Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Ten Tips for Better Confessions
The Gift of Reconciliation
"I'm a Catholic who still believes strongly in the
value of confession but I feel unsure nowadays about the best
way to celebrate this sacrament. What can I do to make confession
a richer and more peaceful experience?"
If these words express your own sentiments and anxieties
about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, this Update will
give you helpful insights and even a bit of comfort.
I know, however, that there are many Catholics who,
on seeing an article billed as "Ten Tips for Better Confessions,"
may be tempted to quip: "Why would I want ten tips for doing something
better that I might not do at all?!!"
I believe I understand their position. I run into
it a lot. After all, recent studies show that the majority of
Catholics have either stopped going to confession altogether or
they go only rarely. No one denies that the long lines of Catholics
waiting to go to confession on Saturdays have disappeared.
As someone who celebrates this sacrament from both
viewpointsthat is, both as a penitent and as an officiating
priestI'm convinced that the Sacrament of Reconciliation
is a gift for today's Church. In this Update, therefore,
I want to persuade Catholics of all kinds to approach this sacrament
The "Ten Tips" that follow are based upon my own experience
as pastor and as seminary professor and upon various studies I
have made or read. Most recently is that published by the U.S.
bishops (1990), Reflections on the Sacrament of Penance in
Catholic Life Today, a study they commissioned to find out
why Catholics have stopped going to confession. I have found these
"Ten Tips" useful for myself and for many who have come to me
for spiritual direction.
1. Focus on what's most important
I have found that many Catholics have
less than pleasant experiences with the Sacrament of Reconciliation
because they miss the real point of the sacrament. I think the "real
point" can be found in the story I once heard from a saintly and
learned German pastor, Father Bernard H—ring:
One Sunday afternoon in the 1930's in
a little parish in Germany where he was pastor, Father H—ring was
leading the customary Sunday afternoon parish Vesper service with
religious instruction and Benediction. This particular Sunday he
was talking about confession.
"What is the most important thing about
confession?" he asked. A woman in the front pew responded: "Telling
your sins to the priest. That's why we call it confession."
Father H—ring said, "Confessing the sins is important, but it's
not the most important thing." A man towards the back called
out: "Contrition! Being sorry for your sins! The whole thing doesn't
work without contrition." Father H—ring said, "True, it doesn't
'work' without contrition; but I don't think contrition is the
most important thing." A man over on St. Joseph's side spoke
up: "It's the examination of conscience. Unless you examine your
conscience, you don't know what you have to be sorry for and what
to confess." Father H—ring still wasn't satisfied.
An uneasy silence fell over the church.
Then a little girl in the second pew said: "Father, I know what
is most important. It's what Jesus does!"
It's what Jesus does! That's the
most important thing, the thing we should focus upon. The examination
of conscience, sorrow for sin, telling the sins to the priestthese
are all important. But you will have a more positive experience
of the sacrament if your focus is on what Jesus does.
In the Sacrament of Reconciliation Jesus
announces to us, through the Church and its ministers, that our
sins are forgiven and that we are loved by God. We hear the voice
of Christ: "Go in peace, your sins are forgiven." This is what Jesus
does. This is his gift of reconciliation.
2. Name it "Reconciliation"
Names are important. The Sacrament of Reconciliation
has had several different names. In the recent past, bishops,
theologians and Church documents have consistently called this
sacrament the "Sacrament of Penance" and called those going to
the sacrament "penitents." This language has never been popular
with the Catholic laity who used the names "confession," "confessor"
and "confessional." Your experience of the sacrament will be enriched
if you name the sacramentand think about it as"Reconciliation."
"Confession" only names one part of the sacrament, and not the
most important part at that. Reconciliation names what is most
important, what Jesus does. "Sacrament of Reconciliation" is the
name used in the rite itself and was the name preferred by Pope
Paul VI who issued the new ritual.
The word reconciliation is rich in meaning.
It suggests the gift of God's forgiveness and the removal of the
barriers we place between ourselves, our community and our God.
Reconciliation means the rebridging of the gap between God and
us and between ourselves and others. It also suggests the deep
peace that comes from being brought back into harmony with God,
with sisters and brothers and with the whole of creation.
3. See the advantages of communal celebration
The revised rite of the Sacrament of Reconciliation
was given to the Church by Pope Paul VI on December 2, 1973. The
new rite presents the sacrament in three different ritual forms,
three different shapes: (1) Rite for Reconciliation of Individual
Penitents, (2) Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents
with Individual Confession and Absolution, (3) Rite for
Reconciliation of Several Penitents with General Confession and
The first formThe Rite for Reconciliation
of Individual Penitentsis similar to the way most Roman
Catholics remember "confession"; however, provision is made for
the reading of sacred Scripture, and the penitent is given the
option of speaking to the priest face-to-face or remaining anonymous.
The prayer for absolution is revised and enriched.
