How To Make A Good Confession
by Monsignor Charles M. Mangan
One periodically hears Catholics discuss the decline in use of the Sacrament of Penance among the faithful since the 1960s. This claim is difficult to dispute. Nevertheless, Pope John Paul II has recently referred to a welcome upsurge in the number of confessions during the last several years. This is good news and bodes well for the future.
The wisdom of the Church throughout the centuries has offered various tried-and-true ways to help Catholics in making a sincere Confession. There are some excellent guides available which assist the penitent in this important task. The following suggestions--which are by no means exhaustive--are based in part on a superb resource (which may be purchased inexpensively in bulk quantities) entitled "A Primer for Confession with an Examination of Conscience" (Faith Guild, Saint Martin de Porres Lay Dominican Community, New Hope, Kentucky, 40052), written by Father Frederick L. Miller, S.T.D., Spiritual Director at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
A "good" Confession means a worthy Confession, that is, the penitent tells the unconfessed mortal sins that he has committed in both kind and number. The Church infallibly teaches that the penitent need confess only mortal sins (that is, gravely wrong desires, thoughts, words and actions performed with sufficient reflection and full consent of the will) in the context of the Sacrament; however, she earnestly recommends that venial sins, also, be confessed because such acknowledgment leads to self-knowledge of one's own weakness, humility in "owning-up" to what one has done wrong, and an increase in sanctifying grace. A "Devotional Confession" is the confession of venial sins which, as Father Miller notes, is "a means of growing perfect in the love of God and neighbor."
The Scriptural basis for this Sacrament is clear. On the evening of Easter Sunday, the Risen Lord Jesus appeared to His fearful Apostles "and gave them the power to forgive sins." The Master exclaimed: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive men's sins, they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound." (Saint John 20: 22-23)
The Sacrament of Penance has three "parts" regarding the penitent (the one confessing) and one "part" concerning the confessor (the priest who possesses the faculty to hear Confession and grant Absolution). For the penitent, there is contrition (sorrow), confession (telling of sins), and satisfaction (performance of penance), while for the confessor there is the imparting of Absolution (the actual forgiveness).
How does one actually confess? It is vital that the penitent prepare well before approaching the Sacrament. Such preparation consists in begging the Most Blessed Trinity for wisdom and insight. A thorough examination of conscience cannot be overestimated. Often, the Ten Commandments, the Precepts of the Church, the Beatitudes or the Theological and Cardinal Virtues prove to be a helpful foundation by which to reflect on how one is following Christ and obeying His life-giving mandates.
Under usual conditions, the penitent enters the confessional and kneels behind a curtain or screen so as to conceal his identity. (Some confessionals today also offer the opportunity for "face-to-face" Confession.) After beginning with the Sign of the Cross, the confessor may share a passage from Sacred Scripture. Then, the penitent uses the familiar formula, "Bless/Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been __weeks/months/years since my last Confession."
Next, the penitent honestly names the sins of which he is guilty. He may conclude the recital of his sins by asserting, "I am sorry for these and for all the sins of my past life." The confessor gives some valuable counsel to the penitent, encouraging him to put his trust in God and seek true Christian holiness. The confessor also assigns a penance which is to help repair the injustice which the penitent has caused by his sins.
The penitent then recites the Act of Contrition, expressing his sorrow for his sins, his genuine desire to perform the penance he was just given and his intent to avoid all the unnecessary and near occasions of sin (those persons, place, things and events) which lead to disobeying God's unchanging law. The priest prays the prayer of Absolution which contains these essential words for the conveying of sacramental forgiveness. "I absolve you from your sins, in the Name of the Father (+), and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." The penitent leaves the confessional and performs his penance as soon as possible.
We can maintain with absolute certainty that one who is really sorry for his sins, tells them honestly, plans to avoid sin in the future, intends to do his assigned penance and receives valid sacramental absolution from a duly authorized Catholic priest is truly forgiven of his sins. Such a realization is in itself a grace from the hand of the Lord Jesus Himself.
Father Miller provides us with a fine summary of the benefits of this Sacrament that has been hailed as "the maker of Saints." He writes: "If you make good use and frequent use of this Sacrament, you will have peace of heart, purity of conscience and a deep union with Christ in His love for His Father and for all men and women. The grace of the Sacrament will cause you to become like Jesus, our Lord, in all you say and do! It will make you a stronger and more committed member of His Church!"
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, full of compassion and love, have mercy for us!
Immaculate Heart of Mary, Mother of the Church, pray for us!
Saint Joseph, Foster-father of the Christ, pray for us!
Twelve Apostles, intimate and true friends of the Messiah, pray for us!
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Sacrament of Penance
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