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What It’s Actually Like To Go To Catholic Confession

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a guilt-fest. Nor is it nearly as scary as people make it out to be. It’s actually a ginormous grace-bomb that is (IMO) severely underutilized by Catholics.

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Wait a second, isn’t it actually Reconciliation?

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Oh yeah, about that. Confession is the old-school name for the sacrament. Today it is commonly known as Reconciliation or the Sacrament of Penance. I personally prefer Confession, so that’s what I’ll use in this article, but I think more people use Reconciliation or Penance.

Why Go At All?

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Getting confirmation of forgiveness.

Yes, you can pray to Jesus and be forgiven. Catholics do not deny the reality of this. However, it’s a lot like purchasing something online – the money taken out of your account (your prayer) is totally a sign that you bought something, but the confirmation email – what guarantees your purchase – is what you get out of Confession.

Does that mean I *have* to go?

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Kind of. For Catholics especially it’s good to go because of the Eucharist. In Catholic tradition, the Eucharist, or Communion, or the bread (aka ‘wafers’) and wine, is the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. So it’s super holy. Your soul ought to be in a state of grace before receiving it, which means no mortal sin (explained below). Confession 100% confirms forgiveness of those sins so you can receive the holy Eucharist. So yes, you ought to go (unless you don’t want to receive Communion, which why on earth would you not want that?!?!?!)

What about venial and mortal sins?

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Okay, so the difference of what venial and mortal sins are: venial sins tend to be smaller sins that are not grave in nature, or are done without knowledge. So for example, if you don’t know that engaging in occult activity (ex: Ouija boards) is a grave matter, but you do it anyway, that’s a venial sin. But now that you know it IS a grave matter, and you still choose to do it, then it is a mortal sin.

Back to why you go at all: stating your sins and shortcomings is cathartic.

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Alcoholics Anonymous start off their meetings by saying “Hi, I’m _________ and I’m an alcoholic.” Stating your shortcomings, out loud, makes it a lot more real and manageable. It’s really not so much about getting to feel guilty as it is about recognizing that you’re human, and it’s okay. Confession is a massive humbling experience, and it gives us the ability to recognize the areas in which we can grow by being honest with ourselves.

Jesus told us to go.

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Jesus stated to confess our sins to one another. Remember, it’s a big relief to get something off your chest. You know how much courage it takes to confess your guilt to a parent, teacher, boss, or friend? And you know how it feels so good to be forgiven by that person? It’s even better when it’s coming from God.

Speaking of which, why a priest?

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We believe Catholic priests act “in persona Christi” or “in the person of Christ.” That means that when you’re in the Confessional, the priest has put on the person of Jesus, so you’re really speaking to Jesus when you’re in Confession. Sounds crazy? Maybe. But think of it another way: as an ordained priest, he has been given the authority of Jesus to forgive others in his name, just as the first disciples did.

So now that we realize why we ought to go, what happens?

Getting to the confessional.

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First, you do have to find a Catholic church or chapel or event where priests are there offering Confession. You can even stop priests in public places. I’ve heard of many traveling priests that are stopped in airports and have an impromptu Confession in the terminal. Confession can happen anywhere and everywhere, really.

What’s that screen thing about?

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Back in the day, going to Confession behind the screen was the norm. Partly for anonymity for the person and the priest, the screen can be useful, especially if you’re feeling a bit scared about the whole experience. These days many people don’t bother with the screen and they do face-to-face Confession. There’s no right or wrong way here; it’s up to you.

Isn’t talking face-to-face weird?

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Eh. It’s really dependent on the person. Priests go to Confession to each other all the time, and they usually live together or close by! In fact, a lot of them are friends! So if the priests can do it, so can you. And remember, the screen is almost always an option.

Bless me Father, for I have sinned. FALSE.

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Yeah, no one says that anymore. At least not that I, as a twenty-something Catholic, am aware of. That’s pretty much a thing of the past, and of movies.

We begin with the Sign of the Cross.

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It’s to start off in prayer. It’s a sacrament, after all. (What’s a sacrament? It’s an outward sign of God’s grace instituted by Christ.)

Then, how long it’s been since your last Confession.

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This helps the priest know where you’re at. Spiritual guidance for someone who hasn’t been in two weeks, two years, or two decades is going to be different!

How often should you go, anyway?

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The Church recommends at least twice a year, typically during Advent (Christmas-time) and Lent. A priest once told me to go as often as you usually visit your grandmother – which means frequent use of the sacrament.

How often do people actually go?

It's all over the board! There are people who go every week, or more times per week, once per month, twice a year, or never, really. There are plenty of Catholics who haven't been to Confession since they were kids, when they were preparing for their First Communion or Confirmation.

Does going more often mean you’re really sinful? And aren’t Catholics supposed to be holy, or something?

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Yeah! All of us are called to holiness, Catholic or not. And I wouldn’t say that frequent Confession means you’re more sinful; it means you’re more aware of your sins. It’s like going to the doctor. When you know you have issues, you go in for more check-ups. Pope John Paul II would go every other day himself. And that guy was pretty holy, don’t you think?