The second formThe Rite of Reconciliation
of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolutionis
The third formThe Rite for Reconciliation
of Several Penitents with General Confession and Absolutionis
similar to the preceding form except that the penitent need not
mention each serious sin individually and the prayer of absolution
is given collectively or "generally" to all those gathered to
celebrate the sacrament (general absolution). This rite (the third
form) with general absolution is not widely used in the United
While "Tip Three" (recommending a communal
celebration) might refer to either form two or three, it is the
second formThe Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents
with Individual Confession and Absolutionwhich, I believe,
deserves the greatest attention here, especially for those who
find that the practice of individual "confession" as we knew it
in the past does not fit their needs.
For some Catholics the very idea of a communal
celebration of the sacrament may seem strange, for there are very
few things that we would consider more personal and private
than our sins and our sinfulness. But this is only partly true.
Our sins are personal but they are never private. Pope John Paul
II clearly affirmed that "there is no sin, not even the most intimate
and secret one, the most strictly individual one, that exclusively
concerns the person committing it....Every sin has repercussions
on the entire ecclesial body and the whole human family" (Reconciliation
and Penance, 16). As sin affects the community so Reconciliation
affects the community. And a communal celebration of the sacrament
says this most clearly.
As our sin is both personal and communal, a celebration
of Reconciliation which is both personal and communal will, in
many cases, be the form of the sacrament which will be most helpful.
The Second Vatican Council instructs us that "whenever rites...make
provision for communal celebration involving the presence and
active participation of the faithful...this way of celebrating
them is to be preferred, as far as possible, to a celebration
that is individual and, so to speak, private" (Constitution
on the Sacred Liturgy, 27).
The Holy Father Pope Paul VI, after promulgating the
revision of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, said to a general
audience on April 3, 1974, that he hoped this communal rite, that
is, the second form, would "become the normal way of celebration."
And indeed this is the rite which is becoming more and more popular
in Catholic parishes.
4. Know what you want
There are many reasons why you might
want to talk to a priest: You might want advice, counseling, moral
guidance, help with your marriage, spiritual direction, or you might
just want to talk to someone. It is important to know what you want.
While you might want counseling or help with your marriage at a
certain time in your life, for example, none of these really requires
a priestand a priest may not be the best person to meet these
needs for you. More importantly, none of these things is the principal
focus of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The sacrament is the proclamation
of reconciliation with God and with the Church. If that is what
you want, choose the sacrament, but it's important to know what
It is the growing conviction of many
priests and liturgists that the other reasons for "talking to a
priest" mentioned above (counseling, spiritual direction and so
on) are separate and distinct things. And they often work best outside
A good silver table knife doesn't work
as well as a screwdriver. But when a screw comes loose on the refrigerator
door and the knives are right there while the screwdriver hasn't
been seen since last Christmas, we often reach for the handiest
thing. Sometimes it will get the job done, but it isn't good for
the knife. Many Catholics have become dissatisfied with "confession"
because they wanted it to do something it was not intended to do.
5. Don't use the sacrament as a substitute
The Sacrament of Reconciliation works best when you
have already achieved some degree of reconciliation before
celebrating the sacrament. Confessing "I am an alcoholic" is no
substitute for going to AA. Or to confess "My spouse and I have
started to yell and hit one another" is no substitute for seeking
marriage counseling. Or telling your confessor "I get so angry
when the neighbor's children play outside my bedroom window when
I am trying to sleep" is no substitute for speaking to your neighbor
and explaining your needs.
6. Talk about sinnot just "guilt"
Many of us first received our "technical" knowledge
about sin when we were children being prepared for our First Confession.
We often learned that sin was "not keeping the rules" set down
by the adults. For example, we might confess, "I disobeyed my
mommy and daddy three times." As we grow and mature our internal
"list of rules" (what some call the "superego") grows also and
we gather more and more "should's" and "ought's." Whenever we
break one of these rules, intentionally or not, we feel guilty.
Guilt is not the same as sin.
Sin, in a Christian perspective, is not merely "breaking
the rules." For the mature Christian, sin is understood in relation
to love. God has loved us so much, and we have so often failed
to return that love. When we examine our lives in the light of
the message of Jesus we find that Jesus calls us to wholeness,
to maturity; he came that we might have life and have it abundantly.
For an adult Christian, sin is more than just breaking the rules;
sin is the failure to grow. Sin is being today like you were yesterday.
Sin is the failure to respond to the love God has shown us in
Christ Jesus. This is why the proclamation of the Word of God
now has such a prominent place in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
It is the Word of God which convicts us of sin and which invites
us to conversion.
One of the "strange" things about the Christian understanding
of sin is that Christians become more aware of sin in proportion
to their growth in holiness. The more we love, the more we know
how much the lover is offended. The great saints really knew about
sin. St. Francis of Assisi, as he lay dying, claimed he was the
greatest of sinners. At one time I thought this was just the pious
rambling of an unearthly man; but now I see that this was the
honest realization of a great lover. My experience has often been
that people's desire for the Sacrament of Reconciliation is in
proportion to their holiness, not their sinfulness.
