Confession of sins is a big deal in the Catholic Church. In this article we want to ask: what is Catholic confession?
Catholic Confession is Glorious Release
Confession is not intended to be a hinderance, but a tremendous help and healing opportunity.
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
All of us sin and mess up, whether from time to time or constantly.
In the case of certain things we do, however, they are particularly troubling to others and to ourselves.
We might even feel a strong sense of personal guilt and regret at some of the things we’ve done, perhaps one thing especially that torments us often.
It is for this kind of existential experience of remorse that Confession has primarily been ordained.
It is incredibly natural for a human being who feels guilty about what they’ve done to want to ‘get it off their chest’. In some Hollywood movies, we even see characters confessing to the worst of things, because that is what they feel they must do.
The holy sacrament of Confession works in the same way. It is a glorious gift given to us by God to enable a human being to really ‘get something off their chest’ that they feel bad about.
Because of this, this sacrament offers us glorious release. God doesn’t want any human being to feel guilty permanently. Guilt is immensely destructive when it resides on the human soul for too long.
A strong sense of guilt and personal culpability is good to get us to not do a particular wrong again. It is also good at driving us to God’s mercy. But when it sits upon the soul and never comes out, it will eat away at life and make life a misery.
This is no joke. Many people feel like this because of the bad things they have done. Many of them carry such a burden for decades without finding any significant healing.
David says in the Psalms: ‘My bones waxed old day after day, until I confessed my sins to you, O God.’ (Psaml 32). David kept his crimes to himself without telling anyone. As a result, he destroyed his physical body.
The mind and body are so interconnected that if we carry something like this in our minds for many years, the body could also suffer seriously. David only found relief and healing when he confessed what he had done to God.
Ultimately, Confession is a mystery. We don’t know why we have this need to ‘come clean’ before Christ, but as human beings with consciences it is evident that we do need to confess at times.
The Doctor and the Surgeon
A good way to think of Confession is by thinking about the difference between a Doctor in a GPs office, and a Surgeon.
This is like prayer, charitable giving or even the Eucharist. Prayer and charity help us to rekindle in our hearts a sense of love for God and others. They bring about the forgiveness of sins.
The Eucharist is ‘medicine for the soul’. It heals us of all our venial (relatively non-serious) sins.
All of this is like visiting the doctor.
However, if we are in serious trouble, we may require an operation. This is where the Surgeon comes in. A desperate situation calls for a desperate solution.
This is the Sacrament of Confession. Confession is primarily to bring forgiveness and relief to those who are guilty of what the Church calls mortal sin.
Mortal sin is sin which has destroyed charity in the soul. In other words, it is a sin which has completely ruined someone’s relationship with God, with the Church and with humanity in general.
It is something very serious: something like murdering someone, or destroying someone’s reputation, or adultery, lying in court under oath, or blasphemy, or any number of very serious things. Examining the Ten Commandments will tell us what these very serious sins are.
The human conscience is so sensitive to really bad things that when a person freely and willingly does something that is very wrong, the conscience will accuse them.
It is deeply sad that some people resort to alcohol or drug addiction, or other kinds of addictions or ‘releases’ to try to cloak this sense of guilt. Such addictions are highly destructive to the individual, those who love them, and wider society. (Of course, people turn to these addictions for any number of reasons, but guilt can certainly be one of them in some cases.)
Take the obvious example of the murderer. No-one needs to tell him/her that they have done something absolutely deplorable. They know it. They feel it. They may have nightmares because of it. Their conscience accuses them day and night. They’d do anything to take it back.
I like documentaries about prisoners and prisons. One prisoner when he was much younger had committed the terrible crime of murdering two elderly ladies to steal from them. When asked many years later if he regretted it, he said, ‘It’s around my neck everyday like an iron chain.’ That is what the Catholic Church calls a guilty conscience. That prisoner needs Confession.
Likewise, there was one prisoner who had killed her baby by shaking it to death. She later said, ‘I’m a baby-killer. It’s not nice, but that’s what I am.’ She still identified herself as this. This prisoner needs Confession.
We all need the surgery of Confession at times. Even for those of us who aren’t Catholic, we recognise the need to come clean to someone we can trust or someone we love. We can’t explain it, but we can’t get relief unless we do this.
So How Does Confession Work?
