Many people have questions about the Sacrament of Penance. This booklet has been prepared in order to try to respond to the most common of
them. It does not deal with questions about the actual structure of the Sacrament of Penance, which you can find here:
How to make a good Confession.
It is our hope that those who have questions about the Sacrament of Penance may find this page useful in helping to overcome whatever hesitations they may have in coming to receive the sacrament. If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact your parish priest, or email .
That’s the way Jesus set it up on Easter Sunday evening. He told his apostles that just as God the Father had sent him — and God the Father sent him to save us from our sins — so he was sending them.
He breathed on them the power of the Holy Spirit, giving them God’s power to forgive sins, since no one can forgive sins but God alone. He told them that whatever sins they forgive are forgiven and whatever sins they retain are retained (Jn 20:21-23; Mk 2:7).
Since the apostles were unable to read minds, the only way that they would know which to forgive and which to retain is if people told them their sins. Jesus thus established the essential structure of the sacrament of confession. Just as he uses priests to give us his Body and Blood at Mass so he uses them to give us His mercy in Penance.
See also: Video: "Why confess to a priest" by Father Robert Barron
The Catechism teaches:
“Over the centuries the concrete form in which the Church has exercised this power received from the Lord has varied considerably.
During the first centuries the reconciliation of Christians who had committed particularly grave sins after their Baptism (for example, idolatry, murder, or adultery) was tied to a very rigorous discipline, according to which penitents had to do public penance for their sins, often for years, before receiving reconciliation. To this ‘order of penitents’ (which concerned only certain grave sins), one was only rarely admitted and in certain regions only once in a lifetime.
During the seventh century Irish missionaries, inspired by the Eastern monastic tradition, took to continental Europe the ‘private’ practice of penance, which does not require public and prolonged completion of penitential works before reconciliation with the Church. From that time on, the sacrament has been performed in secret between penitent and priest.
This new practice envisioned the possibility of repetition and so opened the way to a regular frequenting of this sacrament. It allowed the forgiveness of grave sins and venial sins to be integrated into one sacramental celebration. In its main lines this is the form of penance that the Church has practiced down to our day” (CCC 1447).
The names emphasize different aspects of the sacrament.
Penance refers to our repentance, sorrow and resolution to amend our life with God’s help.
Confession refers to the act by which we tell our sins to the priest.
Reconciliation refers to the goal of the celebration by which the sinner is reconciled to God and the Church (see CCC 1423-1424).
The ritual for the sacrament is called the Rite of Penance, but is fitting to refer to it with any of these titles. In fact, the Catechism refers to it also as “the Sacrament of Conversion” and the “Sacrament of Forgiveness.”
The sacrament consists of three actions on the part of the penitent:
One does so by asking for God’s help and prayerfully examining one’s actions in the light of Christ’s teaching and example.
Some review their behavior by the Ten Commandments, others by Christ’s command to love God and love others, others by their correspondence to the beatitudes, others by comparing their behavior to the most important Christian virtues, and others by the seven “capital” sins (pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, lust and gluttony).
It is not enough merely to focus on how one’s broken God’s “rules,” but rather how one has damaged his relationship with God and others and hurt himself interiorly. It is also important to examine for sins of omission.
There are two types of contrition: sorrow over hurting one we love (called perfect contrition) and sorrow over getting caught or over the punishment that comes because of sin (imperfect contrition).
We should ask God to help us achieve that perfect contrition in which we are sorry for having wounded the God who loves us and whom we should love in return.
Meditation on the consequence of ours sins — Christ’s brutal death on the Cross — often helps us to grow toward perfect contrition.
When we are truly sorry for our sins, we regret having ever done them. That leads naturally to our trying to remedy the damage caused by sin and to having a firm purpose of amendment to avoid that and other types of sins in the future.
The priest normally assigns us a penance (for example, prayer, fasting or other types of self-denial, sacrifices, almsgiving, spiritual or corporal works of mercy, or service of neighbor) as medicine to begin to repair the damage caused by sin, but this penance is light in comparison to the infinite harm our sins have done in bringing about Christ’s death.
