The Art of Confession
Father Henri Charles Chery O.P
Father Henri Charles Chery O.P
These lines are neither for the “great sinner” who comes to Christ to relieve his conscience from a heavy burden, nor for the Catholic of the annual Easter confession. But they may offer some usefulness to the person who has the “habit” of weekly, semi-monthly or monthly confession.
“Habit”: an untainted word if it refers to a commendable regularity or a word sadly blackened if it refers to a mindless routine. Unfortunately, every one knows that a commendable regularity can easily degenerate into thoughtless routine. Most of the penitents are upset by the miserable commonality of their confessions and by the little fruits they bear by them and even sometimes by the little interest the confessor shows in giving exhortation when they come to see him. Many take a dislike to this, then confess just by habit or settle for spacing out their recourse to the Sacrament of Penance in a detrimental manner for their spiritual progress.
Does not this dislike and its consequences come because they don’t know how to confess? There is a manner, an “art” that would make this exercise a profitable way of sanctification. By writing these lines, we think especially about the young people, the young Catholic in action, young families, who try to live an authentic Christianity with a generous effort of sincerity. They are not yet formed in the art of confession, and suffer the threat of becoming hardened. They have a horror of routine and they reject formalities. They are right. But they must know that formality comes by the fault of “the customer”, so to speak, and that it depends on them to keep intact their religious vitality or to let it deteriorate for lack of personal effort.
Rites are bearers of life, but only for the living.
The use of confession, if it is well understood, can be a serious support for growth in the spiritual life.
Warning! Confession is not all; contrition and absolution are more important!
But first, because we are speaking about confession, which is our topic, and only about confession, it is to be carefully noted that it is not the whole of the Sacrament of Penance, or even its main element. This Sacrament comprises regret, confession, absolution and reparation. It is essentially constituted by the absolution, which relieves the fault of a repentant heart. So, if a penitent – on his death bed, for example – is unable to express his confession, the Sacrament can work without this confession, but it cannot work without contrition. God, on his part, can dispense with the Sacrament in the absence of any qualified priest being available, but He cannot save a soul in spite of itself and forgive a sin that one refuses obstinately to regret.
People who think their accusation is the main part should remember this. Let the priest exhort them to contrition and to the means to be used for not falling again in their faults, and yet they seem not to pay close attention to him once their confession is made. Rather, they are distracted by their concern to state any sin they have not yet confessed. If it were a grave fault, it would be normal to express it before leaving, but most of the time, their concern is only about venial sins. One worries about being complete; one should rather worry about being contrite.
Consequently, during the few moments we ordinarily take to prepare ourselves for the following confession, we shouldn’t take all this time for the examination of conscience, but rather to implore the grace from God to obtain a sincere regret of our faults and to express our contrition and our intention to not fall again.
Confess to whom?
To whom will I go to confess?
First answer: to a priest! I use these words on purpose to emphasize that we must attach the prime importance, in the use of the Sacrament of Penance, not to the qualities of the man who hears the confession, but to his quality as Christ’s minister. Because we are lacking in faith, we pay excessive attention to the human value of the confessor, which could be a real and objective one or one that our liking and confidence confer to him. We don’t deny that we have to take this into consideration, but on a level standing on the fringe of the Sacrament, so to speak. It will have a role for the advice following the accusation and preceding the absolution, but the Sacrament is not constituted by the advice and can even be absent of it. The matter corresponds to Christ who holds the forgiveness; the living Christ who acts in His Church. Any priest who has received from the Church the power to validly absolve, acts in persona Christi, in the name of Jesus Christ. He opens for your soul the source of forgiveness, which is the blood of Christ the Redeemer, and he cleans it with this blood.
So penitents are wrong because of a lack of faith, when they defer freeing themselves from a grave sin or postpone indefinitely the confession that would free them from a growing uneasiness ( through purifying the sources of infection that spread ) because “their confessor” is away.
If they had the comprehension of what this Sacrament is, especially in its purifying work independently of the quality of the priest who administers it; if they understood that the priest is, first of all “minister of Christ”, that is: the ear of Christ to listen to the confession, wisdom of Christ to judge, mouth of Christ to pronounce the removal; they would give less importance to the human appearances and would not postpone their confession.
