The Sacrament of Confession

There are three “parts” of the sacrament of penance, three things that are required of those receiving the sacrament of penance: contrition, confession and satisfaction. These three conditions are known as the acts of the penitent. (Incidentally, the “penitent” is the person going to confession; the “confessor” is the priest administering the sacrament.)

This sacrament exists to set us free from the sins we have committed. “Whoever commits sin is the slave of sin” (John 8:34). That explains the three parts of the sacrament: we regret our sins (contrition), we confess them to the priest, Christ’s representative (confession), and we are ready to do penance for them (satisfaction). Let us now look briefly at each of these three acts of the penitent a bit more closely.

1. Contrition
1.a. This is an absolutely essential part of making a good confession. Contrition is the sincere sorrow for our sins, together with the firm purpose of amendment. God does not force his mercy on anyone, and without sincerely regretting our sins, even God himself could not forgive them: not because of any weakness on his part, but because we would be unwilling to accept his forgiveness. Our contrition must above all be supernatural: that is, based on religious and not purely human motives. The man who regrets robbing a bank because he is subsequently sent to jail or drinking too much because he gets a headache has a purely natural sorrow: this is not the supernatural contrition necessary for a good confession. 

Our contrition is called perfect contrition when we are sorry for our sins purely, or at least primarily, because we have offended God, and not because of the punishments which our sins have deserved. When circumstances make it impossible to actually receive the sacrament of penance (in a sinking ship, on the field of battle …), perfect contrition, based on charity or love of God above all things, is enough to put the sinner back in the state of grace, when this contrition is joined to the intention of receiving the sacrament as soon as possible.

Perfect contrition, since it presupposes the desire for the sacrament, is not a replacement for going to confession: a person who would refuse to go to confession when he could do so, claiming to have perfect contrition, would show by that very fact that he did not have perfect contrition!

Imperfect contrition (also called “attrition”), on the other hand, is based on a more selfish motive: we regret our sins because we realise that they have earned for us the loss of heaven and the pains of hell or purgatory. But even imperfect contrition is still supernatural, since it is based on the truths of faith which God has revealed to us (the horror of sin, the reality of hell or purgatory, etc.) and not on merely natural considerations.

Although imperfect contrition on its own is not enough to secure the pardon of our sins, it is a sufficient disposition for receiving this sacrament validly. Even if we do not regret our sins solely out of the offence they cause to the majesty of God, we can still be forgiven in confession with sincere, supernatural albeit imperfect contrition.

Although we do not need to feel our sorrow emotionally, we must form a resolution of the will to detest our sins and avoid them in the future.

We must firmly regret every mortal sin we may have committed. “Whosoever shall keep the whole law, but offend in one point, is become guilty of all” (James 2:10). Just as a person cannot be “almost alive,” so also a soul cannot be “almost” in a state of grace: either we love God and regret all our sins or we do not.

We should not be discouraged if having true contrition for our sins sometimes seems difficult. Contrition itself is an actual grace which God, in his mercy, freely grants to all those who ask. God is always better at forgiving than we are at sinning! As much as we may wish to grow in holiness, God wants it even more than we do, and he is always there to help us along the way. Even if, after a devout confession, we eventually fall into the same sins again, we should never hesitate to turn again to God and renew our contrition.

1.b. An important part of contrition is the firm purpose of amendment. If we are truly sorry for our sins then naturally we will wish to avoid them in the future. The purpose of amendment is simply the intention to reform our lives and avoid sin in the future. Through contrition we must form the real intention to sin no more.

A student who confesses having cheated on a test is not sincere, if he already intends to cheat again tomorrow. We must also avoid the near occasion of sin. Scripture tells us, “he who loves danger shall perish in it” (Ecclesiasticus 3:27). An occasion of sin is any person, place or thing which tends to lead us into sin. A near occasion of sin is one which could easily be avoided and in which we are likely to fall. For example, for an alcoholic, a pub would be a near occasion of sin. We must seek to know ourselves well enough to realise what situations are likely to be a temptation for us. We must not recklessly expose ourselves to such situations; otherwise our contrition is not authentic.