So we should voluntarily do penance to seek, with God’s help, to expiate our sins and repair that damage (CCC 1460).
A good confession is humble, sincere and complete.
Sin is an offense against God that ruptures our communion with Him and with His Church (CCC 1440). It is far more than “breaking the rules,” but is a failure to love God and to love others, which causes real damage in all our relationships.
There are sins totally incompatible with love for God and others (mortal sins, in which genuine love is “dead”), and ones in which love is less grievously wounded (venial or “easily forgiven”).
The Church says that all grave or mortal sins must be confessed as soon as possible (CIC 988).
A mortal sin involves an action whose object is a grave matter that is committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent. Grave matter is generally understood to be something that violates the Ten Commandments.
A mortal sin “results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back” (CCC 1861).
This is why it is so important for mortal sins to be confessed to a priest as soon as possible.
“One commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave manner, but without full knowledge or without complete consent.
Venial sin weakens charity; it manifests a disordered affection for created goods; it impedes the soul's progress in the exercise of the virtues and the practice of the moral good; it merits temporal punishment.
Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin.
However venial sin does not set us in direct opposition to the will and friendship of God; it does not break the covenant with God. With God's grace it is humanly reparable” (CCC 1862-1863).
That’s what the Church continues through preaching the need for repentance and making Jesus’ mercy available through the Sacrament of Penance.
The Church strongly recommends that we confess our every day faults (venial sins) because it can help us “to form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies (patterns of weakness that can lead us to sin), … be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit. (CCC 1458; CIC 988).
Confession of our venial sins shows our hatred of all sin because even venial sins are against the love of God and neighbor.
Yes. We should not stay away from confession if we’ve committed only venial sins, since the sacrament not only forgives our sins but gives us God’s grace to fight against temptation.
The great saints, who were filled with love of God and seem for the most part to have avoided mortal sins, have confessed very frequently, because the sacrament helps us to grow in God’s grace.
It reveals to us our need for God’s help in the “little things” of the day and leads us to ask for that help.
No, you should stay at home and wait for your canonization papers to arrive! Seriously, if it’s been several weeks since your last confession, you have probably not examined your conscience very carefully. “The just man,” the Book of Proverbs tells us, “falls seven times a day” (Prov 24:16).
If you’re struggling to find matter to confess, examine your conscience on your sins of omission, on the seven capital sins or on whether you in fact love the Lord with your whole heart, mind, soul and strength (Lk 10:27).
Yes. If one through bad memory or nervousness forgets to confess a mortal sin, the person’s confession is valid and all his or her sins will be forgiven.
The person should, however, mention that forgotten sin in the next confession to receive advice and a proper penance. If this is a routine occurrence, it is probably an indication that one is either confessing too infrequently or not fully aware of the true horror that is a mortal sin, because one should not forget mortal sins easily.
If, on the other hand, a penitent deliberately refuses to mention a mortal sin in confession, none of the person’s sins will be forgiven, the person will remain in the dangerous state of mortal sin, and will be guilty of the additional sin of sacrilege.
The Church recommends that Catholics receive the Sacrament of Penance frequently.
Strictly speaking, after they’ve reached the age of reason, Catholics are obliged to confess their serious sins at least once a year (CIC 989), but the minimum should not be made a maximum.
Catholics should come to confession as soon as possible after they’ve committed a mortal sin. If they’re seeking to grow in holiness, the regular practice of confession at least once a month is commended.
The Sacrament of Penance is a spiritual resurrection bringing us to life again after we were dead through mortal sin (Lk 15:24).
It reconciles us with God in loving friendship and restores us to his grace. It is normally followed by peace, joy, serenity and spiritual consolation.
The sacrament also reconciles us with the Church, repairing or restoring the damage our sins have done to our communion with others.
The sinner also auspiciously anticipates the judgment that will come at the end of his life, choosing the path of life over the path of death (CCC 1468-1470).
No. A priest can never reveal the sins a person has confessed. This is known as the “Seal of confession,” which admits of no exceptions (CCC 1467). If a priest were to violate the seal of confession he would be automatically excommunicated (CIC 1388).
