19 February 2012

10 Random Thoughts on Confession

A post over at Fr. Z's place got me to thinking about confession.  Since we're heading into Lent, I though I type out some random thoughts on the subject. . .

1).  Confession is all about receiving the forgiveness we have all already been given.   We cannot earn forgiveness by works, attitude, or even confession itself; if we could, it would be a wage not a grace (i.e. a gift).

2).  Penance is not a punishment for sin.  Completing the penance you've been given is a sign that you have received God's forgiveness and resolved not to sin again.  This is why I always assign sin-appropriate psalms as penance.

3).  Priests rarely remember the sins of individual penitents.  Some believe that this is a grace from God given so that the confessor is spared the difficulty of carrying around the memories of sin.  Sounds good to me.  Frankly, I think the explanation is more mundane: priests have heard it all and sin is boring.

4).  Explaining your sins in the confessional is unnecessary and time-consuming.  Just say what you did and leave it at that.  If more info is needed, your confessor will ask.  Explanations generally come across as attempts to excuse the sin.

5).  Ask for counsel if you need it.  Most experienced confessors will know when counsel is needed, but it never hurts to ask.  Just keep in mind that there are others waiting to confess!

6).  This is your confession, so stick to your sins.  You cannot confess for your kids, your spouse, your neighbors, etc.  And please avoid using your confession time to complain about your kids, your spouse, your neighbors, etc.

7).  Faithfully assisting at Mass (actually participating) absolves venial sins.  Why else would we recite the Confiteor and the celebrant pray for our absolution?

8).  If you are unsure about whether or not X is a sin, ask.  Remember:  mortal sins are acts of disobedience that "kill charity" in your heart.  You cannot sin mortally through accident or ignorance. Don't turn a venial sin into a mortal "just in case."  

9).  Keep your eye on the clock and the line.  Make a thorough confession but balance your thoroughness with economy.  Others are waiting.  One way to do this (if there's a long line) is to stick to your mortal sins and save the venial sins for Mass.

10).  Tell your confessor that you will pray for him. . .and then go out there and pray for him! 


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  1. Father,

    I have a question about #8. Isn't it efficacious to confess venial sins in an effort to receive graces to avoid them? Also, don't some venial sins become mortal sins based on our persistence in them and our unwillingness to repent from them? Are we always sure that a given sin is not Mortal? I'm never sure when sloth isn't crossing over into the territory of serious sin, so I often confess it. Isn't it best to confess "just in case"?

  2. Anonymous3:05 PM

    At the end of every confession I have been saying this to the priest for the past year: "Thank you, Father, for being here and making the sacrament available." It is a small way by which I can express gratitude to the priest for his ministry and vocation, and I hope he is encouraged by it.

  3. Jordan, yes to all your questions except the last one. Keep in mind that attentive participation in the Mass absolves venial sins.

    If you have to ask whether or not a sin is mortal, it probably isn't. Mortal sin is committed with full knowledge, intent, and involves a grave matter. This is why I say you cannot mortally sin by accident or in ignorance. Many Catholics have never even heard that masturbation is a sin, so they don't know to confess it. Objectively speaking, they are sinning; subjectively, they aren't. Sin is disobedience--you have to know that an act is contrary to God's will for it to be a sin.

  4. BTW, sloth is among the cardinal sins. Generally, we think of sloth as physical laziness but it is closer to what we might call joylessness, or the refusal to accept joy and live joyfully.

  5. Father,

    I've always thought of Sloth as spiritual laziness, not attending to your spiritual life which results in joylessness. Perhaps I have a misunderstanding there.

    How does joylessness differ from a "dark night of the soul" that some experience?

    When does being down and not depending and trusting God in every moment slip into real Sloth and a separation from God's Love?

    I guess you answered it when you said if I have to ask, it's not Mortal.

    I still wonder sometimes. What did Paul mean when he admonished that men should work out their salvation "with Trembling and Fear". It seems you either know you are in God's friendship, and there's nothing to fear, or you aren't, in which case you don't need to fear, you just have to get there immediately.

    I suppose I have a lot of questions and I should seek spiritual direction locally for these questions that might be difficult and delicate and depend largely on my own situation.

  6. Thank you for #10. I always pray for the priest before the confession. I always ask the BVM to help him to help me have a good confession. But, candidly, I have never told him that I will pray for him although I do say thank you.

  7. Sharon1:52 AM

    Confession is all about receiving the forgiveness we have all already been given. We cannot earn forgiveness by works, attitude, or even confession itself; if we could, it would be a wage not a grace (i.e. a gift).

    If we have already been forgiven before we go to confession and confession doesn't forgive us why does the priest say "I absolve you..."

    If the above is correct why do we have to go to go to confession at all? This is the question that Protestants ask and I thought I knew the answer. My whole understanding of confession has been turned upside down.

  8. Sharon, I have a bag full of gold coins on my desk that has your name on it. When can you come get it? I'm here in my office from 10-4 every weekday but Tuesday.

    I've already set the coins aside for you, but I cannot force you to come get them. . .all I can do is invite you to come get them. They will sit on my desk--with your name on the bag--until you come to receive them.

    The coins do you no good until they are in your possession.

    RE: yes, he says, "I absolve" not "I forgive."

  9. buckyinky7:14 AM

    Father, thank you for your helpful thoughts here. One question, if I may, for clarification. What do you mean by "explaining your sins" as being unnecessary? What you are getting at here seems to cause me some angst almost always before entering the confessional, because I don't want to be overly verbose, but I also do not want to conceal what needs to be revealed. Sometimes it seems legitimately necessary to explain in order to define exactly what sin I have committed, or perhaps to give the priest enough information to satisfy himself as to what sin I've committed. It does not seem enough for me to say simply "I have sinned against charity X number of times and against chastity X numbers of times..."

