Going to Confession: How it Works (Part 5 of Becoming Catholic)

Jan 24th, 2012 | By | Category: Blog Posts

For Protestants, the most unknown aspect of Catholic devotional life is confession. Unless you’re Catholic, you cannot experience it. A Protestant can attend a Catholic baptism, confirmation, wedding, ordination, and Holy Mass; however, he cannot attend a confession or know what it’s like until he actually makes one for the first time.

Now most Protestants have seen it in movies. You go into the wooden box, a door slides behind a screen, and the Catholic says, “Bless me Father for I have sinned, etc.”

Okay, that’s pretty much how it begins, but let’s look at it from a devotional point of view – how it really goes for a Catholic.

Ideally, a Catholic makes a nightly examination of conscience every evening. This means that he prays to the Holy Spirit in order to remember his faults during the past day. He then prays an act of contrition at this moment with the intent of confessing these faults in confession.

Before entering the confessional (that is, the box), he prays to the Holy Spirit (and other saints) that he might make a good confession and be given the gift of true repentance and contrition. My practice is to ask the Holy Spirit for the light to see all my sins. Then I ask the Blessed Virgin Mary to obtain for me the grace to be truly sorry for my sins. You see, confession isn’t just about forgiveness of sins, it’s also about growing in sacramental grace.

In the confessional, there is sometimes the option to go behind the screen or face to face (I always choose the screen). The priest will recite a prayer and then you say, “Bless me Father for I have sinned, it has been # weeks since my last confession and I accuse myself of the following sins.”

Next you list all your sins in kind and number. If the priest cannot hear you or understand you, he’ll stop and ask questions. When you get to the end, you say, “For these sins and all those that I cannot remember, I humbly repent and ask for absolution, counsel, and penance.”

The priest will then give you some advice or encouragement. He may make a general judgment that your struggles are related to a common vice. If you cry, he will comfort you. If you are scared to confess a sin, you say, “Father, I’m afraid to confess something.” He’ll walk you through it. If you are unsure if something was a sin or not, you ask him and talk it out. It’s very pastoral and safe. Then the priest gives you your penance. The penance is the sign that you wish to start a new life in Christ – that you’re going to make a change. The penance also shows a willingness to make reparation for the harm you’ve caused (for example, to return stolen money or apologize to a wounded spouse). A common penance is “Three Hail Mary’s” or “a decade of the Rosary” or “Three Our Fathers so that you’ll grow in the virtue of temperance.”

Then the priest says, “Now please make an Act of Contrition.” This is a prayer you say to God out loud and the priest listens to you say it. It’s proof to him that you really are sorry for your sins and not just playing “pinball Catholicism” (click here to see what I mean by that).

The Act of Contrition goes like this:

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love.
I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and avoid the near occasions of sin. Amen.

Then the priest gives you absolution: “I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father and of Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

The priest then tells you to go in peace and usually asks you to say a prayer for him.

After that you, leave the confessional and go into the church where you pray your penance quietly and pray about anything else that is on your heart.

That’s confession. It is certainly one of my top three favorite things about Catholicism.


Taylor Marshall

PS: If you would like to read Parts 1-4 of “Becoming Catholic” please click here.

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  1. Dr. Marshall,

    In the case of stolen money, as you mention here, would it be required for a person to pay it back? For example, what about corporate executives that stole millions and are now in jail. If they were to truly repent, and go to confession, would they have to pay it back? This would seem difficult if a person did not have the means to pay it back because of how much was taken. Or, if a person stole out of need but felt sorry for it. If they stole out of need, then it might be difficult for the person to pay it back.

  2. I used to do this in my youth, and I look forward to the opportunity to do it again and again when I rejoin the church.

  3. Rusty, it has been my experience that the priest will take your abilities into consideration when giving you penance. One may simply explain to the priest that a certain penance is impossible, and the priest will likely give a different penance.

  4. Confession changed my life so much for the better. I will always be grateful for this sacrament.


    K. Doran

  5. It’s hard to beat the sense of a fresh start after Confession.

  6. Timing! Anyone else see this today?


  7. Restless Pilgrim,

    I just came from reading those posts! It makes me very glad that the sacrament of Reconciliation is (1) celebrated by priests with apostolic authority to forgive sins, not just a random pastor from a random church; and (2) is protected by the seal (i.e. is absolutely confidential), so I can feel free to fully confess my sins without having to worry about them being used to shame or manipulate me in the future.

    Everyone, check the link in #6 for a first-hand look at how confession, when it is not confidential and used by heavy-handed pastors, can be used to promote guilt and alienation, not freedom and reconciliation.

  8. For those who are interested here’s a link to an extremely helpful talk on the Sacrament of Confession by Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP entitled “On the Other Side of the Confessional.” It was recorded at a ‘Theology on Tap’ meeting:


    I can’t recommend it enough.

  9. It makes me so happy to see how many people are actually moved by confession. Personally, I go to a Catholic school, and I do participate in Catholic mass with my school community and help out in Campus Ministry, but I am Prostent. Thank you for this explination. I hope you will not mind me using your input for my project- It will be sited.
    I pray God will continue to use you to reach out to others and change their lives for the better as he has done for you. :)
    God bless you all~

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