Life, Church

The Confession FAQ You've Always Wanted

While forgiveness can be found in confession year-round, the Church encourages us in a special way to experience the sacrament of reconciliation during Lent. With all this attention turned toward the sacrament right now, I figured it’d be a good time to compile this unique take on a  confession FAQ. I reached out to a number of priests all over the country and their answers inform those found below.

What is one of the best tips you can give in regards to going to confession?

“Examine your conscience before entering the confessional.”

“Prepare well - use an examination of conscience and spend some time reflecting on the commandments.”

“Ask the Holy Spirit to make clear what sins you have committed in order to confess them. Find a good guide to examining your conscience.”

“Prepare. Think it through. Examine your conscience using a guide, reflecting on the 10 commandments, asking yourself how well or poorly you’ve lived the beatitudes, or pray with the qualities of love that Paul identifies in Corinthians."

What prevents people from going to confession and what’s your advice for getting past it?

Fear of Telling the Priest Their Sins

“Telling the doctor where it hurts is the only way he can help you heal.”

Not Knowing What To Do

“Don’t get caught up in the formula or knowing the exact words or format of the sacrament - if you need help, just ask the priest to walk you through it.”

Fear of Being Judged

“We priests are not sent to be Judge and Jury, but to be Christ Himself, always ready to forgive!”

Thinking They Need to Have Their Act Totally Together Before Confessing Their Sins

“Yoda was completely wrong: “there is only try; no do.” All we can ever do is try at anything, some attempts are successful, others not so much, but each and every attempt taken in earnestness leads to growth."

What do people do in confession that they don’t need to?

“Don’t blame others, justify your sins, or minimize them.”

“You don’t need to give the details or back story to your sins, unless the priests asks for them to help him discern the gravity.”

What do people forget or fail to do in confession that they should be doing?

“Examine their conscience before coming into the confessional. Like a successful sports team, their games are won largely in their good practices. Good confessions happen because people are well prepared.”

“I like to encourage people to add ‘ I’m sorry for these and anything else I might be forgetting’ to the end of their list of sins. This can help bring peace of heart if you remember a sin you forgot to confess later on.”

Face-to-face or behind the screen?

“Whichever is going to help you make a good confession.”

“Each has it’s advantages. When face-to-face the priest and the penitent can reach each other’s body language, which can lead to better understanding. When behind the screen, the priest can give more candid advice without worrying the penitent will think they have a bad opinion of them next time they see each other.”

“The pitfalls of each: the screen can seem like an ATM, face-to-face can seem like two friends catching up. Both pitfalls, in my opinion, are to be avoided.”

“Sometimes priests are more likely to give advice face-to-face.”

How often should people go to confession?

“Whenever in grave sin.”

“I usually recommend people go monthly.”

“If battling a habitual mortal sin, then the grace is there for them and they should go as often as they need to.”

What can someone expect to happen in confession?

“To have their sins forgiven!”

“To encounter the gentle mercy of Christ through the presence and words of a humble servant, who also is himself in need of Christ’s grace.”

What should someone not expect to happen in confession?

“The emotions may or may not be moved, so the penitent should not count on it happening.”

“Life changing advice.”

What’s the most important thing for people to remember before entering the confessional?

“They are going in there to meet Christ, the Good Shepard, who rejoices more over one sinner who repents than over the 99 who have no need of repentance.”

“The purpose of the sacrament is to restore the penitent to friendship with Jesus Christ and the primary effect of the sacrament is a renewal of life in the Spirit.”

What’s the most important thing for people to remember while inside the confessional?

“Be honest and trust that God loves them enough to give them this gift.”

“This is really about an encounter with Christ, not the priest.”

“Tell the priest you sins forthrightly and simply.”

“Call the sin what it is: fornication, adultery, slander, lying, envy, etc. Learn the vocabulary to name your sins simply.”

What’s the most important thing for people to remember after exiting the confessional?

“Your sins are forgiven, go in peace… and live a new life in the Lord!”

“Be confident that the Blood of Jesus truly has washed away all your sins.”

“Do you penance sooner rather than later.”

“The sins they confessed will never stand between them and God again. They gone, forgiven.”

“Don’t forget to also forgive yourself.”

I want to share with you one last thought from one of the priests I spoke with:

I am intrigued by the label of “Confession.” There are three titles floating around for the same Sacramental Act: Penance, Reconciliation, and Confession. Remember the definition of a Sacrament: “a visible sign, instituted by Christ to give Grace.” So therefore is the sign the (a) confession, (b) penance, or (c) reconciliation? The answer tells us much about the our view of God’s act and our own.”

Thorough preparation was a big tip offered by the priests I talked to, so here are some examinations of conscience you may find helpful:

Examination Of Conscience Arranged by Capital Sin - PDF File
From FOCUS Equip 

Examination Of Conscience Arranged by Commandment - Webpage
From Fatima.org

Examination Of Conscience In Light Of Catholic Social Teaching - Web Page
From The USCCB 

Now go out there and get forgiven!


I'd like to thank the following priests for their help with this article:
Fr. Charlie Donahue, CSP, Fr. Luke Spannagel, Fr. Jon Schnobrich, Fr. John McCloskey, O.F.M, Cap, Fr. Benedict Croell, O.P., Fr. James Brent, O.P., and Fr. James Dean.