04 February 2008

Fr. Philip's Ten Commandments of Confession

Fr. Philip Neri’s Ten Commandments for a Good Lenten Confession:

1. Thou shall know that thy presence in the confessional is the wondrous work of the Holy Spirit. That’s right. If you find yourself in the Box with Father, you are there first because the Holy Spirit prompted you to go. You agreed to follow that prompt, but like all forms of prayer and charitable work, the human person requires a little graced nudge. So, go into your confession confident that you are there by the grace of God to be reconcile to Him!

2. Thou shall not waste your time or Father’s time with obsessive-compulsive sacramental trivia such as, “OK, Father…so I was still a little drunk but I had to pee so I got up and I wasn’t all the way awake yet and I did it but is that a sin still?” Or, “Father, canon 1765.4 forbids X and I heard recently that Blessed Mary spoke to a woman in Mobile, AL and she said that X is OK and she has the bishop imprimatur!” Hint: if you find yourself discussing the distinction between a valid sacrament and a merely licit sacrament, you must RUN to the nearest park and lay in the sun.

3. Thou shall simply and clearly state your sins without excuse, explanation, or decoration. It is rather pointless to confess your sins with flourish or verbal decoration. Also, the priest really doesn’t need to know why you committed a particular sin. He’ll ask you if more info is needed.

4. Thou shall not use weasel words, dodges, or euphemisms when confessing individual sins. “Impure with self” is not a sin. Masturbation is a sin. “I watched inappropriate images on the computer and abused myself.” Do we confess inappropriate behaviors or sin? In other words, you watched porn and masturbated. Just say so.

5. Thou shall keep Penitent Drama to a minimum. Confessions can be quiet dramatic and even confusing. But confession time is not the right time to show everyone in line outside what a horrible sinner you have been and what a wonderful saint you are now. Also, Father doesn’t need to hear twenty-minutes of highly detailed narrative building up to the actual sin. This is attention-seeking behavior and a waste of precious time.

6. Thou shall not use the “face to face” option as an excuse to chit-chat with Father. Confession is not about story time nor is this option a chance to ask Father for advise on a complicated spiritual issue. Make an appointment with him for that. You have a whole lotta people waiting to see their confessor in the Box.

7. Thou shall confess thine own sins and no one else’s. This seems to be a particular problem among mothers and grandmothers of wayward children and grandchildren. Having failed to persuade said wayward child into the Box, mother or grandmother try to sneak the child’s sin past the priest. There is no vicarious confession in the church.

8. Thou shall not request of Father a confession only a few minutes before Mass begin. The time right before Mass is usually very chaotic in the sacristy and in the church. Father is preoccupied with setting up the sacramentary, placing his homily on the ambo; adjusting the speed of his fav fan, and just generally trying his best to prepare for Mass.

9. Thou shall ask questions about your assigned penance if you do not understand it. Do not leave the Box wondering what it is you are supposed to do for your penance. Just ask Father to clarify quickly his assignment. He will welcome this because it shows you are serious about the sacrament.

10. Thou shall not make a false confession in order to test Father’s orthodoxy nor record the sacrament without Father’s express approval. Yes, this has happened to me and it is a violation of just about everything we believe is holy in the Church, and I believe it constitutes a mortal sin.

Next time: Fr. Philip’s Top Ten Most Offered Pieces of Confessional Advice

UPDATE: I've added several books to the Wish List for my Lenten reading and reflection. . .this year I will focus my Lenten homilies on a "theology of the Cross."


  1. Anonymous3:09 PM

    i think all the sex educators should confess!

  2. This is an excelent post and I will definitely be sharing it with both priests and lay people I know.

    Thank you!

  3. A marvelous list...I wish it were a bit less explicit in choice of sin, so I could use it with the post-confirmandi (they're about 3 year too young for that one - I hope).

    I believe you about 10 - but...good grief!!! Save time, sin while being absolved?!

  4. Ha! The priest at my old parish was usually the one who initiated chit-chat. Still a good confessor. :)

  5. Anonymous11:51 AM

    Jackie, did you see #7?

  6. Father...can you think of a time when you would GRANT express approval to tape a confession?

  7. Well, I made nine out of ten and the only one I failed at was a one time deal. Guess that signifies progress.

  8. Thanks for all the comments...


    Nope. Never.

    Fr. Philip, OP

  9. Some people just can't make themselves say certain words. They were taught since youth to use euphemisms for anything related to the bathroom or sex. Your advice is fine for those who can take it, but don't be too hard on those who just can't. Not me...I found this hard to say, for sure, but euphemism doesn't come naturally to me and wouldn't have helped any.
    I think I might be guilty sometimes of the build up and making things too complicated. It does depend on the setting, which has been the confessional box only a small minority of times for me. And as for a line of people waiting...Since I left St. Mary's Annapolis in 1977 I never saw this again until this past year when I started attending a Byzantine Catholic church. When I pulled into the parking lot for one of many times for confession before Easter last year, it was nearly full. I thought I had made a mistake and something else must be going on. But no, there were four priests and lines for all. I knew how to be shorter in that setting.

    I think mothers at least, really think that their child's wrongdoing must be in some sense, in some way, ultimately their fault. No wonder they have hopes they can glean a little sacramental grace for their children! I hope you aren't too hard on them when you tell them it won't work.
    Susan Peterson

  10. This is exactly what blogging should be - something you can't get anywhere else, and I don't believe I've read anything like this anywhere else!

  11. Just wanted to say Thank you!!! I'm having trouble finding pieces to share with my families for First Reconciliation -- I would like to use pieces of this (sited of course!) to get them to think about the personal side of confession -- not so much the SERIOUS "do I gotta do this" part :-) Keeping this blog linked as a favorite! Can't wait to come back and read more!

  12. Anonymous5:35 PM

    Actually, I heard a priest once suggest, in a recording, no less! to go ahead and use a euphemism if it'll get you into the box. It worked for me, and made it possible for me to adequately confess something I was too ashamed to say. By the grace of God, I'll never have to confess it again! I suppose I may have annoyed the confessor (clearly would have if it were you!); but I got it out, and received forgiveness and grace, and that's really all that matters. I've actually been laughed at in confession, by someone who was being way too chatty and familiar, when all I wanted was to confess and get out of there; and it's humiliating. I suppose, with practice, I'll get better at the "act" of confessing, and maybe make it easier ... on you. But seriously, isn't it enough for you guys, in this day and age, that someone is actually ... there? The very idea that it's possible to annoy or peeve the priest (rather than merely bore him) could enough to keep a flawed but sincere person away. Guess we're none of us perfect, huh?