2. Confession of Our Sins
Here we reach the heart of the sacrament: telling our sins to the priest. Needless to say, however, that simply rattling off a list of sins, without true contrition or a firm intention to reform our lives, is just an empty gesture, indeed an abuse of the sacrament.

There are three qualities which our confession should have, three conditions we should satisfy in telling our sins to the priest. First, our confession should be humble, made in the spirit of a poor sinner who knows he is weak and seeks help from his loving God.

Second, our confession should be sincere: simply to tell our sins as we see them, without exaggerating or excusing them. Finally – and this is very important – our confession must be entire: we must mention all mortal sins that came to mind during our examination of conscience as well as the number, at least approximately, of these sins.

To be entire, we must confess our sins explicitly. This does not mean that we need to know the technical, theological terms for all our sins; we just need to be able to explain, in our own words, what our sins are.

For example, even if we do not know what “calumny” is, we can still confess, “I told a lie to damage another person’s reputation,” and so on. We must also mention any circumstances which could alter the nature of a sin: for example, stealing is a sin, but stealing from a poor man is even worse.

Though our confession should be entire it should also be discreet: we must avoid naming other persons in our confession, and our language should be as modest as possible. We may confess any venial sins we may choose, but under no circumstances can we leave out any mortal sins we may have committed since our last good confession: this would be telling a lie to the Holy Spirit.

The means to employ to make sure that our confession is complete is to make a thorough examination of conscience beforehand. If we are to confess our sins, it goes without saying, we must first know what they are!

Conscience is simply the act by which our intelligence applies the moral law to concrete cases in order to judge whether our acts are good or bad. In other words, our conscience – when it is well formed – helps us to see where we have sinned.

Our conscience is not itself the source of the moral value of our acts; the conscience is merely a sort of intermediary between the unchanging moral law by which God governs the universe and the concrete situations in which we need to apply that law to our daily actions. The advice to “follow your conscience,” therefore, always presupposes that we understand that our conscience does not create right and wrong.

Human acts are good when they respect the purposes which God had in mind when he created human nature; they are bad – or sinful – when they do not.

A conscience which does not correspond to the reality of God’s plan is called an erroneous conscience: a scrupulous conscience tends to exaggerate its own sinfulness, whereas a lax conscience is always looking to find excuses for its behaviour.

Fortunately, since we can often be a bad judge in our own circumstances, we do not need to count on guesswork when forming our conscience: the moral teaching of the Church, God’s authorised messenger for our salvation, is summarised is any good catechism.

When in doubt we can ask our confessor for help. Seeking to form our conscience correctly is especially important nowadays, when the values of secular society are often at odds with the revealed truths of Christianity and even with the basic tenets of the natural moral law “written in[our] hearts” (Rom 2:15).

In preparing for confession, we ought to ask the Holy Spirit to help us to remember the sins we have committed since our last good confession.

It is useful also to pray for help to Our Lady, our patron saint and our guardian angel. In order to make the examination itself, one good method is to review the Ten Commandments of God, considering what each one requires and forbids.

We will naturally try especially to call to mind any mortal sins we may have committed, since these must be each confessed explicitly and specifically. Venial sins can and may be profitably confessed as well. Since even those living habitually in a state of friendship with God (in the “state of grace”) commit numerous venial sins every day, it would be almost impossible to remember all of them in an examination of conscience.

For our venial sins, it is best to try to call to mind the ones we commit most habitually and most deliberately and to try to recall also the reasons for which we committed them. From one confession to the next, we should try to get to the root of these sins.

3. Sartisfaction
This is the last of the three acts of the penitent. Every sin, be it large and grotesque or relatively minor and commonplace, creates a disorder in our soul and in the world God has created. In sin we turn away from God and towards a creature.

Confession turns us back towards God, but there are still “traces” of sin: we need to be purified of our remaining disordered attachment to creatures, whether on earth or in purgatory. We have already seen that, for sins that directly attack another person, we must do our best to repair the damage we have done by our lies, our injustices, our cruelty. From the earliest days of Christianity, the Church has also imposed what is called the “satisfaction” or the “sacramental penance”: a prayer, or pious deed, or act of mortification designed at least partially to redress the disorder caused by sin.

