An Introduction to the Sacrament of Reconciliation
(with an examination of conscience)
What is Confession?
Confession (or “reconciliation”) is the sacrament where Baptized Catholics receive forgiveness from God’s mercy for the offense committed against him, and are reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins. It is the place where you meet the risen Jesus, who gave the apostles - the first priests - the power to forgive sins in his name (John 20:23).
Facing Sin in My Life
The world in which we live has lost its sense of sin. That which is evil is sometimes held to be something "good." Sin can have the power in our lives to blind us from seeing reality. If we examine our hearts, and ask the Holy Spirit to guide us, we begin to see ourselves as God sees us, and we recognize our need for forgiveness.
The Lord has a plan for your life. He has destined you for heaven! Take confidence then, when you examine your conscience, because God has sent his son, Jesus Christ, to bring you back to himself and to know his love and mercy.
Sin is the deliberate choice of something opposed to God's law of love in one's thoughts, words or deeds. God loves us and desires our holiness. He wants to give himself to us, but we say "no" to him through our sins. Sin is its own worst punishment. There are two kinds of sin: mortal and venial. Mortal (or serious) sin destroys love. It turns one away from God and community. It is a grave violation of God's law. In order for a sin to be mortal, the sinful act must be serious; the person had to have understood that it was seriously wrong; and the person had to have been free in committing a sin. So I cannot commit a mortal sin if the matter is not serious, if I did not know what I was doing, or if I did not act in full freedom. Venial sin is a minor offense against God that hurts our friendship with him but does not destroy it.
The Forgiveness of Sins in the Bible
Only God can forgive sins. In the Old Testament, the Israelites received forgiveness for their sins by offering sacrifices through the mediation of priests. Since the just punishment for serious sins was death, the blood of an animal had to be shed to atone for sins and to symbolize the death that was the result of sin (Lev 17:11).
In the fullness of time, Jesus the Messiah died as the unique and definitive sacrifice for our sins (1 Cor 15:3), as announced by the prophet Isaiah (53:4-12). He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. By offering his life and shedding his blood he atoned for all the sins of mankind (1 Jn 2:2). He took the punishment for our sins upon himself to give us forgiveness and freedom from sin and to make us righteous before God.
How do we receive Jesus’ forgiveness today? First, by repenting from our sins, by believing in Christ, by being baptized and by joining the Church. Jesus tells us that baptism is necessary for salvation. He said that we need to be “born again” of water and the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God (Jn 3:3-5). This new birth is faith in Christ and baptism, by which we are incorporated into his death and resurrection and are washed from all our sins (Rom 6:3-4).
But even after we believe in Jesus and are baptized, we continue to sin. We must always continue on the road to ever deeper conversion of heart. When Jesus walked on earth he forgave sins himself (Mk 2:5). Before he returned to the Father, he entrusted the ministry of the forgiveness of sins to the apostles, to whom he gave the keys to the kingdom of heaven and the power to bind and to loose (Mt 18:18). He told the apostles: “if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20:23). Today, the successors of the apostles are the bishops and their helpers, the priests, to whom Jesus has given his own authority to forgive sins.
When we go to confession, the Lord strengthens us in our weakness, and our hearts are opened to receive the grace and mercy God desires to give us. Regular confession is an effective means in growing closer to Jesus Christ. Each time we celebrate this sacrament, we come to know more intensely what it means to be "dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Rom 6:11).
Who can go to confession?
Only Baptized Catholics can receive the sacrament of confession. If you are not Catholic but would like to learn more about the Catholic faith, speak to a priest. He will be glad to answer your questions.
How often should Catholics go to confession?
All Catholics, including priests, bishops and even the pope, are required to go to confession at least one a year. However, frequent confession (at least monthly) is highly recommended. Pope John Paul II even highly recommended the practice of weekly confession, which he followed himself. He said that “it would be an illusion to seek after holiness without partaking frequently of this sacrament of conversion and reconciliation.” If you would like to receive the sacrament, simply ask a priest and he will help you.
If you have committed a serious (mortal) sin, it is very important to go to confession as soon as possible. Anyone who has committed a mortal sin cannot receive communion until he/she has first gone to confession and received God’s forgiveness, since receiving communion in a state of serious sin does not bring grace but judgment (1 Cor 11:27-30). For example, a Catholic who has deliberately missed Mass on Saturday/Sunday or on a day of obligation without a serious reason should first go to confession before he again receives communion, since Sunday (or Saturday evening) Mass attendance is obligatory for Catholics.
I’m nervous about confessing my sins to a priest
The priest is a sinner like all of us and he understands our struggles with temptation and sin. When you confess to him, you are really confessing to Christ. For this reason, the priest is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins confessed to him.
Preparing for reconciliation
First, ask the Holy Spirit to come into your heart to give you knowledge of your sins and courage to bring them to the Lord. He loves you, and deeply desires for you to come to him in humility so that he can free you of the burden of sin in your life - that which is weighing you down. Reconciliation gives you the joy and consolation of God’s love; it strengthens your relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church.
Sorrow for Sin
We need to be sorry for our sins, yet confident in God’s loving mercy when receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This sorrow should include the resolve to avoid the sins committed as well as the persons, places and things that lead us to sin in the first place. If you know you have sins but you lack sincere sorrow, consider the sufferings Jesus endured out of love for you. If you don't understand why something is actually sinful, ask a priest and he will help you.
Examination of conscience
In preparation for confession, go through this list and see if there are any areas in your life that are in need of conversion and forgiveness:
(Note: most of these points are universal laws that apply to all people – the “Torah written on our hearts”. The points marked with an asterisk (*), however, are specific to Catholics and obviously do not apply to you if you are not Catholic.)
