One of the questions I get asked by non-Catholic friends and family is, “Do you really believe that going to confession is necessary?”
The Sacrament of Reconciliation, more commonly known as ‘confession’ is one of those seemly uncomfortable experiences most would rank up there with their annual physical or maybe a root scaling treatment (and that is really uncomfortable). Even the media generally portrays going to confession as something to feel trepidation over, so, it was no surprise during my RCIA program this past year, I was told that feeling ‘a little nervous’ about it would be completely normal. So, why wasn’t I more nervous, I wondered.
In typical me fashion, I was more concerned with the etiquette of ‘doing it right’ than the act of baring my entire life and all of my failings — including the times I’m ashamed of — in the sacred confidence between a priest and a parishioner. Questions that worried me:
- “Should I sit face to face or go behind a screen?”
Answer: It’s whatever you’re most comfortable with.
- “Should I leave the door open or closed?”
Answer: Close it!
- “How do you know if someone is in there already?”
Answer: There’s a light that goes on, visible from the outside of the booth.
- “How long are you supposed to take?”
Answer: Depends on a number of factors really. If you attend confession frequently, it may not take as long as if you are doing a first-time confession, aka a ‘lifetime confession’.
- “What sins should I mention first, and in what order of importance if case I run out of time?”
Answer: Before you go, you need to do an ‘Examination of Conscience’. Google it. There are tons of websites that offer helpful questions for you to ponder. One site that I found helpful in my own fledgling attempts was the National Catholic Register’s Confession Guide for Adults.
- “What kinds of penances will I be expected to make?”
Answer: It depends on the severity of what it is — it could range from a prayer or series of prayers to making reparations with the injured parties involved. Your priest will discuss this with you.
- “I’m supposed to have an act of contrition (a prayer) to read at the end — do I need to bring one with me, or will there be one already available?”
Answer: there was a card provided at my church as an option if you didn’t bring one with you. Most missals (those books in the pews with the readings for mass) also have an act of contrition prayer printed inside or near the back cover.
- “What if I forget to mention something important?”
Answer: If you genuinely forgot, it’s covered for now, but mention it next time during confession.
For my first experience with the sacrament of reconciliation, I chose to sit face-to-face with the priest and talk with him without the benefit of a screen for anonymity. I think it helped that since he led the RCIA program and we’d had the opportunity to talk together for the past several months, we’d established a rapport. I felt more comfortable talking to him than I might have to a stranger.
There was some stumbling as I started, but, it helped that I’d brought a list based on my ‘examination of conscience’ to help me stay on track. You don’t have to do this of course, but with my poor memory retention, I thought it’d be easier for me. If you do go with a hand-written list, make sure that you destroy it later! You don’t want someone finding that down the road, do you?
Things that I did not expect to encounter during Confession:
- It was hot. That is a small booth and with two people sitting in there, it can get warm.
- Kleenex. Smart.
- Counseling. Huh.
I don’t know if this is common (since it was only my first time) but my priest, following my examination of conscience/confession, talked for a bit, summarizing what I’d said and offering some insights to, on a spiritual level, help me grow in my faith. Confession is NOT supposed to be used instead of getting professional counseling and I’m not recommending you use it as such either. It was helpful, though, in the space of a few minutes, to see my spiritual journey summarized from an outsider’s perspective, without my own biases and personal hang-ups in the way.
After being assigned penances, and giving an act of contrition, the priest will offer absolution for your sins before a dismissal.
Absolution. This is the whole point of the sacrament of reconciliation. God’s divine mercy, which allows you to have the courage to confess your sins, feel genuine sorrow for them and a desire not to do them anymore, and forgiveness of those sins. Since sin is what separates us from God, the act of reconciliation draws us back to God as He invites us home again with open arms.
As an evangelical Christian, before I began the process of conversion to Catholicism, I already believed in God’s divine mercy and that “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). I did, and still do believe, that because I had already confessed and asked forgiveness over the years for those sins, that God had already forgiven me, even before I participated in the sacrament.
Still, the act of a verbal confession is also Biblical and there’s something concrete about admitting to someone else, what you’ve only ever admitted to yourself. Also, it’s a requirement of the Church to have no mortal sins before partaking in the Eucharist, and that’s something that I long to do. For a third reason to do it, consider too how regular confession to the same priest may help them (for the long term) help you identify areas that you continue to struggle in sin, and how to better avoid it.
For me, leaving the booth, I felt a sense of freedom and joy that God had given me the grace necessary to get myself there that day, to wait my turn and not put it off, to be honest and completely open, to be forgiven and reconciled to God.
After you leave the booth, you’re not done yet. Whatever penances or reparations your priest requested, you should linger in the church and start them immediately. I found it helpful to ‘take a knee’ back in my pew and begin praying and reflecting upon our conversation, instead of rushing off to the next task of the day.
While I can’t promise that your first-time experience will be (or was) the same, I hope that you can take away from it the same sense of God’s mercy on your life, and the gratitude for this precious gift that is so freely given to us, available if we only reach out and embrace it.