for the right reason, it is to be forgiven and then to attempt to change our bad habits, our sinfulness, through the grace of absolution. However, if you go to reconciliation more than once a year, chances are the priest may see a pattern of behavior and hold you accountable…and offer direction so that you have a better chance of growing closer to Christ. I stand by my earlier comment because if Christ and the Holy Spirit is guiding the priest, he can help the penitent to grow spiritually and at least aspire to “go and sin no more.” It is the Holy Spirit that will infuse the skills necessary for the priest, at the right moment, to sheperd his sheep. 

  • Inquisator

    I believe we do need skilled priests to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  We need priests who are willing to challenge those who see the Sacrament more as a devotion than an encounter with Christ; the skill to gently challenge the childish recitation of ridiculous lists of silly infringements (“I was disobedient…. I didn’t say my prayers etc) or the boring repetative recividism which plagues our confessional boxes and makes a mockery of the Sacrament. This problem is of the Church’s own making and now it is moaning about the fact that we have created a constituency of non-thinking, non-reflecting automatons unable to truly sit back and take stock of their lives from a faith perspective but rather are just happy to give the same weekly list without wishing to hear anything from the priest other than the words, “I absolve you…”  The definition of a Sacrament is the ‘fullest expression and realisation of the presence of the Risen Christ in a given situation’; hardly the daily experience of priests in the confessional today.

  • Diffal

    Dear Susan, I am indeed a regular penitent, and I greatly appreciate the graces it provides. I was simply drawing certain comparisons between Fr.’s views as expressed in a recent article on the “war on Drugs” which I don’t share and his views on the “war on Sin”(as it were) which I do share

  • Petertheroman

    I remember a time in the church when i couldnt go up to recieve the Lord. This lasted for a very long time in fact several years and caused me great pain. But i knew that i couldnt recieve him in a bad state of sin, however what stood out was I was more or less the only person who was left sitting down, but yet there was never hardly anyone at confession. I needed confession often, but how can so many people come to God in communion and not be going to confession? With so many people taking communion and not going to confessin is questionable.

    If people think they do not need confession, then why communion, and why church, and then why even pray. Why be good, just live how you want.

    This is just another lukewarm thinking and developement in the wests disobedience to christ and Rome.
    Let you be found without spot or stain at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. For if today I die let me be in a state of Grace.

  • Chris

    The reason they don’t come is the priests don’t give them the opportunity. St. John Vianney is proof in the pudding.

  • Bern.

    In this world I see fellow human beings suicidally bombing innocents without any warning or purpose. I see evidence of child abuse carried out by parents, carried out by strangers, and in some cases carried out by priests. I see racism rearing its ugly head at football matches. I hear of youngsters carrying knives and using them on anyone who crosses them.In this world I see politicians robbing the tax payers through false expenses claims and I see bankers bringing the world to its financial knees through lining their own pockets year after year.
    I look at myself in the mirror and ask how I compare.
    Do I need to go to confession like I did when a child?
    I think not.

  • mjw0212

    Calling the sacrament just the “Sacrament of Penance” doesn’t illustrate what I understand is an important part of this Sacrament; correctly called the the “Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation”.

    Typically the lay person will talk about going to “Confession” and the popular interpretation of this, is that one goes to confess ones sins and then receives a penance or punishment in return.

    This undervalues what is happening and misses out the important element of “reconciliation” with God. Sin puts distance between us and being with God.  The confession – forgiveness – and penance, all work to reconcile us with the Father once again.

  • Parasum

    “So, when people give up Confession what replaces it? I take it as read
    that people keep on sinning. What changes is that they get their
    absolution elsewhere. Either they absolve themselves, telling themselves
    that God has forgiven them, or they persuade themselves that their sins
    are not sins after all. The falling off in Confession goes hand in hand
    with a falling off in the sense of sin.”

    ## Those are not the only possibilities – that they may be frequently encountered, does not at all mean there are no others. Another possibility: people become dissatisfied with the sacrament, partly or wholly because they find it too superficial a remedy for the evil of sin. That may (it could be argued) be evidence of lack of faith – but even if it is, the finding remains untouched.