Nowadays these penances are generally very light, since the Church does not wish to scare any sinner away through fear of an excessive penance. To make a good confession it is necessary to be willing to perform the penance which the priest assigns. If, through no fault of our own, it becomes impossible to perform the penance, the confession is still valid, because at the time of going to confession we had the intention to satisfying the penance imposed.

Going to confession
From the considerations we have just outlined, it should be more or less clear about what one needs to do in order to go to confession: to make a good examination of conscience and then to state our sins calmly and distinctly to the priest.

Generally the priest will then give us some helpful advice or, if something has been unclear, will ask a clarifying question. He will then, in the name of God whose representative he is, give absolution or pardon for our sins. Even the most desperate of sinners, after a good confession, goes away restored to a state of friendship with God. A few minutes well spent in the confessional can literally change the balance of our eternity!

Then having performed our penance we are ready to embark again on our quest for an ever closer union with our Saviour. If we have confessed mortal sins, we may be sure that we are once again in the state of grace; if we had committed only venial sins, we leave confession with a more fervent charity.

Like any medicine, confession has a double effect: to cure us of our disease and to strengthen us against future maladies. Those who may be hesitant or who have been away from confession for months or even years should remember that shame ought never to keep us away from this sacrament. It has often been said, the devil takes away our shame when we sin and then restores it to us when it is time for confession. Christ instituted the sacrament of confession not to condemn sinners but to save us. There is greater rejoicing in heaven on the conversion of one sinner than in the perseverance of ninety-nine just men.

Likewise, the priest himself is there not to condemn but to help. Indeed, the priest himself, like any other man, must humble himself and go to confession. Those who fear that they have made a sacrilegious confession in the past or who have been away for the sacraments for a time or who simply are afraid about confessing this or that sin have only to ask the priest for his help, and he will be very happy to guide the penitent patiently back on the path to God. Surely it is not even necessary for us to point out that the secrecy of the confessional is so absolute that no earthly power could compel a priest into revealing what he has heard for any cause whatsoever.

Above all, let us not be discouraged by our sins, but make use of them to grow in humility. In the words of Saint Francis de Sales, “our sins are shameful when we commit them, but when they are turned to confession and penitence they are a source of spiritual benefit and welfare” (Introduction to the Devout Life, I, 19).

Miraculous Stories of Mary’s Intercession
Extracts from The Glories of Mary
by St Alphonsus Ligouri

A certain man in Germany had committed a great sin, and was ashamed to confess it, yet on the other hand he could not endure the remorse which he felt, and went to cast himself into the river; but just as he was on the point of doing so, he stopped, and bursting into tears, prayed God to pardon him without confession.

One night in his sleep he felt someone waking him, and heard a voice saying: Go and make your confession. He went to the church, but yet did not make his confession. He heard the same voice a second night; again he went to the church, but after he had entered it, said that he would rather die than confess that sin.

He was about to return home, when he thought he would go and recommend himself to the most holy Mary, before her image which was in the church. He had hardly knelt before it, when he felt himself entirely changed. He immediately arose, called for a confessor, and weeping bitterly, through grace received from the Virgin, made a sincere confession; and he afterwards said that he felt greater satisfaction than if he had gained all the gold in the world.

In one of our missions, after the sermon on Mary which it is our custom to preach, a very old man came to one of the Fathers of our congregation, to make his confession. He was full of consolation, and said : “Our Lady has done me a favour.”

“And what favour has she done you?” asked the confessor.

“For thirty-five years, Father, I have made sacrilegious confessions, because I was ashamed of one sin, and yet I have passed through many dangers, and have been several times at the point of death, and if I had died then I certainly would have been lost; and now our Lady has done me the favour to touch my heart;” and when he said this he wept so bitterly, that he seemed to be all tenderness.

After the Father had heard his confession, he asked him what devotion he had practiced, and he answered that he had never failed on Saturday to keep a strict fast in honour of Mary, and therefore the Virgin had taken pity on him, and he gave the Father permission to publish
the fact in his sermons.