1. "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind."
- Do I strive to have a personal, loving relationship with God?
- Does God truly hold the first place in my life?
- Do I "compartmentalize" God in my life? Am I a Christian at Church but something else during the week?
- Where your treasure is, there will your heart to be also (Lk 12:34). Do I place undue value and time on gaining and possessing unimportant things? Am I materialistic in my attitude and outlook in regard to money?
- Have I participated in the occult, witchcraft, fortune-telling, Ouija boards, seances, tarot cards, good luck charms? Have I believed in horoscopes?
- Have I ever been involved in New Age spirituality and/or practices? Did I ever participate in spiritual techniques or practices (e.g. yoga, transcendental meditation), or healing methods (e.g. reiki) that are not based in biblical revelation?
- Have I ever despaired of God’s love for me?
- Have I sinned presuming that God would forgive me afterwards?
- Do I seek to be with God in prayer regularly?
- (*) Have I received communion in a state of mortal sin?
- (*) Have I told a lie in confession or deliberately withheld confessing a mortal sin?
- (*) Have I ever denied a truth of the Catholic faith out of embarrassment?
- (*) Have I neglected learning about my faith in reading the Bible and studying the teachings of the Church?
2. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
- Have I insulted God's Holy name or used it lightly or carelessly?
- Have I wished evil on anyone or uttered curses?
3. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy
- The Sabbath is a day of solemn rest, holy to the Lord (Ex 31:15). Have I avoided unnecessary work on the Sabbath?
- (*) Have I missed Mass deliberately on Saturday/Sunday or holy days of obligation?
- (*) Do I show God indifference by not taking Mass seriously? Do I leave early or come late deliberately or without good reason?
4. Honor your father and your mother
- Do I honor and obey my parents? Have I cursed at my parents or harmed them in any way?
- Do I honor and obey my legitimate superiors?
- Have I neglected my family responsibilities?
5. You shall not kill
- Have I deliberately hurt anyone?
- Have I had an abortion? Have I encouraged or assisted anyone to have an abortion?
- Have I abused drugs or alcohol?
- Do I have unresolved issues of hatred, anger or resentment?
- Have I given scandal to anyone by my sins, thereby leading them to sin?
- Have I attempted suicide or seriously considered it?
6. You shall not commit adultery
- (For married persons…) Am I faithful to marriage vows in thought and action?
- (*) Was I married outside of the Church without proper permission of the Church? (Ask the priest if you are not sure)
- Have I used artificial birth control, or been sterilized?
- (For those not married …) Have I been sexually active with anyone - male or female?
- Have I engaged in any activity with the intention of becoming sexually aroused or sexually active, such as impure touching or overly passionate kissing?
- Have I masturbated?
- Have I indulged in pornographic magazines, videos, or internet websites?
- Have I used impure language or told impure jokes?
- Am I modest in dress?
7. You shall not steal
- Have I taken what is not mine? Destroyed property belonging to someone else? Knowingly accepted stolen goods?
- Jesus teaches us to have a special love for the poor. Have I neglected those in need or ignored the poor? Am I generous with the material possessions I have?
- Have I cheated?
- Have I stolen anything from an employer or employee?
- Have I illegally copied CDs or computer software?
8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor
- Have I lied or sworn falsely?
- Have I gossiped or ruined anyone's good name?
- Have I revealed information about anyone that should have been kept confidential?
9. You shall not desire your neighbor's wife
- Have I deliberately and consciously permitted sexual thoughts about someone to whom I am not married? Do I try to control my imagination?
- Am I responsible in the books I read and the movies I watch? Have I watched shows, videos, plays, or movies that contain impure scenes with the deliberate intention of watching those impure scenes?
10. You shall not desire your neighbor's goods
- Am I envious of the possessions, talents, and successes of others?
- Have I acted out of jealousy of someone's gifts or talents?
You shall love your neighbor as yourself
- Do I love my neighbor? Are there persons who I do not love or refuse to love? Have I ridiculed or humiliated others? Am I prejudiced?
- Do I seek to help and assist others in need - especially the poor that live around me?
- Do I seriously try to love others as Jesus wants? Do I forgive from my heart those who have hurt me? Do I pray for my enemies?
- Have I been overly critical towards others when I should have been encouraging?
- Do I love myself as God loves me? Do I care for my physical, emotional and spiritual health?
(*) Precepts of the Church
- (*) Do I go to confession at least once a year?
- (*) Do I receive Holy Communion at least once during Easter time? Do I fast for one hour before receiving communion?
- (*) Do I observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church (Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent)?
How to go to confession
- Examine your conscience using this guide and call upon the Holy Spirit, be truly sorry for your sins, and resolve to change your life.
- Go to the priest, make the sign of the cross saying, "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." It is customary to tell the priest how long it has been since your last confession.
- Tell the priest about your sins. Tell him how you have sinned, and how often it happened. If you're not sure whether something is a sin, ask the priest. Tell him about your serious sins. It is also good to confess any of your less serious (venial) sins.
- Listen to the priest. He may offer you a verse from Scripture. If you have any questions about the faith, how to grow in holiness, or whether something is a sin, feel free to ask him. The priest will then give you a penance, which is the first act of your "new life" after the sacrament of reconciliation.
- Pray an act of contrition. Try to tell God "from your heart" that you are sorry and that you intend to sin no more (see sample "act of contrition" or you can make this prayer in your own words).
- Listen as the priest absolves you of your sins and enjoy the fact that God has truly freed you from all your sins.
- Do the penance the priest gives you. God's mercy does endure for ever! Thank him for what he has done for you.
Act of Contrition
"My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against you whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In his name, my God, have mercy."
The Priest's Absolution
“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and the resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 1449)