    As for “Either they absolve themselves, telling themselves
    that God has forgiven them, or they persuade themselves that their sins
    are not sins after all”:

    1. This is too much like a caricature of Evangelical faith to be truly adequate as a description of how everyone, including Evangelicals, “ticks” on this matter. It is like the twin caricature, that Catholics only go to Confession on Saturday because that clears them to get up to fresh sins on Monday. Both caricatures are close enough to the truth to be dangerous & mischievous half-truths. There’s been so much of that reciprocal misrepresentation in the last 480 years that now seems a good time to say good-bye to it.

    2. Both Catholics & Evangelicals have to rely on faith in God that they are forgiven – we are on the same footing as Evangelicals in that respect. The Catholic POV involves a man acting (as we believe) as a Divine legate, but that does not do away with the need for faith. The Catholic picture is more complex – it is no more self-evidently valid.  In a given case, a priest may not be at priest at all but an impostor, or may lack jurisdiction, or may in future be found to have been invalidly consecrated, or may use an invalid form for absolution. The penitent has to take a fair amount of canonical and sacramental detail for granted – & in practice, people do. The good faith of the penitent & the man behind the grille do not supply for lack of whatever conditions are canonically & doctrinally necessary for the sacramental validity of the absolution.    

    3. People “keep on sinning” anyway, whether they be “practising” Catholics, or non-religious. Even Saints are not impeccable. The effectuality of the sacrament does not confer impeccancy or impeccability – it seems to work more subtly than that. That people who don’t going to Confession keep on sinning is a weak argument for going.

  • Parasum

     Because sin is the worst of evils, for one thing.

    When you say “the current model” – current model of what ? The sacramental practice of the Church ?

  • mjw0212

    I’ve never come across someone who is without sin -  congratulations  :-)

    Please forgive me for puling your leg but “Hast thou seen a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope of a fool than of him.” Proverbs 26:12

  • Parasum

    Might it not be possible to preserve the anonymity of priests and penitents by scrambling the pictures of them, or by doing w/out the pictures ?  

  • Oldham

    As long as parishes just have Confession for half an hour on Saturdays it will be difficult for most of us – I travel to Manchester to make my confession because the Holy Name has Confession every weekday.  

  • Parasum

    “Christ died for all our sins, and once we confess them God the father remembers them no more.”


    1. That Jesus Christ’s expiation of sin on the Cross is perfect and all-sufficient in every way, is not denied by the Catholic practice -  the Catholic practice requires the work of Christ on to be all-sufficient. The Catholic practice is based on the very fact that Evangelicals insist on. The work of Christ is all-sufficient, for all sins, of all mankind, in all ages & nations, from the first man to the last. It is not for some sins only, but for every sin that has ever been, or ever will be, committed by members of the human race.

    2. The Church is the Divinely-created, Divinely-chosen, Divinely commissioned society that Jesus founded to do His Works. Just as He has power to forgive sins, and to reconcile men to God, the Church has the identical calling & Work. The reconciliation comes not from the Church itself, as a society of human beings, but from Him, Who acts through His Church. Think of the Bible – the Bible is “the Word of God, in the words of men”. Human beings can share the Gospel, only because the Spirit of Christ is at work in their witness to Christ. Of ourselves, we can do nothing.

    3. The forgiveness of sins is the work of human beings – of men who are sin-prone human beings. Their priesthood is not their own – it is a sharing in the Priesthood of Christ. Their authority to forgive sins is not their own – it is an exercise, by Christ, of power to forgive sins, through them. The voices and words are those of men – the grace and power & forgiveness are Christ’s.

    4. The difference between the Catholic POV & the Evangelical one, seems to be this: for Evangelicals, the work of Christ on the Cross is like an ocean: it can be drawn upon by Christians, but it does not act through them. Whatever has to be done, Christ does – man receive what is done, can preach it, can say “Come and see”; & that is that. It is finished, so it is something in the past, that the Holy Spirit makes a saving reality in the present

    For Catholics, the work of Christ on the Cross is more like a river. Christ has done all that needs doing, just as Evangelicals insist He has. This completed salvation flows out from the Cross through the Church. It is finished, so it is an action in the past, that the Holy Spirit makes a saving reality in the present. He does so ordinarily through the Body of Christ, the Church. In Christ, human beings “receive adoption as sons”. These adopted sons cannot do the good works that the Father has prepared for them to do, unless the Son of God does those works. He has to work through His brethren, if what they do is to be His work. What they do is not a replacement for His all-sufficient work – such a thing is impossible: it is a manifestation of this saving work.

