Ask Mary: Going to Confession, but…

Question:

I have a confession: I’ve never confessed. I’ve never received the sacrament of reconciliation. I was baptized and confirmed at the age of 19. It was almost two Easters ago but I’ve never gotten up the nerve to go. I couldn’t confess during RCIA because I hadn’t been baptized and now I guess I just don’t know how. And beyond not knowing how, I also don’t know what to confess. I have 21 years of sins and I’m not sure which to tell.

I don’t know how to go about doing it now and I’m a little scared to confess that I’ve never confessed. What should I do? I want to receive the sacrament. I guess I just need help finding the correct way to do it.

 

Answer:

Thanks for the question!

First of all, some good news: you actually only have two years of sins to confess!  Baptism cleanses you from all your past sins, no matter how grievous or how many they number.  So when you do finally go to confession, you don’t actually have to confess every one of your sins since you were born, but only those that you have committed since you were born again in Christ in baptism.  :)

That being said, here are some practical guidelines for going to confession:

Step 1: Get to confession early.  Check the local Catholic Churches’ websites, bulletins, or call the office during the week to find out when they offer confession.  Either choose to go during regularly scheduled confession, or schedule an appointment (even feel free to tell them that you are making your first reconciliation). Depending on the parish, a line may begin to form outside the confessional anywhere between 10-20 minutes before confession actually is scheduled to begin.  Get there early not only to secure your place in line, but to spend some time in prayer and examining your conscience.

Step 2: Examine your conscience.  In your case, you may want to start this process a day or two before.  I recommend writing your sins down (privately of course) so you know that you won’t forget anything (you certainly don’t have to do this, I just personally find that it often helps me.  I can focus on confessing myself well and feeling sorrow for my sins without stressing that I will forget to say something).  Obviously after confession you can tear the list up, burn it, whatever.

What should you be looking for when you examine your conscience?  Sins.  Anything you have intentionally done, or intentionally did not do, that has hurt your relationship with God.  There are many guides for examining your conscience.  Here is an example of one.  The bottom line?  You may not remember each instance you have hurt God since your coming into the Church. But you likely have a few or several that pop into your mind the moment the topic of confession is brought up.  Yes, those need to be confessed.

This is important: You have to confess all of your mortal sins during confession.  If you willfully leave any sins out of your confession, none of your sins from that confession are forgiven, and you have committed a mortal sin by choosing to withhold a sin in confession.  Don’t worry about taking too long, and do not be too embarrassed to confess a sin.  Trust me.  The priest has heard it all (And I guarantee you that you are not the first person who unfortunately waited a couple of years—or more—to go to confession after being baptized).

Step 3:  Go into the confessional.  Depending on the parish, there may be a screen with a kneeler in front of it for you to use as you make your confession, or there may just simply be a chair in front of the priest so that you can make your confession face-to-face.  In many parishes, they have both and you can choose.  It’s entirely personal preference; so choose whichever way you would be most comfortable if you are given the option.

Step 4: Begin your confession.  I like to begin mine the old-fashioned way: “Bless me Father, for I have sinned.  It has been _____ (amount of time) since my last confession.  [insert list of sins here]”  In your case, I would just say, “I’ve actually never been to confession,” or, “I was baptized two years ago and this is my first confession.”  Something to that effect.  Most likely, the priest will help you through it, and don’t be afraid to admit that you’re nervous, or unsure of what to do next.  This is his job.  He will help you.  He wants to help you.

A couple small tips: This is where that list comes in handy.  Make sure you confess your sins in content as well as number (i.e. “I lied 3 times”).  Don’t get too stressed out about the number if you can’t remember.  Even admit that you can’t remember.  “Too many times to count,” or, “a lot” or even, “a handful of times” are acceptable.  What you never want to do is try to make your sins sound like less of a big deal than they are.  This is the sacrament of reconciling ourselves with God.  We need to be genuine; we need to be humble.

Step 5: Conclude your confession.  A few years ago I learned this handy little phrase: “And for these and all my sins I am sorry.”  Bam. A magical way of saying, “yes Father, those were all of my sins.  That was the end of my list.  Now feel free to give me my Penance.”  Before that, my confessions were full of awkward silences, waiting for the priest to ask me, “is that all?” and the old standby, “um…that’s it, Father.”  Not anymore.  A solid, clean way to conclude my confession.  Wonderful.

After you’re done with your “list,” the priest may say a few words or even ask a few questions.  Don’t freak out.  He’s doing this to help you and to try and give you some advice and guidance as a means to avoid those sins in the future.  So listen up.  After that, he will give you some sort of penance, usually a few prayers or some act of service.  It can be anything, really.  Another important thing: be clear on what the priest tells you to do for your penance.  Repeat it back to him, just so you are sure.  If it is something that you feel that you cannot do for whatever reason, then ask the priest for a lighter penance.  (I’ve never had to do this; I have just heard a few priests mention it as an option so I’m passing it onto you).  The reason why this is important is because penance is an important part of our reconciliation.  It is a sin in itself to fail to do our penance.

Step 6: Make your Act of Contrition.  In all honesty, I carried my printed-out version of the Act of Contrition into the confessional with me until I was about 18 years old.  I liked being able to read it, and I felt I prayed it more sincerely when it was in front of me.  This is fine.  Print out an act of contrition to bring into the confessional with you if you want to.  However, it is not even totally necessary to recite the entire “O My God, I am heartily sorry…” Act of Contrition prayer that we often think of in order to make a good confession.  An act of contrition is simply meant to be what it sounds like: some act that shows your contrition (sorrow) for offending God.  A perfectly valid and acceptable act of contrition could be just to simply say, “Jesus, I am sorry for hurting you, and I will try my hardest not to do it again.”  But of course, the other one is beautiful, too.  :)

O, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you. I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all because they offend you, my God, who are all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin

Step 7: Receive Absolution.  The priest may give you absolution as you are reciting your Act of Contrition, but regardless, this is the point where your sins are forgiven.  Here is what the priest will say (or some variation of it.  The simplest form is “I absolve you”. Oh, and he may be saying it quietly… and/or in Latin):

God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of your son, you have reconciled the world to yourself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the church, may God grant you pardon and peace. And I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This Sacrament is one of the greatest gifts that God has given to the Church, and we would be wise, and so much better off, to frequent it as often as possible.  Happy confessing!

PS – I also really like these 20 quick tips for Making a Good Confession — from a priest!