How to Go to Confession

Q: I admit I have not been to confession in many years and am no longer sure I know how to properly avail myself of the sacrament. Would you please review how one should go to confession?

A person should always begin with a good examination of conscience. We need to hold up our lives to the pattern of life God has revealed for us to live. For instance, we take time to reflect on the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the precepts of the Church and the virtues of prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice.

The examination of conscience is like stepping back and looking at the picture of one’s life in comparison to the masterpiece of life revealed by God. Remember when we were children, we used to trace pictures. Tracing helped us learn to draw. We would take a piece of plain paper, hold it over the original picture and then put it up to the window. The light would enable us to trace the original picture onto our blank sheet of paper. Periodically, we had to stop and step back to see if our paper had slipped and was out of kilter with the original or if we had deviated from the lines.

In a similar way, as we live our lives, we are tracing them in accord with God’s pattern of life. In examining our consciences, we step back and honestly assess how well we fit God’s pattern and have stayed within His boundaries. At this time, we reflect on the progress we have made since our last confession in dealing with weaknesses, faults, temptations and past sins. Hopefully, we see improvement in our spiritual well-being.

However, when we have gone out of kilter or gone out of bounds with God’s masterpiece, we have sinned. We must distinguish the venial sins — those lighter sins which weaken our relationship with the Lord — from the mortal sins — those sins which sever our relationship with the Lord and “kill” the presence of sanctifying grace in our souls. Here we remember the words of Jesus, “Everyone who practices evil hates the light; he does not come near it for fear his deeds will be exposed. But he who acts in truth comes into the light, to make clear that his deeds are done in God” (Jn 3:20-21).

Given this examination of conscience, we have contrition for our sins. While we are sorry for sin because we do fear the fires of Hell and the loss of Heaven, and the just punishments of God, we are sorry most of all because our sins offend God whom we should love above all things. The love for God moves us to repent of sin and seek reconciliation.

All of the great saints regularly examined their consciences and made frequent use of the Sacrament of Penance. (Even our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, confessed his sins weekly, as did Mother Teresa.) One must ask, “Why? What sins did these saints possibly commit?” They loved the Lord so much that even the slightest omission or commission moves them to confession. They do not want even the slightest sin to separate them from the love of God. For love of God, we too are sorry for our sins.

Sorrow for sin moves us to have a firm amendment not to sin again. We probably will sin again, but we try not to do so. We do not plan on leaving the confessional and committing the same sins again.

We then confess our sins. When we enter the confessional in most churches, we have the option of remaining anonymous or facing the priest. Whichever option a person chooses, always remember that whatever is said during the confession is held in secret by the priest.

Remember also that we confess to the priest for three reasons: First, the priest has the authority of the Apostles by virtue of his ordination. On the night of the resurrection, Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound” (Jn 20:22-23). The priest is the minister of the sacrament acting in the person of Christ.

Second, he is a spiritual father. Just as we see a doctor for healing when we are physically sick, we see a priest when our souls are sick and need healing.

Third, the priest represents the Church and the people we have sinned against. In the early days of the Church, people publicly confessed sin at the beginning of Mass and were absolved. Much to our relief, for centuries now we have had private confession.

We proceed by making the sign of the Cross and saying, “Bless me father for I have sinned.” One could also simply begin, “In the name of the Father….” We should then state when we made our last confession: “It has been (so long) since my last confession.”

We then confess our sins. We must be specific. Sometimes people say, “I broke the sixth commandment,” which covers everything from a lustful thought to rape and adultery. We do not need to provide the full-blown story, just the basics to enable the priest to help. We need to give some quantification — missing Mass once is different from several times, which is different from all the time. When we are finished confessing our sins, we state, “I am sorry for these and all of my sins.” With this information, the priest may counsel us. He also assigns a penance for the healing of the hurt caused by sin and the strengthening of our souls against future temptation. He then asks us to say an act of contrition, which is generally the traditional prayer: “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee. I detest all of my sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all of my love. I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin. Amen.”

