Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What goes on in the Confessional

Aside from what they've seen in movies, most evangelicals probably don't really know what Catholics do in the confessional. Of course, they know we're doing Confession (nowadays usually referred to as the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or Reconciliation for short), but what does that mean exactly?

In my last post, I explained why all Christians are in great need of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Since the Catholic Church is not in the business of keeping its gifts from the Lord secret, here is, for your reading pleasure, exactly what happens:

Examination of Conscience

Preparation for the Sacrament of Reconciliation actually begins outside of the confessional where one is supposed to prepare oneself for confession. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a time for humility and repentance before the Lord and thus should not be taken lightly or engaged in flippantly.

A person should make what's called an examination of conscience (example) in which they prayerfully think through what they have done since their last confession so that they are prepared to make a good confession. Once one is ready, one can enter the confessional.

The Confessional

A confessional is not actually necessary for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Confessionals are simply places that are specially designed and set aside for the sacrament. For example, I work for a parish and thus am at our parish offices everyday, so I often confess to our priest in his office.

And regarding what the inside of confessionals are like, different confessionals have different designs. Some give you the option of sitting in front of the priest or kneeling behind a screen, while some only have the option of kneeling behind a screen.


Once you are situated in the confessional, the priest begins with the Sign of the Cross.

You then begin by telling the priest how long it has been since your last confession (e.g. "It has been 3 weeks since my last confession...". This gives the priest some context to what you're about to confess: e.g. confessing having lied three times to your spouse in the last week might be different than confessing one has lied to one's spouse three times in the last year.

Then you confess your sins. You don't need to go great length, going into every detail, but you do need to say enough that the priest knows exactly what sin you are confessing and how many times you have sinned in that way (this is known as confessing "in kind and number"). And since you only need to confess a sin once, you only need to confess sins since your last confession.

In addition, one is not required to confess every single little sin that one has committed since one's last confession. As I explained in my last post, the Catholic Church follows the Bible (cf. 1 John 5.16-17) in making a distinction between a sin that merely wounds our relationship with God (which we call venial) and a sin that severs our relationship with God (which we call mortal). Though one may confess venial sins, only mortal sins must be confessed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. (For more on the distinction between mortal and venial sins, see my last post or this article.)

The 10 Commandments
Can my priest use my confession against me? The seal of confession is supposed to prevent this problem: a priest that in any way discloses or uses the knowledge of a person's sins confessed during the sacrament is by automatically excommunicated, as it made clear in the Code of Canon Law:
"The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason." (Can. 983 §1
"A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; one who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the delict." (Can. 1388 §1)
Frankly, I don't think many priests would be interested in using a person's confession against them anyway. And remember, a priest is hearing everyone's sins and most sins really aren't that unusual ("No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man." 1 Corinthians 10.13). I've had priests tell me that in all their years of being a priest they've heard just about everything.


After hearing your confession, the priest may then offer you some advice and/or encouragement. In case you're wondering, I've never had a priest attack or scold me. If anything, most of the time the priest is probably way too nice.

The priest then gives you your penance. Traditionally, there are three kinds of penance: fasting (for sins of the flesh), almsgiving (for sins against neighbor), and prayer (for sins against God) (cf. Matthew 6.1-18). Personally, I have almost never had a priest give me anything other than prayer as my penance, and usually something very small (e.g. pray the Our Father three times, etc).

The word 'penance' is related to the word 'repentance'. If one is truly sorry for one's sins, then one should do something to correct the disorders created by one's sin. The Catechism explains:
Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must "make satisfaction for" or "expiate" his sins. This satisfaction is also called "penance." (CCC 1459)
The Council of Trent makes clear that all penance is effective only insofar as it is done in and through Christ:
[W]hilst we thus, by making satisfaction, suffer for our sins, we are made conformable to Jesus Christ, who satisfied for our sins, from whom all our sufficiency is; having also thereby a most sure pledge, that if we suffer with him, we shall also be glorified with him. But neither is this satisfaction, which we discharge for our sins, so our own, as not to be through Jesus Christ. For we who can do nothing of ourselves, as of ourselves, can do all things, He cooperating, who strengthens us. Thus, man has not wherein to glory, but all our glorying is in Christ: in whom we live; in whom we merit; in whom we satisfy; bringing forth fruits worthy of penance, which from him have their efficacy; by him are offered to the Father; and through him are accepted by the Father. (Trent, session 14, ch 8)
 Doing penance actually makes us more Christ-like.

Act of Contrition

Then the priests asks you to make an act of contrition. Although only God can see a person's a heart, the priest needs to at least hear you express your sorrow to God aloud. A person may pray spontaneously, though people are encouraged to pray a standard Act of Contrition prayer. Here's one commonly used today:
My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and 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. Our savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In his name, my God, have mercy.

Then priest grants you absolution, or forgiveness of your sins. Here is exactly what he says:
God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of your son, you have reconciled the world to yourself 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 of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The grace of Christ has now been applied to you and you are set free from all of your sins.

Why in the world do Catholics think that priests can forgive sins? The answer might surprise many evangelicals: because Jesus said so in the Bible (see John 20.19-23; also Matthew 16.19 and Matthew 18.18; for more, see my last post)


You are then dismissed by the priest and should leave to complete your penance. The time following confession can be a special time, thanking God for the inexhaustible riches of his love and mercy.

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