  10. Bucky, by "explanation" I mean something like "more details than is strictly necessary to name the sin."

    Imaginary example, "I gossiped with co-workers several times this week." Yes.

    Explanation, "I was at work on Tuesday and one of the guys I work with--well, he works in a different department but uses our break room--anyway, told me that our boss--my boss not his boss--was having an affair with one of the secretaries who used to work over at the other plant but now she's trying to get a promotion. . .etc, etc, etc. . ." NO.

    No to any confession that begins, "It started 20 years when I was 11. . ."

    No: "I was driving to the store and this woman in a minivan swerved into my lane over by the causeway near the new Target store and I noticed that she had a pro-life bumpersticker and I thought she must not have seen me so I blew my horn at her and she waved--I think--it looked like she might've flipped me off, so I used the Lord's name in vain."

    Yes: "I used the Lord's name in vain."

    Confess THOUGHTS, WORDS, DEEDS not tendencies or struggles. These are not sins.

  11. I would like to high-five you for 4,6 and 9.


  12. Anonymous12:03 PM

    Not trying to cause trouble, but...my deacon husband is supposed to go to confession at least once a month, and I know it's been strongly recommended for lay people as well (JPII was big on this) who want to make progress in the spiritual life. But you're not the first parish priest who charitably says to take care of venials in the pew, not the box. This seems like a contradiction. Is it? Where I live it is impossible for a lay person to get spiritual direction, so frequent confession has the effect of making the conscience more aware--a big plus when no one is helping you out.

  13. buckyinky12:14 PM

    Thanks for the helpful clarification. I appreciate your time.

  14. Anonymous12:57 PM


    A very good article, but I am often confused about mortal sins being "mortal" only if 'done with full knowledge & intent'. This seems to suggest no absolute view of sin.

    For example, a person obtains an abortion, commits adultry or in the worst case .... Hitler exterminates part of the poplulation. Each of them believes they are following their conscience (albeit improperly formed), but each is obviously committing a very grave sin.

    Aren't each of these examples a grave (mortal) sin?

    Thank you for a clarification.


  15. Anon (12.57), to the degree that Hitler, et al believe they are pursuing the Good, they are. . .as they understand it. Aquinas says that we always pursue what we think is the good. That's the subjective element of moral decision-making. Objectively, Hitler, et al are not pursuing the Good but doing evil. IOW, in Aquinas' terms, they are pursuing folly. It's possible (though rare) to commit an objectively evil act and it not be considered subjectively a sin. How can it be a sin if you don't know that you are disobeying God? We wouldn't call the act Good simply b/c you don't know that it's evil. . .it's evil whether you know it is or not. . .but we can't really call you a sinner until you know that the evil act is evil and you do it anyway.

  16. CML, I'm not suggesting that you always leave venial sins to Mass. . .just suggesting that if there's a long line and time is short, that you might consider it. I never tell anyone in the box to skip the venial and get to the mortal! If the line and time permit, go for it.

  17. Anonymous1:28 PM

    I have a question on #1. You state confession is about receiving the forgiveness we have already been given. Are there circumstances where a person is not granted absolution? So, they are still forgiven, just not absolved? If they die ten seconds later, what then? Isn't something required for that forgiveness beyond showing up?
    I hate going into confession, I love coming out of it. My pastor encourages frequent confession and it makes such a difference in my life. I urge everyone to go on a regular basis, like people used to.

  18. Anon (1.28), yes, there are times when absolution can be withheld. For example, someone refuses to repent of a sin. This simply means that they are not sorry for their sin, therefore, they have not rec'd God's forgiveness. Absolution is a declaration that one has rec'd God's forgiveness by confessing one's sins, making an act of contrition (I'm sorry), and repenting (won't sin again). When a priest absolves you of sin, he is certifying that you have met all the requirements of the sacrament that reconciles you to God.

    God alone forgives sins. We repent and receive forgiveness. God will not force His forgiveness on us--that would violate our freedom. So, yes, your sins are forgiven but not absolved, meaning God has forgiven you but you haven't rec'd His forgiveness.

  19. Anonymous10:26 AM

    I don;t quite understand your last statement "God has forgiven you but you haven't rec'd His forgiveness." Are you forgiven of your sins or not?

  20. Anonymous10:28 AM

    Your last statement leaves me a bit confused. Are your sins forgiven or not?

  21. Anon (10.28am), yes. They've been forgiven since Christ died on the Cross. But what good does forgiveness do if you fail to receive it and put it to use?

  22. Anonymous8:46 PM

    I'm preparing my youngest son for his First Confession, and have been scrolling through your posts. You have a wonderful pastoral style, and it is calming and helpful to read what you say, especially the more I read it. Unfortunately, the first post I read of yours (from 2008) didn't come across that way to me. I thought you sounded annoyed, rather than pastoral. Print medium being what it is, I think I took you the wrong way, and left a comment that, implicitly, questioned whether you understood whom the confession was "for," and whether the potential for annoying the priest ought to even enter into the penitent's mind as he or she seeks God's forgiveness and grace. Heh, it wasn't even that articulate, either, so maybe you've already rolled your eyes and moved on. Feel free to do the same here. :) But thanks for taking the time to offer your insights, and I'll be happy to offer a prayer for you.