Over the centuries several priests have died and many have been imprisoned because they refused, even under threat of torture and execution, to break the inviolable seal of confession.
This is one of the most beautiful aspects of the sacrament and of the priesthood: the priest who hears our confession, in order to protect the secrets we have whispered to God through him, will allow himself to be imprisoned, tortured or even killed. That’s how seriously he and the Church take the seal and the sacrament.
“When he celebrates the sacrament of Penance, the priest is fulfilling the ministry of the Good Shepherd who seeks the lost sheep, of the Good Samaritan who binds up wounds, of the Father who awaits the prodigal son and welcomes him on his return, and of the just and impartial judge whose judgment is both just and merciful."
"The priest is the sign and the instrument of God's merciful love for the sinner.”
The priest is called, practically, to lead “the penitent with patience toward healing and full maturity. He must pray and do penance for his penitent, entrusting him to the Lord's mercy” (CCC 1465-66).
Remember, first, that in the sacrament you are fundamentally talking to God through the priest.
God loves you, wishes to forgive you, and desires to embrace you with the joy with which the prodigal son was embraced in Jesus’ parable (Lk 15:11-32). Moreover, know that you will not say anything that the priest has not heard before. Do not be afraid. If you are nervous, please just tell the priest that you’re nervous and he will help you.
Confession is not meant to be a memory test (Thanks be to God!). It is good when Catholics have memorized one of the many beautiful acts of contrition, which sum up all of the sentiments and resolutions a Catholic should have in coming to confession.
But if you do not know an Act of Contrition by memory, you can always express your sorrow and firm purpose of amendment in your own words, ask the priest to help you, or pray, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner who loves you!”
You can also print out a copy of an Act of Contrition and bring it with you.
If you prefer to go to confession anonymously, that’s fine. Most churches have traditional confessionals or reconciliation rooms with the option to confess either face-to-face or kneeling behind an opaque screen.
In Church law, both the priest and the penitent have the right to opt for the screen if for whatever reason they find that more comfortable.
The most important thing is that you go! You can go to any Catholic priest in good standing with the faculties to hear confessions.
You may find over time, however, that you will be helped more in your struggle against sin by a good confessor who has gotten to know you than by confessing to various priests, none of whom really know you.
You can confess your sins in any number of ways — many have confessed to bartenders and hairdressers over the centuries — but while there are now apps such as Confession that can assist during the examination of conscience, you cannot receive sacramental absolution via the internet or on the phone.
Pope John Paul II once wrote to women in your situation:
“The Church is aware of the many factors that may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed.
Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong, but do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope.
Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”
Come, begin the process of healing.
If you would prefer to confess to a priest who has experience ministering to women who have abortions, please contact Project Rachel (1-855-377-1351 or 214-544-2273, or email ) and they will put you in touch with such a priest.
The Project Rachel website (http://hopeafterabortion.com/) contains testimonies from dozens of women who have found reconciliation and healing through Project Rachel and some very moving comments about the Sacrament.
Project Rachel also offers an extensive retreat program.
If you are conscious of having committed a mortal sin, then, yes, you must first go to receive Jesus’ forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance and be restored by Him to loving communion before you can come to receive Him in Holy Communion. The reason why young children must receive the Sacrament of Penance before first Holy Communion is to ensure that they have cleaned their inner “temples” to receive the greatest Guest of all.
The same principal applies to all of us. If one has not committed any serious sins since his or her last good confession, then it is not necessary to confess before receiving the Holy Eucharist.
If you are civilly divorced but have not remarried or were validly married in the Church after receiving a declaration of nullity for your first marriage, then, yes, you may receive the Sacrament.
If you have remarried outside of the Church or have entered into a cohabitating relationship, then those predicaments must be addressed before you can receive absolution.
Pope John Paul II addressed this situation in 1981:
“The church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon sacred scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church that is signified and effected by the Eucharist. …
Reconciliation in the sacrament of penance, which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage.
This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons such as, for example, the children's upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they ‘take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples’” (FC 84).