Now it is the time to say why I should confess my sins to a priest instead of contenting myself with a confession directly expressed to God in the depths of my heart. It is because I am a member of the Church.
My fault has offended God and injured myself. It is a breach of the love I owe to my Creator and of the virtuous love I should have for the child of God that I am. But my fault also has damaged the Church, the Mystical Body. “Every soul that rises, raises the world.” Every Christian who demeans himself thwarts the Christian community’s perfection. The most obscure sin wounds the tree of which I am a branch. If I totally break away from this tree by a mortal sin, or if only I separate a little bit, the entire tree suffers. I am responsible to the Church in my vitality, because God has entrusted for me his graces to the Church, the body of Christ. So, I must be responsible to Her to overcome my fault. During the first centuries, this responsibility to the Church appeared more manifestly, when the accusation was publicly done in front of the community. Now the discipline has softened, but it is still in front of the Church that I accuse myself, in the person of the priest who hears me, and it is from the Church I receive the reconciliation by the ministry of the priest who absolves me.
So, I confess to a priest because he is a priest. This doesn’t prevent me from choosing a confessor humanly able to understand me and to advise me. We are not speaking now, because it is not our topic, about what we call (maybe a little bit improperly) “spiritual direction”. Even by strictly remaining on the level of the confession, it is surely better for the progress of the soul, that it habitually uses the same confessor. After a while (provided that one follows the advice given about how to confess) the confessor knows who he deals with. He knows your tendencies and your usual weaknesses. Even though you just have a little to say, he knows what point is good to insist on in his exhortation. You have shown little by little the difficulties you struggle with and your own situation and you don’t risk being led astray by an inopportune remark, by a stranger who may misinterpret your situation. At a difficult time of your life, he can stop you on a slippery slope. Anytime, he can suggest to you the right decisions and free you from your spiritual indifference if you fall asleep.
How will you choose him? First, for his straight sense and his reliable judgment. If it is possible, holy – it is clear – but a stable and discerning priest is always preferable to another of a more fervent life but with a less well-balanced judgment. Don’t forget that he is an adviser and as is the wisdom of the adviser such is the advice. But he is a trainer too and you should want him to be demanding. A soft confessor, who would be content with deluding you with lenient words or with sending you away with the absolution and a general exhortation, would take a risk of letting you wallow in your sins or your serious imperfections. And that’s why you must, if necessary, incite the confessor to this beneficial demand and humbly accept his instructions in the effort to change. You will remember that the first condition you must attain before he can be useful is that you trust him.
You may have the best confessor of your town, but if you don’t frankly confide in him, he can’t do anything for you. So, you will choose one with whom you don’t feel paralyzed by his presence and that you can readily consider as an understanding Father, interested in your case and able to deal with it, open to the realities of life, sure in his diagnosis and with a firm goodness in his advice.
If you don’t find him, don’t be distressed; go to any priest: he has the grace of his state and the Holy Ghost will even use him for your good, provided that you will listen to him.
If you find him, don’t change easily. Even though you remain fully free for another choice, don’t be disconcerted by any impressions, any blows to your pride or any demands. Persevere until there is evident proof that you are making no progress with him, in spite of an honest and constant effort on your part.
Which sins to confess?
I am now near the confessional, starting my examination of conscience. Which sins will I confess?
The question comes up, it is clear, for I would not pretend to accuse all my faults. “For a just man shall fall seven times a day” the Scriptures say. What about me, who is not just? How many sins do I commit every day? To be complete and to totally exact all my sins is an unrealistic dream and besides, useless. I must choose. But what shall I choose?
First, you must say all your mortal sins, of course. Refusing deliberately to accuse one mortal sin, even though you confess some others of the same gravity, would make the confession null and sacrilegious. A mortal sin is an act by which you turn away from God, your ultimate end, by willingly telling Him that it is all the same for you to disobey Him in a serious matter, so that you can satisfy your disorderly tendencies. So, how can you obtain the grace of God if you don’t repudiate a mortal sin, and then if you don’t confess it? You cannot be both in friendship and in hostility with God.