Finally, the priest imparts absolution. Ponder the beautiful words: “God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” This formula emphasizes our merciful Heavenly Father, the saving mystery of our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection, and the healing ministry of the Holy Spirit through the Church.

The priest then dismisses us, saying, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good,” to which we respond, “His mercy endures forever.” (Many priests may simply say, “May God bless you.”) We then leave the confessional to do the assigned penance.

The sacrament of penance is a beautiful sacrament through which we are reconciled to God, ourselves and our neighbors. Remember the words of St. Paul: “God is rich in mercy; because of His great love for us, He brought us to life with Christ when we were dead in sin” (Eph 2:4).

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Arlington Catholic Herald and is reprinted here with kind permission. 

Fr. William Saunders


Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders's work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

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  • waynergf

    I converted to Catholicism at middle age, and the more I learn about the Sacrament of Penance the more I wonder if my experience is the same as most others. For instance, I have never received any counseling except in one instance when I asked the priest for advice regarding a specific weakness of mine. The “counseling” I got was very generic and not very helpful.

    Do priests receive any training in how and what to counsel during Confession? Or are they expected to “pick it up as they go?”

  • Ray

    From my experience, some priests are better ‘gifted’ with counseling than others. However, it is often better to personally schedule a time with a priest for a thorough confession, instead of utilizing one of the times that are set by the parish. In this way, you have more time for a thorough confession and in return, spiritual guidance from the priest.
    Regular monthly confession with a spiritual director (priest), booked in advance will allow you to have more personal spiritual guidance as the priest gets to know your history of trying to grow in your faith. Just like a family doctor can be of more service to you, if they know your health history via regular visits.
    God bless,

  • Rose

    I have learned some important things in confession, for instance, that one should not use Sundays as shopping days. Society has changed so much and so many stores are open, it seems like the natural thing to do. But Sunday is the Lord’s Day and should be spent glorifying him with prayer, being with family, doing good works, etc. I am so grateful that a priest opened my eyes to this.

  • Michael

    I’d just ask anyone going to confession to be congnizant of the priest’s time that is allotted for confession. Most parishes only offer confession for limited time on Saturday’s. I’ve arrived and waited almost 45 minutes on many occassion because the previous penitent either had a lot of sins to confess or wanted an extended counseling session. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is not the proper forum for counseling. That is what spiritual direction is for. It’s understandable that the priest will offer a few words of council but the longer a priest’s time is manipulated it’s likely that others waiting for confession won’t be able to confess prior to the start of mass.

  • bruceinkansas

    ^^ Yes. For a general confession or one after an extended lapse, it is better to schedule an appointment. And Confession is not a spiritual advice session. Confession is more like an audit; spiritual advice is more like going to a financial planner.

  • jdumon

    I agree, but it is the priest’s job to direct the penitent to a particular appointment later when his confession is too long to the detriment of the other penitents queuing before the confessional box. Too many priests don’t care…

  • jdumon

    I have an impossible wish: I would like to be confessed by a saint priest the kind of Padre Pio or St John Mary Vianney who had the gift to read in their penitent’s mind in order to be enlightened on the true state of my soul.

  • Kathy

    Try to seek The Holy Spirit before confession it is one in the same councillor,sincerely pray for your self to be revealed and God will always reward your honesty and willing is a great grace to spend time in thought in prayer before you confess,it is a great part and beautiful grace.

  • bmp

    To make a good confession we have the natural gift of intelligence[God’s gift] the help of the Holy Spirit and the intercession of the saints.In the confessional it is Christ Himself who listens to our sins,which we confess after a through Examination, and it is Him who absolves us. It is the duty[grave] of the penitent to examine himself/herself to know the true state of ones soul making use of the above aids provided by God.

  • waynergf

    Thanks, Ray – that helps a lot. Although our church bulletin notes that you can schedule a specific time with a priest for Confession, I didn’t realize you could have a recurring time with the *same* priest. 🙂

  • Long Confession……………

    I appreciate your thoughts and opinions but must remind you that patience is a virtue.
    Having both waited (and missed confession due to long wait, one priest parish) and also having few in line and personally having a great deal to unload-only to have a person barge in and chastise the priest and myself)-remember that someone might be in great need.
    Perhaps your penance was waiting.