If you’re in these circumstances, you are encouraged to talk to a priest in the light of God about your present situation and possibly begin an investigation of whether your first marriage was valid.
A priest will normally try to do everything he can never to have to deny someone absolution.
But on some rare occasions he will find himself in a situation where he has no choice.
This occurs when the penitent lacks one of the three elements that make for a good confession:
In such cases, the priest will normally pray with the penitent so that he or she may receive God’s help to remedy a situation from which the person may presently see no way out.
The Church teaches, “In case of grave necessity recourse may be had to a communal celebration of reconciliation with general confession and general absolution. Grave necessity of this sort can arise when there is imminent danger of death without sufficient time for the priest or priests to hear each penitent's confession.
Grave necessity can also exist when, given the number of penitents, there are not enough confessors to hear individual confessions properly in a reasonable time, so that the penitents through no fault of their own would be deprived of sacramental grace or Holy Communion for a long time.
In this case, for the absolution to be valid the faithful must have the intention of individually confessing their sins in the time required. The diocesan bishop is the judge of whether or not the conditions required for general absolution exist. A large gathering of the faithful on the occasion of major feasts or pilgrimages does not constitute a case of grave necessity” (CCC 1483).
For practical purposes, outside of an imminent danger of death situation, these conditions would never obtain in our Archdiocese. Moreover, if a penitent sought to have recourse to a general absolution as a means of avoiding individual confession and absolution, the confession would be invalid.
God, who created the sacraments for our salvation, is Himself not bound by them. Our sins are first forgiven, of course, through the sacrament of baptism.
For post-baptismal sins, the Church has always taught that, for example in a danger of death situation without the possibility of recourse to the sacrament of confession, God could forgive our sins if we pray to him with perfect contrition. The reality is, however, that we can never know if we’ve made a perfect act of contrition.
The Church teaches, therefore, that “individual, integral confession and absolution remain the only ordinary way for the faithful to reconcile themselves with God and the Church, unless physical or moral impossibility excuses from this kind of confession” (CCC 1484).
The great gift of this sacrament is that, if we confess all our serious sins with sorrow and a firm purpose of amendment, we do not need to doubt whether our sins have been forgiven.
God created this sacrament so that we might know he has forgiven us through the ministry of priests.
It is very unfortunate that your previous experience in the confessional wasn’t good. Most priests are very understanding and good confessors.
Some are extraordinarily compassionate and very wise and can really help you grow in your spiritual life.
It’s possible that the priest you had was having a bad day; it happens to everyone now and then.
If you’re nervous about it, ask a friend or someone you trust to recommend a good confessor. We hope you’ll try again.
You don’t have to remember every single sin. The Holy Spirit will reveal to you the most important ones for you to confess. Start with the most serious ones first and then go on to all the ones you can remember.
The grace of the sacrament will “cover” the sins you can’t recall at the moment; although it’s important to confess them later if you do remember. A general rule of thumb is that the ones that are hardest to talk about are the ones, once confessed, that will help you grow the most.
Making a good examination of conscience is an excellent way to help you prepare for confession.
You’re not going to shock or disappoint the priest. Every confession reveals something of the human condition, which the priest is very familiar with. He understands.
Rather than feeling shock or disappointment, most priests feel great compassion and mercy. Your confessor won’t be disappointed with you. On the contrary, he will admire your faith and courage.
If you do feel uncomfortable, use the confessional screen. It will help you feel a little less vulnerable.
And remember, although you are confessing your sins to a priest you’re really confessing them to Jesus Christ. If you use the screen, close your eyes and talk to Jesus, it’ll be a lot easier.
Parishes offer Confession regularly throughout the year: if you contact the parish office, they will be able to tell you. Additionally, many parishes have additional times during Advent and Lent. To find your local parish, go to the Catholic Diocese of Dallas Parish Finder.
CCC: Catechism of the Catholic Church
CIC: Code of Canon Law
FC: Familiaris Consortio
These materials have been adapted from the Diocese of Fall River’s “Be Reconciled to God” Initiative in 2009, with permission of Fr. Roger Landry.