I go to Confession. I am not always “in great need of Confession,” as a priest once phrased it, but I have found it to be good for me. I go once a month whether I really think I need to or not, and there is always a particular routine I follow. I like routines.
Even if you’re not as frequent a penitent as I am (or you go more often), Lent is a penitential season. The Church places a particular emphasis on the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (popularly known as Confession) during this season, recommending it in her precepts. If you’ve been putting off Confession for a while, or even if you’ve already decided to go before Easter, here is some advice for having the Best Confession Ever.
1. Figure out how long it has been since your last Confession.
Maybe it’s been a while: several weeks, a few years, or since your last major sacrament. I was in those shoes once. I can tell you from experience that it gets significantly easier if you go more often. You have less time to get into trouble!
Isolating that time frame is also useful because the gravity of your sins can change depending on the passage of time. If you’ve told 6 lies and stolen things from work twice and drank too much 3 times, and your last Confession was 3 weeks ago, that’s a much bigger deal than if it was 3 months ago.
2. Review your life since your last Confession.
I start by looking at my calendar. That usually jogs my memory of my most recent poor choices. This is when my gratitude for the sacrament rises exponentially.
This is also the time to do an examination of conscience. I highly recommend doing that before you leave home if you are going to the church specifically for Confession. Should the line move quickly, you’ll be prepared. If you’re on a retreat or at a Reconciliation/Penance Service, there will probably be a designated time for your examination. My favorite is based on the Ten Commandments and focuses on specific actions I might have committed that break them. I have never made it through that list without spotting something familiar. That may or may not be a good thing.
3. Make a list of your sins.
My lists exist only in my head. I am much too paranoid about making an actual, physical list. Other people find great joy in ripping up and/or burning their list later. I usually just toss mine around in my head, trusting that the Holy Spirit won’t let me forget anything huge. I have made vague notes on my phone that I deleted right after, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go. Your mileage may vary.
4. Arrive when Confessions begin, not when they are supposed to end.
You’re not fooling anyone. If you know you’re going to take a while confessing your sins, get there early. If you’ve got time-bound plans for after Confession, get there early. Even if Confession is the major rock in your day, get there early. The sooner you arrive, the farther ahead in line you will be, and the sooner you can be forgiven and free (free from sin and free to leave).
Arriving earlier rather than later is also a kind gesture toward the priest. Something tells me priests prefer not to be reading a book for almost the whole scheduled hour only to have someone arrive and need 20 minutes for Confession. I’ve never been a priest, so I don’t know for sure, but this doesn’t seem like a happy tweet:
— Fr. Kyle T. Ingels (@frkti) January 31, 2015
(Fr. Kyle was my pastor when I graduated from college, and I got his permission to share that here. It’s all in good fun, I promise.)
5. Plan an appropriate “waiting in line” activity.
I like to do a second examination of conscience. Jen Fulwiler shared this examination on Facebook, and I find it so thorough and convicting that I only read it (on my phone) when I am already in line for Confession. Otherwise, I’ll obsess over it. It is based more on dispositions than actions, and I always find ways I have turned away from God on that list. For me, a disposition-based examination of conscience is like giving the tub a deep scrub after using the daily shower spray.
If you’re not into the deep clean like I am, you might bring a rosary or spiritual reading. It will help the time pass more quickly and keep you focused on the sacrament instead of what you’re having for dinner.
But wait! There’s more. I have a few tips for what to do once you’re “in the box,” so to speak. (It might be the actual box-style confessional. I once went to Confession in a large pantry.)
1. Start with the big one.
There’s a reason you went to Confession. There’s one big sin (or several big sins) making you so glad we do this privately and the priest can never reveal what you said (or even that you were there). If you start at the top, it’s all downhill from there. You won’t forget, and you won’t be silent, welling up your courage to spit it out, so that the priest accidentally thinks you’re already finished (or that you died of fear). (You probably won’t die of fear.)
2. Make the end obvious.
I say, “For these and all the sins of my life, I am truly sorry.” It’s true, and it signals to the priest that I’m finished. I’ve confessed to priests from many states and countries, and they always get it. “That’s all” or “I’m done” also work. Don’t just go silent; he might think you’re trying to say “the big one,” and you will wait each other out uncomfortably. Avoid a confessional stalemate.
3. If you don’t think you can do your penance, say so.
I have yet to receive a penance I couldn’t do. I can usually finish it before leaving the church. If the priest asks you to say a prayer you don’t know, just say you don’t know it! If he refers to a passage of Scripture you don’t recognize, ask where to find it! Write it down if necessary. Just don’t leave without a penance you can do.
4. Thank the priest.
Yes, hearing Confessions is part of their job (for many, the best part), but it’s got to be hard. We all like to know that we are appreciated. Priests are no exception.
5. Tell the priest how many people are in line behind you.
It’s unlikely that he will jet right out if you say you’re the last person in line, but he has no idea what’s going on out there. Help him out. If Confessions are supposed to end in 10 minutes, but there are 10 people still in line, he’s going to be there for while. (True story from my last Confession.)
That’s my advice. I may not be 100% qualified to tell you how to go to Confession or explain why it’s necessary, but following these tips has made my experience so much better. What’s your favorite piece of advice about going to Confession?
You can find a list of Lenten Penance Services around the diocese here. Check with your parish for more information. See you in line!