  • Guilty Shopper

    Yes, Sunday is the Lord’s day. I have been guilty of shopping and do try to plan ahead. I am not a good planner and my large family will often throw a cog in the wheel of my plans (dinner, etc).
    Moving ahead and trying not to shop in future……..

  • catholicexchange

    I had the same confessor that met with me bi-weekly to give spiritual direction and to hear my confession. It was immensely helpful! If can you can find one, as a fellow convert, I found it to be a good way to grow deeper in faith without having to run away to Athos.


  • Netmilsmom

    Patience is a virtue but Confession is a Sacrament. When one goes week after week, only to miss for months, patience has nothing to do with it.
    Be kind to your fellow Catholics. If you need an hour to confess, make an appointment with your Priest. Anyone can get in and find emotion takes over or a problem is bigger than we thought, but if you know that ahead of time, be considerate.

  • inspokane

    I think the greatest grace after the True belief in the presence and receiving worthily and decreeing the Eucharist. Is the great Mercy of Confession. Of course all the Sacraments are important in there own way and not own is without its place. There is a Perfect 7 sacraments. Of Course! Now my own Agenda!!!! –Warning is so close now. St. Faustina. See the Prophecies of Garabandal Fatima, (not complete) Garabandal, (not complete), Medjugorje, (not complete) BUT ALL CONNECTED! TETTRAD STARTS IN 2014-2014. If you know not of these things. It begins now! God intercedes the world in a big way every 2000 years. Not Rapture…he always leaves a small remnant. He gets rid of the wicked. That is in your face biblical!! Have a nice day! God bless. jer

  • Art

    Seek out Father Bing Arellano of the Oblate Apostles of the Two Hearts or one of their priest monks Father John Santos. Both priests I have heard, and there are others in their order have the gift of discernment.

  • striver

    Dear Fr Saunders,
    This piece is so well written that it inspired me to endeavour to attend confession weekly rather than just 2-3 monthly. I felt so uplifted by your words that it enabled me to see confession as not a scary thing but as a wonderful sacrament of God’s love and forgiveness.
    Many thanks,

  • Michael J. Lichens

    Thanks for commenting. Comments like this remind us why we do what we do at CE.

    God bless you in your weekend and coming week.


  • sinner

    What does one do when struggling with a particular habitual sin? I know I will commit this again. It feels so hypocritical to sin on Friday, confess on Saturday, take the Eucharist on Sunday, knowing I’m just going to fall again on Monday. Should I avoid the confessional until I have a better ability to resist temptation?

  • Megalon

    I am old enough to remember when the major stores were closed on Sundays. But corporate greed got the best of religion. Even today I do no servile work on Sunday nor do I cause anyone else to do servile work. I go to Mass on Sunday and then go home. I do spend extra time in prayer.

  • lee luna

    as long as you try to not pick up new sins,just keep trying and let the sacraments give you strength.

  • catholicexchange

    I recommend talking to your priest about it as they can give you more personal insight in relation to you and your struggles.

    We all have a sin we have to fight against, and boy is the spirit willing but the flesh weak. St. Augustine humorously noted how much he wanted to get away from sexual sins but seemed to say, “Make me chaste Lord, but not yet!”

    I myself have sins where I have to start out by telling the priest, “This is a repeat and habitual sin of mine.”

    Again, speak with a priest, but if it’s any help I have been assured that Christ wants us to make the effort and our sorrow for our sins is important. You sound sincere and like a person who wants to live a virtuous life but struggle, like we all do.

    I pray that you feel the graces and true feeling of deliverance.

    Michael the Editor.

  • barbara

    I advise you to say a holy rosary and it will help you to rid of your bad habits. have a trust on this rosary. You will get 15 promises from Our Lady of The holy Rosary.