In my perusal of various Examinations of Conscience and guides to Confession I have generally been disappointed. Often times the language is too vague or without nuance. They generally aren't helpful in understanding the Spirit of Confession or the principles of discernment. So, I felt I need to create my own (and I am sure someone else will find my guide inadequate, and I would love to hear their criticism). Now, I must apologize, this post is a little long, but it was meant to be something you can print out and use before and during Confession. If your just a passing reader; the heart of the post is in the beginning. I hope you find it helpful.
In order to understand one sacrament we really have to understand how they relate to all the other sacraments; how one sacrament leads to another and have their fulfillment in full Communion with God and our fellow Christian brothers and sisters. A key to understanding how they are related can be seen in how the sacraments were originally celebrated. When an adult or family came into the faith they went through a rigorous process of education and purification sometimes lasting 3 years. During this time they could not be a part of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, i.e. the Mass. They could only hear the Scriptures proclaimed, the sermon given, and then they were asked to leave. After their rigorous preparation they were initiated into the Church. The first part of this rite of initiation was Baptism followed immediately by Chrismation and the laying on of hands (Confirmation), and finally culminating in the participation at the Lord’s Supper for the first time. Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Communion were thus all together as the one rite of initiation. In this rite of initiation the Christian pledged his faith in the teachings of Christ and swore to make undying war against sin. This pledge is thus renewed every time the Christian receives Holy Communion. In this light, receiving Holy Communion is a statement before God and the assembly that you are in “communion” in terms of what is professed and believed and in “communion” with the assembly in terms of Christian living. It is a sign of communion with God and the Church in both faith and action.
Now, the Christian community is also an assembly of sinners; nobody is perfect, everyone is a work in progress. So, the Christians kept themselves accountable by confessing their sins before they received the Eucharist. We still do this at the beginning of Mass to this day when we, in a general way, accuse ourselves of being sinners. For minor sins a simple, general statement of sinfulness is all that is necessary to receive the gift of forgiveness from the Church and being allowed to take part in Holy Communion. However, there were some sins that were so contrary to true Christian living that one could not simple presume communion without making a formal confession. You could not simply stand with the assembly as if nothing had happened. These grave sins, or deadly sins, were soon called “mortal” sins and smaller sins were called “venial” sins.
When a penitent came and confessed his grave sin to the Church he was given a penance that he had to fulfill before he could receive Communion again, and sometimes these penances could take years. This is ultimately where indulgences came from. Fellow Christians, that is saints, could offer their own sacrifices as a mitigation of the penance given to the penitent Christian. This “indulgence” could either be a full “plenary” remediation, or a partial remediation.
With time Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, and Reconciliation became temporally and spatially distinct from each other. Confirmation was a rite done in adolescence; Confession was done in the privacy of a confessional and not within the liturgy of the Eucharist. Penances became a lot smaller (a few Hail Mary’s vs. 3 years of fasting on every Friday) and so indulgences were not as pertinent. Logically, though, they cannot be understood without relating them to each other.
Only God can forgive sins; and only Christ’s sacrifice justifies that forgiveness. To the Church was given the mission of bringing the reconciliation of Christ to men and women and this is a work we all share in. The sacrament of Baptism is the first sacrament by which this gift of forgiveness is given and received. Once bound by the Baptismal covenant, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the ordinary means of receiving forgiveness. The sacrament of Reconciliation is the place where the Church helps us by holding us accountable and purifying our contrition.
The sacrament of Reconciliation primarily concerns grave sin. Since true contrition for what we have done always includes transparency, in confessing grave sins we must:
· acknowledge all the serious faults that we can recall (confession),
· State the number of times or frequency (best estimation) that we have committed these crimes.
· State any details that directly affect the gravity of the sin (stealing $3 vs stealing $3000) but without laboring the confession with unnecessary details.
· Confess to someone who has the authority to forgive (the confessor) or at the very least have had the real intention of doing so (when no confessor is available)
· Make a statement of sorrow (act of contrition)
· State our sincere intention to avoid the sin in the future (a firm purpose of amendment).
· Accept whatever discipline is ascribed (penance) and fulfill it when it is possible.
These are the most essential acts of preparation for confession; all other preparation and ritual only assist this expression of contrition. At the back of this article you can find the ritual of confession written out.
Etiquette for Confession
In preparing and participating in the sacrament of Reconciliation There are some good habits that can help you, the confessor, and the community. Here is a list of some good habits, proper etiquette, for making a good confession:
1. Call to mind your sins that you know are serious offenses. Then call to mind minor imperfections, defaults of character, venial sins that are most prominent in your life. Avoid being either too general or too detailed.
3. Make a firm purpose of amendment; a renewed vision for your future growth.
4. Make the best approximation as to when you made your last confession.
5. Remember, confession is about your sins, not your husbands or your friends. Avoid speaking about the faults and activities of others unless it directly pertains to your sin.
6. Be considerate and attentive in the line for confession.
A. If the line for confession is long and your confession is routine consider going on another occasion. People who have a good habit of regular confession should avoid Penance services.
C. Be organized and to the point when presenting your offences.
D. Remember that all Christians are bound by the most stringent confidentiality to never reveal what they might over hear in a confession.
E. Those who are waiting for Confession should pray for each other, especially the one who is receiving the sacrament.
F. Know the act of contrition and be familiar with the rite of confession
G. It is courteous to tell the priest the number of penitents who are waiting to receive the sacrament. Tell the priest if you can hear him or the penitents outside the confessional.
7. Never be afraid to ask a priest for confession or make an appointment. (but being considerate of their time)
8. Feel free to either confess behind a screen (anonymously) or in person (face to face) if the option is available.
9. Seek to go to the same confessor as often as possible. Sometimes arranging a regularly scheduled appointment will help if the need for accountability is great.
10. Monthly confession is a good practice. Weekly confession should be carefully discerned with the confessor and should be avoided by the scrupulous. Certain times of life, special periods of discernment or stress, may be greatly aided by a greater frequency of confession (marital problems, transition from home to college living, struggles with addictions, courtship and preparation for marriage, discernment of one’s vocation or path in life, etc. . .)
11. Fulfill your penance as soon as possible and never be afraid to ask the priest to clarify or repeat the penance. Feel free to write down the penance or ask the priest to write it down.
12. Be happy and rejoice that the Lord has freed you from all your sins, even the ones you forgot! Absolution of sin is always universal; only intentionally hiding a grave sin requires a new Confession.
Below is a list of actions that are generally considered grave transgressions that require reconciliation before the reception of Holy Communion. These are sins that should give us pause and assess where our life is going. Before perusing this list it is important to know that just because someone has done one of these actions does not necessarily mean you are guilty of that particular crime or that you have gravely sinned (mortal sin). It should give you pause, discern what happened, and consult a priest if you are unsure. In order to be guilty of a grave sin one has to have been deliberate in their actions, fully conscious of their actions, and fully aware that it was a grave sin. They must have freedom to act deliberately and full knowledge of what they were doing. Someone who is under substantial duress, fear, pressure, or who lacks full awareness (half asleep, intoxicated) cannot be fully culpable and thus guilty of a particular grave sin. If someone does not know that their action is sinful or that it was a grave sin, they also cannot be guilty of mortal sin. Even people who have serious addictions or ingrained habits may not be guilty of a grave sin as long as they are sincerely striving to overcome them. People suffering from these inclinations should consult a priest and make regular confession a part of their healing.
The purpose of the Christian life is to grow in virtue, self-knowledge, and union with God and our neighbor. If you have committed one of these actions it should give you pause and it probably points to a place of growth. Determining how guilty you are is not the primary concern. The Church is in the business of forgiveness and growth and less about figuring out how guilty you are (which ultimately only God knows).
A general list of sins of a grave nature
· Explicit denial of God, his Church, or some part of Church teaching.
· Active promotion of a pagan or heretical institution, activity, or ritual.
· The deliberate and malicious defamation of the Name of God or the sacrilegious abuse of any Holy person, place, or thing.
· Receiving the Sacraments in a sacrilegious manner.
- Obtaining Baptism or Confirmation for me or a child without any intention of living the Christian life.
- Receiving Confirmation, Eucharist, Marriage, Holy Orders, or Anointing without confessing a grave sin.
- Receiving Holy Communion without respecting the hour fast.
- Granting permission for non-Catholics to receive the Eucharist.
- Deliberately hiding a grave sin in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
- Failing to fulfill the Penance given in the Sacrament of Reconciliation
- Entering into marriage outside of the Church.
- Participating in an attempt by a Catholic to marry outside the Church.
- Seeking a civil Divorce for the sake of remarriage or seeking Divorce without respecting the permanence of marriage.
- Entering into marriage through deceit, manipulation, or without any intention to be faithful to the principles of marriage (fidelity, openness to children, the good of the spouse, etc.).
· Failing to attend Mass on Sunday or Holy Days of Obligation.
· Failing to observe fast and abstinence days of the Church.
· Intentionally and without good cause leaving Mass early, arriving late, or generally being non participatory during the liturgy.
· Engaging in work on Sunday merely for profitable gain, without legitimate cause, without any regard to the Sunday rest (family, community, charity, prayer).
· Child abuse, Spousal abuse, abuse of parents /neglect
· Committing a felony or in some grave way disrespected the law or persons in authority (extreme speeding, tax evasion, bribery, voter fraud, disrespecting an officer, etc…)
· Complete indifference or lack of participation in the political life of your country.
· Homicide or doing grave physical harm to another.
· Intending, premeditating, doing physical harm to another or actively aiding a homicide or violent crime.
· Failing to aid someone who is in physical danger (according to one’s real capacity to aid)
· Directly seeking or promoting abortion, euthanasia, suicide, In Vitro Fertilization, the death penalty, or abortifacients
· The abuse of any drug, alcohol, tobacco, or any substance to the point of impairment of judgment (drunkenness), serious detriment of health, or the creation of an addiction. The promotion of or assisting in the misuse of any of these substances.
· Driving or handling anything that could cause harm while intoxicated (machinery, weapons, etc.)
· Doing real physical harm or disrespect to yourself (cutting, extreme over eating, extreme under eating, etc. . . )
· The violation of the sacredness of the sexual act and the marital covenant as a sign of unconditional love by the obtaining of sexual pleasure outside of marriage: fornication, adultery, rape, cohabitation, homosexual acts, pornography, masturbation, voyeurism, actively fostering and indulging in sexual fantasies, touching and kissing for the sake of arousal, etc…
· Either directly seeking sexual attention through immodesty or having no discernment or concern for the virtue of modesty either through action or dress (nudity outside of an appropriate context, publicly wearing vestments intended to obtain sexual attraction; lingerie, bikinis, revealing dresses, etc.)
· Showing a lack of respect to the intimate relationship between marriage, sex, and procreation by the use of any artificial means of contraception or surgical sterilization.
· The use of Natural Family Planning to totally exclude procreation without legitimate cause (danger to health, real financial difficulty, real psychological difficulty, etc.)
· Stealing something of significant value to another.
· Vandalizing with significant property damage.
· Accruing significant debt without real cause; significant mismanagement of funds, gambling with substantial resources.
· Complete indifference or lack of concern for the poor or those in need
· Lying or withholding information from someone who needs to know when the consequences are of a grave nature. Lying under oath; perjury.
· Slander, ridicule, or forgery if they concerns a grave matter.
· Plotting to steal or vandalize if the items are of significant value to the owner.
The Pious Practice of Confessing Venial sins
Confession of venial sins is a very good and wholesome act of devotion; but it is never required. The universal confession of our sinfulness at Mass and the reception of Holy Communion reconciles us to God and our brothers and sisters and is sufficient for our minor faults.
However, the devotional practice of confessing our venial sins is a tremendous aid to growing in virtue and removing things in our lives that impede others from encountering the love of Christ through us. Through the physical sacramental signs of being reassured of God’s forgiveness we are renewed and strengthened. We are also held accountable, coached through the spiritual life. When we confess our venial sins we should focus on the ones that are predominant in our life.
Below is a general examination of conscience that can help. This list contains both concrete examples and general exhortations for the sake of growth and self-reflection.
The 10 commandments
Have I set apart time for worship, for prayer, for silence; according to the demands of my vocation?
Do I give my commitments to prayer prime of place? Do I put myself in the disposition for prayer (awake, a prayerful posture, a prayerful place) or is it rushed, rote, or unorganized?
Do I persevere in the struggle with distractions, disinterestedness, or the lack of inspiration?
Do I tithed my time, talent, and treasure? Is giving to God something I do grudgingly or is it a prayer, a symbol of the offering of my whole self? Are there any conditions, strings attached in my giving to the Church?
Is the meditation on the nature of God, on the truths of the faith, of the highest priority? Do I attend classes, retreats, seminars on an ongoing bases? Do I provide for my children’s catechetical instructions both at home and in formal classes at Church? Do I pray with them?
Have I renounced all or part of my Faith, given into fear of professing my faith, or treated it with indifference?
2 You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain
Do I treat holy things with respect? Have I spoken of holy things in a disrespectful manner? Have I used God’s name as an expletive?
Have I used prayers, rituals, or holy things in a magical way, as good luck charms; with a merely utilitarian end (to get some power or material prosperity)?
Have I committed sacrilege by receiving the sacraments of Confirmation, Marriage, Anointing, Holy Orders, or Holy Communion without first confessing any grave sins? Did I receive Communion in a disrespectful way? Did I respect the one hour fast before receiving Holy Communion?
Have I committed sacrilege by willfully, with deliberate intention, failing to confess some grave sin during the Sacrament of Confession? Did I confess a sin without any intention to amend my ways? Did I fail to do the Penance assigned to me by my confessor?
Did I celebrate marriage outside the Church without due dispensation? Did I participate in a Wedding of a Catholic outside the Church that did not have due dispensation? Did I seek a divorce with the intention of marrying again or without respecting the permanence of marriage? Did I marry more than once without obtaining an annulment?
Did I act in a disrespectful way in a sacred space? Dress in an inappropriate way in a sacred space?
Did I replace the obligation of Sunday Mass with the prayer service of another faith group?
3 Remember to keep the Lord’s Day holy
Am I faithful to my attendance of Sunday Mass? Did I arrive late to Mass or leave early without good cause? Was I indifferent in Mass, non-participatory, made no effort to move away from distractions?
Did I dress well for Mass, mentally and spiritually prepare myself in advance? Did I support and participate in Parish activities? Have I made any effort to understand the celebration of the Mass?
Have I set as a priority time with family, community, and prayer on Sunday? Have I, in some way, separated Sunday from the labor of the work week? Have I respected the need of others to have time off on Sunday?
Did I attend Mass on Holy days; days when the Church calls its members to celebrate together? (Immaculate Conception, The Assumption, Christmas, Mary the Mother of God, All Saints, etc. . . ) Did I observe the fast and abstinence days of the Church (Ash Wednesday, Fridays of Lent, and Good Friday)?
Have I honored and obeyed all lawful authority (Parents, teachers, government officials, Ecclesiastical authority) in all that is not immoral? If I have opposed a legitimate authority was it done in a way that sought to protect the common good, avoids violence and slander, and respects the office that the individual holds? Have I respected due process? If force was necessary was it focused, limited, and the only way of protecting the rights that were threatened?
Did I respect my parents; taken care of them in their needs, in their old age? Have I forgiven them? Given their wishes and advice the benefit of the doubt? Have I been an active participant in family activities?
Have I been abusive towards a child, neglected a child, been overly protective, overly critical, impatient? Have I neglected to discipline my children; scandalized them through my behavior?
Have I exercised my positions of authority and oversight with prudence; as a servant? Am I overly attached to my position, closed to criticism or feedback? Have I ever used my position to curry favor? Do I hold myself to the same standard as everyone else?
5 Do not Kill
Have I assaulted someone in anyway whatsoever out of anger or revenge (verbally or physically)? Did I (within my capacity and in my immediate realm of influence) neglect to assist someone who was in need? Have I failed or been stingy in my charitable giving? Have I been reserved in giving of my time and talent?
Have I assisted, promoted, or obtained an abortion?
Have I intentionally acted discriminatory toward someone? Have I been attentive to racist attitudes? Have I plotted revenge in my heart; allowed hate to fester in my heart without any restraint? Have I simply been unable to forgive someone on any level; adamantly refused to move toward forgiveness? Have I shown a lack of gratitude to others, presumed on their goodness, given a cold shoulder, acted with impatience?
Have I in any way abused my physical wellbeing? Have I disproportionately endangered my life by rash activities, stunts, or attempted suicide? Do I find myself involved in drug abuse, cutting, excessive eating, anorexic behavior, drunkenness, excessive smoking, etc. . . ? Am I overly concerned with my appearance; excessively working out, obtaining plastic surgery for no legitimate reason, applying excessive make-up, etc. . . ? Am I lacking in concern for my appearance; unkempt house, room, dress, manners, way of speaking, foul language? If I suffer from compulsive behavior, addictions, or depression am I seeking help?
Have I in anyway sought or indulged in sexual pleasure outside of the marriage covenant? (Voyeurism, Pornography, Masturbation, provocative touching, fornication, Homosexual acts, cohabitation, adultery, rape, etc. . .)
In noticing the opposite sex was I been chaste; did I recognize their beauty while respecting them as persons? In recognizing improper desires did I actively cultivate them or maturely move away from them?
Was I modest is dress, speech, and action? Was I discerning in my apparel and not simply following culture? Did I foster modesty in my children’s apparel?
Have I disassociated the sexual act from the procreative through artificial contraceptives, surgical procedures, the practice of withdrawal, or mutual masturbation? If Natural Family Planning is practiced has the discernment to avoid children been mutual, open to life, and honest about any self-serving attitudes? Have I used NFP for the complete avoidance of pregnancy without a legitimate reason?
Have I disassociated procreation from the sexual act through artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization?
Have I taken what is not mine or not given what was required by agreement or law? Have I accrued a debt for no legitimate reason? Did I accrue a debt that I could not hope to pay off, defaulted on a loan?
Have I given a just wage to my employees; going beyond the requirement of law when possible? Have I shown a lack of concern for my employees’ legitimate needs and concerns? Have I made fair deals with customers? Have I, as an employee, given productive work? Have I been lazy, wasted time on the computer, arrived late, failed to be accountable and communicate?
Have I engaged in frivolous lawsuits? Asked for unfair compensation? Entrapped individuals with high interest rates? Demanded payment of debt without concern for the physical and financial wellbeing of the debtor? Knowingly and directly invested in a nefarious organization (pornography, abortion, morally questionable research, etc. . .)?
Have I been overly concerned with material goods; a lack of stewardship and simplicity with regard to material things? Have I repeatedly purchased items for which I have no need or been overly possessive of material things? Do I use my material goods to create community or to shield myself from others?
Have I been jealous of another’s good fortune, skills, appearance, or possessions? Have I ever conspired or envisioned taking another’s possessions or undermining their success?
Have I deceived someone? Withheld knowledge from someone who had a right to know? Have I revealed information that was given in confidence? Have I perjured myself; broken a promise, an oath, a vow, a contract? Did I fail to bear witness to the Truth; encouraged evil? Have I been unreceptive to the truth; unreceptive to compliments and criticism?
Did I make universal statements about others (“they always do this”) or make exaggerated claims? Did I reveal the faults and failings of another to someone who did not need to know or without any constructive intent? Do I communicate my feelings with those who should know? When I express my feelings or thoughts do I claim them as “my feelings” doing so in a way that is respectful and which seeks a resolution? Have I sought to be objective, understanding, and available to listen? Am I approachable? Am I quick to compliment, flatter, or overly hesitant to criticize? If I do criticize is it done with a view to build up? Am I stingy in compliments?
Did I reveal an image, document, video, or audio reproduction that damaged the good name of another? That was deceptive, incomplete, or exaggerated in its presentation? Did I participate in spreading such an item?
The Rite of Confession
The Penitent begins his Confession with the sign of the cross
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit
Bless me Father for I have sinned, it has been (so many days, weeks, months, years) since my last confession.
The confession of sins follows after this introduction
Generally the priest gives some form of council after the penitent has finished enumerating their sins.
The priest then prescribes a penance to be fulfilled after confession.
The priest then invites the penitent to say some form of the act of contrition. The penitent may use these words or a similar expression of contrition:
O my God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and in failing to do good I have sinned against you whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Amen
The priest will then extend his hand over the penitent and give the absolution of sins
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 grant 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. Amen.
The priest may dismiss you with these or similar words:
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
Respond: His mercy endures forever
The Lord has freed you from your sins. Go in peace.