    Hope that helps.

  • guest

    It is not by comparison to others that we should see ours sins, but by reflecting on what God expects of us, a world of problems as you describe does not justify us to turn away from God in what we consider to be lesser ways. We should strive to be more than simply better than the worst crimes we can imagine. 

  • Johnncollins21

    ‘what’s this emphasis on failure?  Was there even mention of lists – however modified?  My attitude to ‘confession’ is that it is a ‘confession’ of total belief in the reality of 2 Corinthians 5:18.  And that belief can be realised by a simple embrace of that scriptural proclamation.

    Imagine if that embrace was not just personal but communal: hundreds of people acknowledging at the same moment of praise that we acknowledge the ‘reconciliation’ God offers us in Jesus…

  • Benedict Carter

    My return to the Faith and the rebuilding of a destroyed life (self-inflicted wounds) started with Confession. It is THE ESSENTIAL step back to God from the soul whose sins have separated him from God. 

    It cannot be done with emotion, with a shrug of the shoulders, with excuses about the times we are living in: get in there, bare your soul to God in all its blackness and deformity and have it straightened out and cleaned up. 

    Confession is NOT a magic pill: it’s a singular event but is part of a PROCESS. You MUST go regularly. When you have schooled yourself in this, then slowly the urge to whatever was your choice of regular mortal sin is weakened and in the end broken. 

    Confession must be combined with prayer and Holy Communion: without the first, the Grace freely given to you in Confession will be badly dissipated and your Will may never come under its control; in combination with the second, the devil and his demons have no chance at all. 

    Get yourself to Confession and start again with Our Lord. He’s waiting for you even if “you can but stumble into the box He will take you back (Bishop Fulton Sheen). 

    Believe in the Sacraments. They are not simply quaint old pre-psychologist counselling. They have POWER whose direct source is your Creator and your Saviour. What a gift! Do NOT spurn it! 

    Eternal life is worth what to you? 

  • blena

    when the church stopped teaching it people stopped believing

  • whytheworldisending

    Jesus “…breathed on them and said, receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven…” He wouldn’t have done that if we didn’t need to receive his power to forgive and receive forgiveness from those empowered by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit brings power to forgive, and also seals us against temptation. Priests are ordained for the purpose. Why undermine the faith of those who humbly seek God’s forgiveness through his ordained servants, and why confess your sins on this website?

  • Dorotheus

    People might perhaps return to the practice of confession if they were helped in a real meaningful way to understand what sin is. Most people understand it to mean doing things that are wrong, and can only think of things like having bad thoughts, losing one’s temper etc. They know that if they go and say they are sorry for trivia like these they will almost certainly do them again, so the whole process seems pointless. What is needed is an in depth rethinking of the nature of sin and maybe working out different better ways to make a confession, but this would mean having to admit that our current practice is flawed and inadequate, which no church leader is ever going to do. So all we get are exhortations to come back to confession and suggesting there should be more times available – so it goes on …

  • George Alukka

    I am a Catholic Priest from Kerala, India, and is working as a missionary in North India, where Christians are less in number. Confession is the sacrament that is very special to Catholic Faith. It is one of the greatest gift of Jesus. How many are suffering with their guilt feeling in other faiths. We have a sure and secure means to share our sins with some one, who  will listen to us carefully and mercifully. Everything confessed sin gives new hope to us. I thank Jesus for such a great gift.

  • nnaji

    If it will be possible let confession be held every morning after morning mass

  • mjw0212

    If you need to confess a mortal sin, then before Mass would be better, so you could then receive communion.  Venial sins are covered early on during the Mass itself when we ask God’s forgiveness etc.