Okay, so what about the sins? What do you say?

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There are some people who will list off their sins like this: “I lied 3 times, and I gossiped twice, etc.” I personally think it’s really hard to keep track of sins like this, and as far as I know, a lot of people tend to be a little more general: “Since my last Confession, I had some issues with telling the truth, and talking behind others’ backs, etc.” There are some people that get really emotional during this part, but not everyone. Everyone expresses sorrow for sins differently.

How long does Confession take?

It depends! If you haven't been in a while, it might take a while to sort out all the things you want to talk about. If you go frequently, it might not be more than 5-10 minutes. There's no set time. It could really be as short as a minute or over an hour!

Can you use euphemisms?

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Sure! But it’s not as freeing as using the real word. So saying “I’ve had issues with impure thoughts and actions” is not nearly as effective as saying “I had pre-marital or extra-marital sex.”

Is it scary to say your sins?

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It depends. If you’re more accustomed to going to Confession, it seems to get a little easier each time. If you don’t go as often, it can feel quite daunting. You’re spilling your guts to a priest you may or may not know very well. That can definitely be a little scary, but it’s so, so worth it in the end.

What if you can’t remember all your sins?

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It’s okay. It’s recommended you do an ‘examination of conscience’ before you go. Usually there are pamphlets or online resources where all the sins under the sun are listed, so you can better remember what you struggled with. There’s even an app for that (Mea Culpa)! If you don’t remember all your sins, no worries – you can always say them next time.

What happens when you’re done saying your sins?

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The priest will usually talk about them with you. So he might ask you about your prayer life, or how long you’ve been struggling with that sin, or to tell him a little more for context, or to clarify. He’ll usually offer some advice on how to overcome and better handle the temptation for those sins in the future.

So it IS all about sins!

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Good joke, no. The priest usually infuses a LOT of love into the conversation with you. Sometimes when I’ve been to Confession I get a little down on myself and call myself all sorts of unpleasant things. Priests are way, way kinder to me than I am to myself. They always remind me of how much God loves me, and how good it is to be in his mercy. So even though it’s been about sins, there’s a lot of love going around.

Do the priests remember the sins?

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As I understand it, no. I’m not a priest, but I’ve asked, and they usually refer to it as ‘divine forgetfulness.’ Remember that you are almost certainly not the first OR last person to commit that sin. Sins like lying, gossiping, sex, masturbation, cheating…as bad as it sounds, the priest has almost definitely heard it all. And usually, priests are sitting in the confessional for an hour, if not longer, so all they’re doing is hearing all these sins. I’m pretty sure you’d forget too if you heard the same stuff over and over.

Isn’t he judging you?

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NO! Like Catholicism as a whole, the goal is NOT to judge the person, but the sin. People are good. A priest will absolutely tell you if a particular action is good or not, and urge you to rectify the mistake. If you sinned against someone else, he might recommend you seek their forgiveness. Remember, it’s about love. The goal is to come out a better person than you came in.

Can he tell anyone your sins?

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In the circumstance he DOES remember your sins, no. They are under oath not to reveal anything. So everything you tell them will be taken to their graves.

What about really bad stuff, like murder?

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In these cases, no, the priest won’t say anything. (There are extremely rare circumstances, however, such as if the person is a major endangerment to themselves and others, such as being clinically insane, etc.) Usually in the cases of those really bad sins, the priest recommends the person turn themselves in.

So a person can be forgiven of murder?!

Well, yeah. Jesus forgave his murderers. John Paul II forgave his would-be assassin. And as hard as it is to do in reality, remember this: if God's forgiveness is good enough for him, why isn't it good enough for you?

After chatting, you’ll receive your penance.

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Is that lashing yourself? Heavens, no! Penance is usually something the priest asks you to do after Confession as part of your 'repairs,' if you will. The 'worst' penance I ever got was praying a Rosary. Usually I get stuff like: pray three Hail Marys, pray three Our Fathers, do an act of kindness for someone, pray for priests, pray for the sick in our parish, pray for the mission trip at our parish, etc. Not saying it's always that 'easy.' In my mind, I think I do some terrible things and deserve some punishment, but like I've mentioned, Confession is much more a sacrament about love and forgiveness than it is about guilt.

Then you say an Act of Contrition!

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This is a prayer, which there are written formulae for, though you can do it in your own words. It usually goes something like this: “I’m sorry for my sins, I made a mistake, I promise to try not to do it again, thank you Jesus for your mercy.” Not that exact formula, but that’s the gist of the Act of Contrition.

ABSOLUTION!!

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The priest will then do the prayer of absolution, which is when you are officially forgiven. Your sins are no more! Yay!

You are now squeaky clean! Celebrate!

Usually after Confession people feel a whole lot better. It’s like having a massive weight taken off your chest. :D

And that’s what it’s like to go to Confession! Once you start going more often, you get to become a pro at it!

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