Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 7, 2003
How to go to Confession (I)
Admitting one's sins can be difficult
By ARCHBISHOP THOMAS COLLINS
As with all sacraments, the spiritually fruitful celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation depends upon the active engagement of the recipient. Each day we should ask God's forgiveness for our sins, and for the grace to be more faithful disciples. When we approach the sacrament itself, we should spend extended time in prayer, and engage in an honest examination of conscience, rooted in trust in the mercy of God.
There are some practical matters to consider. Because confessing sins can be difficult, some people find it easier when they are anonymous. Others find it valuable to face the priest openly, especially if they wish to discuss their spiritual life with him more fully. Whenever the sacrament is celebrated, there should be the possibility of either option. The decision is up to the penitent.
We are free to choose any priest, although obviously the limited number of priests in any area may restrict the choice. That is why people often appreciate penance celebrations, when several priests are available.
From the perspective of the sacrament, it does not really matter who the confessor is, since he is simply the human instrument for the action of Christ the Priest.
But a penitent may wish to seek out a particular priest who, by experience, is found to be able to offer valuable spiritual guidance. For the same reason, some find it helpful to choose a regular confessor, who can over time become more and more familiar with the struggles of the penitent, and become a spiritual guide. At this point, the sacrament of Reconciliation and spiritual direction begin to merge.
The penitent begins with the words: "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." That is a good opening indeed, acknowledging personal responsibility for sin, something so often evaded in our society. Often the penitent will immediately continue with the confession of sins, but it is good to give time for the priest to actually respond to the opening request for a blessing and prayer. I often say: "May the Lord bless you and help you to make a good confession."
The rite of Penance allows for the reading of a brief Scripture passage relating to repentance. This, of course, is always part of a communal penance celebration. In practice, it is rarely done in the individual celebration of the sacrament, but it is a good idea.
The penitent then says roughly how long it has been since the last confession. Penitents who have been away from the sacrament might feel embarrassed to admit how long it has been, but they need not fear. It is always a great joy when someone comes to Reconciliation, no matter how long it has been.
Knowing the length of time since the last confession does help the confessor to give more helpful spiritual advice, and it establishes the necessary context for the sins. Our life is too big to handle all at once. We should break it up into sections, by regularly celebrating the sacrament, and entrusting the past to God, while we enter into the next portion of life's journey refreshed by his gracious mercy.
The penitent then begins to confess. There is no rigid procedure for this. The idea is to confess any serious sin, and any others as well, and to do so in a way that indicates the true spiritual state of the penitent. The confession is an articulation of the examination of conscience, and the more honest it is, the better.
God already knows the sins, and does not need the confession. But the priest can spiritually assist the penitent if the confession is full and candid, and he needs to have a clear sense of the sins in order to exercise his office. As the representative of Jesus, the confessor to some extent fulfils the role of judge, but mostly of healer, and in both of those roles it is important for him to have an accurate sense of the spiritual state of the penitent. The main beneficiary of a thorough and insightful confession, however, is the penitent.
It is good to use some kind of framework, such as the Seven Deadly Sins (pride, anger, envy, greed, laziness, lust, gluttony), or the Beatitudes, or the Ten Commandments. This allows for a broad sense of spiritual reality. These frameworks outline, either negatively or positively, the roots of the Christian life, the basic moral themes.
But our life is made up of particular actions, which might be considered to be the branches and twigs of life. For a confession to be fruitful, it is good to be attentive to both roots and branches.
So, for example, taking the first and deadliest sin, a penitent might say something like this: "In the last several weeks I have had a real struggle with pride, which has always been a problem for me. This has shown itself in the fact that I have lied three or four times a week, because I am too proud to admit that I am wrong, and so lie to cover up." The more full and honest we make our confessions, the more we can be receptive to the life-giving grace of this wonderful sacrament.
The more full and honest we make our confessions, the more we can be receptive to the life-giving grace of this wonderful sacrament.
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