How to Make a Good Confession
Confession, reconciliation, or penance are all common names for the sacrament instituted by Christ in which forgiveness of sins committed after baptism is granted through the absolution of the priest to the person who sorrowfully confesses his sins and promises to make satisfaction for them. Satisfaction means that the person will undertake actions in justice to make up for the consequences of the sins confessed. It is a sacrament because it is an outward sign — involves bodily actions — instituted by Christ to impart grace to the soul — of a spiritual reality.
There are two parts that make up each of the sacraments called matter and form. The matter is the bodily reality of the sacrament and the form is composed of the words and actions that proclaim the spiritual reality. The matter for confession is our personal sins auricularly offered to the priest — they must be said out loud ordinarily for the priest to hear. And the form is the words of absolution spoken by the priest over the person, “I absolve you of your sin.”
“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23) We have all experienced the inner war between doing what is right and wrong. The tension between the flesh, the world, the Devil and our desire to know, love, and serve God.
Since the Garden of Eden, man has suffered from an inclination to be overly attached to the things of this world — concupiscence. It makes sense than that the Greek root for sin is hamartia, an archery term meaning ‘missing the mark’. When we miss the mark our conscience lets us know that we have missed the mark, this is the voice of God speaking to us in our hearts. “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. (Rom 7:19)
The tradition of the Church teaches that there are two kinds of sin. Mortal sin ends the souls relationship with God (sanctifying grace) and merits eternal punishment in Hell — though we have insulted God he loves us no less at this point. Venial sin only damages the soul’s relationship with God and neighbor, though it should be avoided because it weakens us and makes mortal sin more appealing. For a mortal sin three conditions must be met.
- It must be a serious, grave matter against Divine or Natural Law
- There must be intent to commit the sin
- Consent must be given by the will to the act, you cannot accidentally commit nor be coerced to commit a mortal sin.
If a person’s conscience is rightly formed then he will feel guilt knowing that he has transgressed moral standards. This guilt — rightly ordered — causes sorrow for his sins causes him and gives rise to a desire to be forgiven by God, the Church refers to this as contrition. If the person is sorry for sin because of the love of God then it is considered perfect. If it is merely because he fears Hell, then it is considered imperfect. Either is sufficient for confession.
Jesus Christ came to earth to take on sin and reconcile us with the Father. Because he is so rich in mercy that he established a remedy for those who after baptism have delivered themselves to servitude to sin and the power of the devil (John 20:21-23). It is for sinners not for the righteous. He wishes to heal what sin has destroyed with His grace which gives us a share in the Trinity’s own inner life.
Before we approach confession we need to make a thorough examination of conscience. There are many examinations of conscience that can be found, but a good examination of conscience should include:
- The 10 Commandments (Ex 20:2-17; Dt 5:6-21; CCC 2052-2557)
- The Precepts of the Church (CCC 2041-2043)
- The Spiritual Works of Mercy (Mt 25:31-46, CCC 2447)
- The Corporal Works of Mercy (Tobit; CCC 2447)
- The Beatitudes (Mt 5:3-10)
- The Cardinal Virtues (CCC 1805-1811; Plato)
- The Theological Virtues (1 Cor 13:13; CCC 1812-1829)
- Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Lively Virtues (Gregory the Great; CCC 1805-1829 & 1866)
- The Sins That Cry Out to Heaven for Justice (CCC 1867)
This seems like a lot, but there are many guides that combine each of these in a compact manner for instance – there are also pocket editions. Once you become accustomed to thinking through an examination a card with a few important prompts might be sufficient, or you might even be able to just call it to mind. Obviously within the examination we must determine whether an action was grave and intentional. If there are mortal sins they must be mentioned according to number and kind. “I committed blasphemy 15 times.” While it is unnecessary to do this for venial sins, it is recommended for swift advancement in the spiritual life. The person may have a particular sin — already confessed — that is bothering them, while it ought not be confessed again, it is appropriate to acknowledge the penitent’s continued remorse and commitment to avoid this sin in the future. If there are doubts or concerns the priest is always happy to help. Confession is not the time to explain why I committed the sin, or the circumstances that led to the sin. The priest cares not about these things as he sits in the person of Christ. God knows the wither tos and why fors of your sins and the priest needs only to hear the sins and your contrition to then say the words of absolution in the person of Christ. It is Christ who forgives your sins.
When confession becomes a regular habit — i.e. monthly or bi-monthly — our vicious habits which rely on pleasure or escapism to deal with stress begin to break down. And we begin to form – psychologically and spiritually – a new ritual that evaluates our thoughts, feelings, desires, and actions according to our love of God and neighbor. The more often that we go to confession the easier it becomes to identify sin and to choose to avoid it, both spiritually and psychologically. Spiritually because we receive special grace to overcome the particular sins that we have confessed. Psychologically because we are increasing our awareness of our thoughts, feelings, desires, and actions and whether they are congruent or incongruent with our beliefs. All of these things help us experience bodily and spiritually that we are beloved children of God.
This Advent as you prepare your heart to receive our incarnate Lord, make a point to come to His sacrament of mercy. For the “bruised reed he will not break, and the dimly burning wick he will not quench” because “I, the LORD, have called you into justice, I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you, and set you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners form confinement, and for the dungeon, those who live in darkness.” (Isaiah 42)
 Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC]