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3.39 How can I confess properly?

The sacraments

You prepare yourself by asking God’s help to recognize what is wrong and sinful in your life. Then you go to a priest and ask for his blessing to confess properly. You make a concise, complete and clear confession of the sins you have committed. The priest then offers advice and imposes a penance. Thanks to the #TwGOD app, you can always consult the structure of confession; you can find this in the section containing prayers for priests.

The priest will then give you absolution (God’s forgiveness). At this moment, God forgives all sins which you have confessed with contrition. This means your sins have simply been washed away and that you can continue your life as a Christian.

> Read more in the book

To confess well, pray to know your sins and be honest with the priest. God truly forgives you through the priest’s absolution.

The Wisdom of the Church

What are the essential elements of the sacrament of Reconciliation?

The essential elements are two: the acts of the penitent who comes to repentance through the action of the Holy Spirit, and the absolution of the priest who in the name of Christ grants forgiveness and determines the ways of making satisfaction. [CCCC 302]

Is a confessor bound to secrecy?

Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to people every confessor, without any exception and under very severe penalties, is bound to maintain “the sacramental seal” which means absolute secrecy about the sins revealed to him in confession. [CCCC 309]

What names are there for the sacrament of Penance?

The sacrament of Penance is also called the sacrament of Reconciliation, of forgiveness, of conversion, or of confession. [Youcat 225]

But we have Baptism, which reconciles us with God; why then do we need a special sacrament of Reconciliation?

Baptism does snatch us from the power of sin and death and brings us into the new life of the children of God, but it does not free us from human weakness and the inclination to sin. That is why we need a place where we can be reconciled with God again and again. That place is confession.

It does not seem like a modern thing to go to confession; it can be difficult and may cost a great deal of effort at first. But it is one of the greatest graces that we can receive again and again in our life—it truly renews the soul, completely unburdens it, leaving it without the debts of the past, accepted in love, and equipped with new strength. God is merciful, and he desires nothing more earnestly than for us, too, to lay claim to his mercy. Someone who has gone to confession turns a clean, new page in the book of his life. [Youcat 226]

Who instituted the sacrament of Penance?

Jesus himself instituted the sacrament of Penance when he showed himself to his apostles on Easter day and commanded them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20:22a–23).

Nowhere did Jesus express more beautifully what happens in the sacrament of Penance than in the parable of the Prodigal Son: We go astray, we are lost and can no longer cope. Yet our Father waits for us with great, indeed, infinite longing; he forgives us when we come back; he takes us in again, forgives our sins. Jesus himself forgave the sins of many individuals; it was more important to him than working miracles. He regarded this as the great sign of the dawning of the kingdom of God, in which all wounds are healed and all tears are wiped away. Jesus forgave sins in the power of the Holy Spirit, and he handed that power on to his apostles. We fall into the arms of our heavenly Father when we go to a priest and confess. [Youcat 227]

Who can forgive sins?

God alone can forgive sins. Jesus could say “Your sins are forgiven” (Mk 2:5) only because he is the Son of God. And priests can forgive sins in Jesus’ place only because Jesus has given them that authority.

Many people say, “I can go directly to God; why do I need a priest?” God, though, wants it otherwise. We rationalize our sins away and like to sweep things under the rug. That is why God wants us to tell our sins and to acknowledge them in a personal encounter. Therefore, the following words from the Gospel are true of priests: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20:23). [Youcat 228]

What sins must be confessed?

Under normal circumstances, all serious sins that one remembers after making a thorough examination of conscience and that have not yet been confessed can be forgiven only in individual sacramental confession.

Of course there will be reluctance before making a confession. Overcoming it is the first step toward interior healing. Often it helps to think that even the Pope has to have the courage to confess his failings and weaknesses to another priest—and thereby to God. Only in life-or-death emergencies (for instance, during an airstrike in wartime or on other occasions when a group of people are in danger of death) can a priest administer “general absolution” to a group of people without the personal confession of sins beforehand. However, afterwards, one must confess serious sins in a personal confession at the first opportunity. [Youcat 233]

When is a Catholic obliged to confess his serious sins? How often should one go to confession?

Upon reaching the age of reason, a Catholic is obliged to confess his serious sins. The Church urgently advises the faithful to do this at least once a year. At any rate one must go to confession before receiving Holy Communion if one has committed a serious sin.

By “the age of reason”, the Church means the age at which one has arrived at the use of reason and has learned to distinguish between good and bad. [Youcat 234]

Are there sins that are so serious that not even the average priest can forgive them?

There are sins in which a man turns completely away from God and at the same time, because of the seriousness of the deed, incurs excommunication. When a sin results in “excommunication”, absolution can be granted only by the bishop or a priest delegated by him, and, in a few cases, only by the Pope. In danger of death, any priest can absolve from every sin and excommunication.

A bishop who ordains a priest without a mandate of the Pope automatically excludes himself from sacramental communion; the Church simply acknowledges this fact. The purpose of “excommunication” is to correct the sinner and to lead him back to the right path. [Youcat 237]

May a priest later repeat something he has learned in confession?

No. Under no circumstances. The secrecy of the confessional is absolute. Any priest who would tell another person something he had learned in the confessional would be excommunicated. Even to the police, the priest cannot say or suggest anything.

There is hardly anything that priests take more seriously than the seal of the confessional. There are priests who have suffered torture for it and have gone to their deaths. Therefore, you can speak candidly and unreservedly to a priest and confide in him with great peace of mind, because his only job at that moment is to be entirely “the ear of God”. [Youcat 238]

This is what the Church Fathers say

Repent, and I will save you' (Ezek 18:21); and again, 'I live, says the Lord, and I will [have] repentence rather than death' (Ezek. 33:11). Repentence, then, is 'life', since it is preferred to death. That repentence, O sinner, like myself... do you so hasten to so embrace, as a shipwrecked man the protection of some plank. This will draw you forth when sunk in the waves of sins, and will bear you forward into the port of the divine clemency. [Tertullian, On Penance, Chap. 4 (ML 1, 1233)]