Confession only works if the person coming for Confession has remorse. We must feel sorry for what we’ve done. We must be determined to try to not do it again.
It doesn’t matter if we mainly fear getting caught or if we mainly fear consequences. Confession will use even this imperfect remorse to still bring us total forgiveness from God.
Confession is only for Christians who have been baptised. If someone hasn’t been baptised, they don’t need Confession, but Baptism.
When a person is baptised, all of their sins are forgiven instantly without any need for Confession. They are still free to Confess their sins after baptism if they want to, but this isn’t necessary because those sins are all completely forgiven.
It is a very good idea to pray to the Holy Spirit before approaching Confession, so that the Spirit can prepare the heart and mind.
An examination of conscience is greatly recommended for those who aren’t approaching Confession with any obvious sin weighing heavily on their soul. You can use the Ten Commandments for this, to examine where you may have fallen short.
The individual approaches Confession with a Catholic Bishop or priest. The person tells the bishop/priest what is bothering them, what they believe needs to be said to God in the person of the bishop/priest.
To ensure adequate humility before God, it is absolutely necessary that if the individual is aware of any unconfessed mortal sin, they get this off their chest and come clean before God.
Frankly, it is a good idea to always confess any sin that comes to mind that you know you have never confessed. This avoids the temptation after Confession to wonder, ‘Was such and such a mortal or venial sin? Should I have confessed it?’ etc.
Hiding one’s mortal sins from God is a very serious matter because it is pride in refusing God’s mercy. We must have the humility to reveal to ourselves and God that we have messed up and that we own this and are asking for mercy.
A good formula to use at the end of the Confession is: ‘For these sins that I own and remember, and for those that I cannot remember, I beseech God for mercy through priestly absolution.’ This takes care of everything we can’t remember, even if it happens to be something incredibly serious.
The priest then gives the person some spiritual advice and a penance.
The priest then says those wonderful words: ‘I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’
The person should then fulfil the penance in their own time.
And that’s it! It’s honestly as simple as that. It need not be complicated and the simpler one approaches it, the better.
So in order:
- Examine your conscience prayfully
- Approach Confession with a priest
- Confess your sins, especially those which bother you (i.e., mortal sins), but ideally all your sins that come to mind, even relatively non-serious ones. Just verbalise, in your own words, what is on your mind. God knows anyway, and the priest isn’t going to judge you or ‘think bad of you’ in anyway. The priest will actually be thrilled that you’ve come clean before God and want to get right with God.
- Listen to the priest’s spiritual help, and his penance.
- Receive priestly absolution with gratitude.
- Leave the Confessional and do your penance.
- All done, all sins forgiven, no matter how terrible.
- Now try and be a better person by God’s grace, and try to not commit those sins again.
What if I don’t remember all my sins?
This doesn’t matter. Say what comes to mind and leave the rest to God’s mercy.
If you only confess what comes to mind, and forget to confess something very serious, God forgives everything, including the really serious thing that was forgotten. This is because the person did not intentionally hide this from God, and so there was no pride. A lapse in memory is no blockage at all to God’s love.
It is an obligation for us to try to remember to confess such a very serious sin next time in Confession, but the fact is that it has already been completely forgiven. You don’t need to abstain from the Eucharist, and you don’t need to rush to Confession. You just go to Confession in the natural course of things, perhaps in a years time, or a few months. And then again, you may forget to confess it again!
Remember that God’s mercy triumphs over all!
How often should we go to Confession?
The Church commands us to only go once a year. We are free to go as often as we please, and even to go only once a year if we feel this is best in our case. Some Catholics go weekly, or monthly. Whatever you feel works for you.
It is an urgent matter to go to Confession every time you become aware of having done something since your last Confession (or since your Baptism) that is very wrong and that is sitting (very?) uncomfortably on your conscience. Do not receive the Eucharist if this is you, but get to Confession as soon as possible.
After Confession, you can receive the Eucharist again.
So Confession is a beautiful Sacrament. It’s a most wonderful channel of God’s grace, and we really should make more of it in our lives.
We should not fear it and stay away from it. We should embrace it and go to Confession to meet with Jesus our merciful Lord who stands waiting for us in the Confessional.
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch by email or in the comments section and I will get back to you as soon as I can.
Also, check out our other post on Confession: ‘A Catholic Guide to Confession‘.