7. Examine your life in the light of the word
Formerly we came to church for confession knowing
ahead of time what our sins were and what we were going to say.
This might not always be such a good idea. It's important to come
with an open mind. Don't decide finally on your sins until you
participate in the celebration. Let the readings and the liturgical
season, and the rite itself, help you to come to see what your
sins are. During Advent, confess Advent sins (for example, how
have I blocked the coming of God's reign?); during Lent confess
Lent sins (for example, how have I failed to live my baptismal
During proclamation of the Scriptures, concentrate
on God's love for you. The laws can give us a list of what we
did wrong but the laws have no power to help us convert. The love
of God has that power. As we hear the proclamation of God's love
for us, we are confronted with our own response to that love.
Does our love measure up to that of Jesus who said: "This is my
commandment: Love one another as I love you" (John 15:12)? It
is our common experience that we have fallen short; we have not
The Ten Commandments are but one small part of the
Bible. Some Catholics have found that restricting their examination
to the Ten Commandments led them to routine confessions, boredom
and eventually dissatisfaction with the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The whole of sacred Scripture is for our instruction.
For example, if you are meditating on the story in
John's Gospel about the cure of the man born blind, you might
confess: "Father, I am sorry for the times I have been blinded
by my desire to win the approval of others." Or: "I am sorry for
the times I blame others for my problems." Or: "I wish to confess
the times I have not seen the need to rest and go slow."
8. Pick the right time
My experience has been that people celebrate the sacrament
most fruitfully when the celebration is occasioned by some important
event in their lives. This event might be the yearly recurring
cycle of the great solemnities of Easter and Christmas. It might
be a milestone or turning point in their life's journey, for example,
preparing for marriage or at the time of a spiritual retreat.
Families often celebrate Reconciliation together when one of their
children celebrates the sacrament for the first time. Lent has
always been an especially appropriate time for the Sacrament of
If you prefer to celebrate the sacrament with the
communal rite, The Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents
with Individual Confession and Absolution, you are most likely
to find it offered in your parish during Lent and Advent, and
at the time when families celebrate First Reconciliation with
9. Experience reconciliation in a variety of
The reconciliation found in the sacrament is improved
when you experience reconciliation in various ways. Catholics
report that the most common ways in which they experience reconciliation
apart from the Sacrament of Reconciliation are: by receiving the
Eucharist (84%), by personal prayer (78%), by making an act of
contrition (64%), by talking with a friend (52%), by helping someone
in need (45%) and by reading the Bible (45%) (Reflections on
the Sacrament of Penance in Catholic Life Today).
Outside of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Eucharist
is the most common way in which Catholics experience the forgiveness
of sins. (For more on this point, see Leo Hay's Eucharist:
A Thanksgiving Celebration, Glazer, The Liturgical Press,
1989, pp. 84-91.)
Perhaps the connection between the Eucharist and the
forgiveness of sins was hidden when the Mass was in Latin, but
now Catholics hear plainly Sunday after Sunday many expressions
of forgiveness and reconciliation: "May almighty God...forgive
us our sins" (Penitential Rite). "You take away the sin of the
world: have mercy on us" (Glory to God). "Though we are sinners,
we trust in your mercy and love. Do not consider what we truly
deserve, but grant us your forgiveness" (Eucharistic Prayer I).
"Our Father...forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who
trespass against us" (Lord's Prayer). "This is the Lamb of God
who takes away the sins of the world...Lord, I am not worthy...but
only say the world and I shall be healed" (Invitation to Communion).
And at the heart of each and every Eucharistic Prayer in the institution
narrative we hear Christ's command to "Take this, all of you,
and drink from it: This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the
new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for
all so that sins may be forgiven." These are only a few
of many references to the forgiveness of sins at Eucharist.
10. Be open to receiving a gift
"Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so
I send you" (John 20:21). Peace is the Easter gift of the risen
Lord. Christ commissioned his followers to continue his mission
of healing, forgiveness and reconciliationhis mission of
bringing peace. Peace is the "gift" of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
This is why we can speak of celebrating the Sacrament of
There is joy in heaven when a sinner repents. What
is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven and what is celebrated
in heaven is celebrated on earth. My parish holds a celebration
with cookies and punch for the children and their families following
their first celebration of the sacrament. How things have changed!
I never thought of a party when I made my first confession. But
then, my focus was on what I had done and not on what
For several years when I first started my ministry
of reconciliation as a priest I worried about when I could "give
absolution" and when I had to refuse it. Slowly I began to realize
that the real problem is not the giving absolution but
in helping people hear it. Too few people really hear what
Jesus is doing for them. Too few people actually hear and
experience "Go in peace, your sins are forgiven." But those who
do hear (and the new way of celebrating the sacrament helps us
to hear these words of peace much more clearly than our former
rite) receive a gift. And they know they have received a gift.
Why do I "go to confession"? To receive the gift
of Reconciliation. The gift is offered to you also. It's there
for the asking.