How to Go to Confession: The Sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation

Hands Praying

How to Go to Confession

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Confession: Don’t Be Intimidated
  3. Why Confession Is Important
  4. Finding a Time
  5. Group Reconciliation Services
  6. Examples of Sins to Say at Confession
  7. Step by Step Guide
  8. More Resources

Many sacraments have outward, visible signs that announce and celebrate them. The sacrament of penance is not one of them.

A photo of a newly baptized baby with godparents captures a child’s baptism, much like how a picture of a teenager standing with the bishop preserves the moment a young person is confirmed.

Then there are weddings, and all that comprises them, from the announcements to the invitations, the joyful mass, the gifts, the reception and the beautiful memories.

We often want our entire network of family, friends and members of our faith community to at least be aware of these sacraments in our lives, even if we can’t invite them all to the celebration.

Our hearts are filled with pride. With joy.

The sacrament of penance, also called “reconciliation,” is different in this aspect. You won’t go to someone’s home and see a photo on their mantle from their first (or any!) penance. No invitations will arrive announcing the date and time that a loved one plans to go through reconciliation.

With the sacrament of penance, the experience is different but no less important than other sacraments. Like other sacraments, its roots come from the Bible:

Now this is the message that we have heard from him and proclaim to you: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say, “We have fellowship with him,” while we continue to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth. But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of his Son Jesus cleanses us from all sin. If we say, “We are without sin,” we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

1 John 1:5-10

Confession: Don’t Be Intimidated

When we think about our sinfulness, we might feel embarrassed or alone. It’s not something we want to share with others.We may feel intimidated or reluctant to share our sins with the priest.

If you’re nervous or uneasy about going to confession, remember these three things:

  • It doesn’t matter if it’s been a long time (or a short time), God is still happy you’re there.
  • Our God is a God of mercy. God wants to forgive us.
  • God, not the priest present in the confessional, is the one doing actually absolving your sins.

Priests are bound by a canon law concept known as the “seal of the confessional,” which forbids them from sharing confessions under any circumstance.

If you’re worried about inconveniencing or bothering the priest, take comfort in the beautiful description of the sacrament from Pope John Paul II:

“[Confession] is, without doubt, the most difficult and delicate, the most exhausting and demanding, but also one of the most beautiful and consoling ministries of the priest.”

In other words, it’s hard but rewarding work–exactly what priests are called to do. 

Why You Should Go to Confession

God absolving our sins helps us draw nearer to God. Sin distances us from God; the sacrament of reconciliation bridges that gap and better unites us with God.

In our confession, the priest may suggest ways to avoid sinning in the future, helping us live holier lives each day.

As the USCCB explains, penance also “challenges us to have the same kind of compassion and forgiveness for those who sin against us.”

In this way, going to confession can be seen as a selfless act: When we experience God’s love and forgiveness, we’re better prepared to extend those gifts to those around us.

Finding a Time for Confession

Churches usually offer a scheduled time each week for parishioners to receive the sacrament of confession. At smaller churches, you may have to email the pastor to schedule a time.

If you’re not comfortable going to your own parish for confession, you may explore other churches in your area. It’s better to go to confession at a different church than not to go at all.

If you’re traveling, some airports have small chapels staffed by Catholic priests. These chapels provide an opportunity for confession during busy work times or before embarking on a big family trip or holiday: great times to receive absolution for your sins.

Priests at these chapels generally are aware that people in the airport have flights to catch, so you can receive the sacrament expediently.

Group Reconciliation Services

Some parishes will offer communal reconciliation services, especially during the season of Lent.

These services provide an opportunity to participate in the sacrament of penance, in the context of the larger parish community.

Instead of showing up alone to confession, there’s an entire group of fellow parishioners gathered to do the same. Strength in numbers!

While the services invite members of the Church to gather together, they still offer full, individual private confessions. Read the Archdiocese of Chicago’s approach to group reconciliation.

Examples of Sins to Say at Confession

Your sins are entirely personal. There’s no exact guide for what you ought to confess. No universal playbook for the sins you need to atone for.

The best guide is your conscience.

Spend time examining your conscience to take stock of moments when you’ve missed the mark, distancing yourself from God, the Church and those around you.

The 10 Commandments can provide a helpful framework for prompting you to think about ways you’ve sinned. It’s best to consider them broadly and not literally.

For example, with “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” you may have never committed murder, but have you been violent or abusive? Have you injured others with your deeds or words? 

Don’t obsess over identifying every small thing that could possibly be considered a sin. Prayerfully reflect on major actions that could be considered sinful through the lens of the 10 Commandments. As you do this, remember God’s love and mercy for you.

When you’ve identified a time and place for your confession, and you’ve given some time to reflect on your sins, you’re ready to go to the confessional.

How to Confess as a Catholic

Time needed: 15 minutes

How to Go to Confession: A Step by Step Guide

  1. Enter the confessional and greet the priest.

    Begin by making the sign of the cross and say “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been [however many days/months/years] since my last confession.”

  2. List your sins.

    Mention venial (everyday) sins and mortal sins, which are more serious. Try to be thorough, but it’s OK if you don’t remember every single sin. It may be more of a conversation, as the priest may ask questions or comment. It doesn’t have to be a non-stop laundry list of sins. When you’re done, conclude by saying “I’m sorry for these and all my sins.”

  3. Listen to the priest.

    When you’re done confessing your sins, the priest may offer some guidance and suggest ways to avoid sins in the future. He’ll then give you a penance, which could be a form of prayer, a service or some work of mercy. Often, you’ll be able to complete your penance while still at church.

  4. Pray the Act of Contrition.

    This prayer is short and simple: My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against You whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with Your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In his name, my God, have mercy.

  5. Receive absolution from God, via the priest.

    The priest will say the following prayer to absolve you of your sins: God, the Father of mercies, through the death and the resurrection of His Son has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Make the sign of the cross and close with Amen. 

  6. Depart and fulfill your act of penance.

Deepen your prayer life and draw near to God by praying with Hallow.

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