The difficulty, in certain cases, is to know when there is a mortal sin. In theory, everybody knows: grave matter, mindful of the serious wrong and full consent. In practice, we often wonder: was the matter grave? And more often: did I really consent? It is easy to ask your confessor about the first question. For the second one, the fact that this question comes to your mind and you honestly wonder in conscience and the fact that you are not absolutely sure bring the answer: there was not full consent. Does that mean you don’t have to confess this “doubtful” sin, or rather this sin “doubtfully committed?” Certainly not! You can legitimately permit yourself on the basis of doubt to come to the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Strictly speaking, there is no necessity to confess this sin. But if you want to make progress in the spiritual life, you would be wrong to take refuge behind this non-obligation when the doubt is a question in your conscience. Practically, the rule is very simple. You are not required to accuse yourself for having committed a mortal sin, but for having committed such sin or such act.
You can add, if need be: “I don’t know if I have fully consented” and that will be all right. There still will be a time for answering in conscience if the confessor asks you: “Do you think you committed a mortal sin by doing this?”
What about this phrase constantly used by certain people: “I accuse myself as God recognizes me as guilty?” It can be used with good reason when you hesitate over the nature of your guilt, but it seems to be too easy and a little bit hypocritical when you know well, what it is about.
On the other hand, let us say to certain souls, that you don’t have to consider any sin as mortal. A sin that deserves separation from God for eternity and the pains of hell cannot be committed without a clear conscience of it. If your conscience has to be developed, you will ask your confessor for some explanations and you will firmly keep his advice. The development of the conscience should be made during childhood. Hearing children’s confessions, we are stunned by their aptitude for believing that some slight faults are mortal sins. By the way, is there not here a certain responsibility of the educators who should know how to proportion their scolding to the real value of the child’s fault? Anyway, the problem of the development of a child’s conscience should be well examined by parents and usual confessors, because it is dangerous to let children believe in the gravity of a slight fault as well as to let them consider as unimportant an act that is seriously reprehensible. A scrupulous and anxious conscience during childhood later makes an adult weak, apt to fail and without strength of character; or sometimes, as an aftereffect, a teenager who suddenly frees himself from an unbearable constraint.
Mortal or not, it would be better to confess the sins that lay the most heavily on your conscience, rather than slipping them in the middle of a long list of sins of less importance. Doing this you are sure to be freed from faults that otherwise you could fail to say because of a silly fear.
But I would like now to focus particularly on the examination and the accusation of venial sins. Is it not on this matter that most of the penitents accustomed to a frequent confession are the most deficient?
What kind of complaints do we often hear from these penitents? – “Confession bothers me because I always have the same things to say.” Or this, about the confessor: “He doesn’t tell me anything!” Understand: anything out of the ordinary that pushes you to shake yourself.
Well, the cause of these two defects that make confession psychologically tedious is the same: You don’t know how to confess!
How do most of the penitents confess?
Some penitents (only a few) forget that sin is an act and not a state, so they show (or they believe to show) the color of their souls by saying: “I am a liar; I am impatient; etc…” This way of expressing is improper. Saying it like this you indicate a tendency of your soul. But confession is not a statement of your tendencies: It is the accusation of precise actions, which are certainly the results of your tendencies, but different from them as the fruits differ from the tree. You can have a tendency to lie ( be a liar ) and have not told lies for the last two weeks since your last confession. If you have lied, you must say: “I have lied” and not: “I am a liar.”
Now, most of the penitents confess like this: “I have lied, I have lacked charity, I have been lazy, I have been vain, etc…” This form is more correct, but the accusation is hardly better. I mean, hardly profitable for your soul and hardly susceptible of obtaining useful advice from your confessor. Why? Because your confession is neutral. You didn’t need any particular thought and any efforts of resolution to do it. It doesn’t give to your confessor any particular description that permits him to see how your soul is different than the one he has just judged and advised before you. On ten penitents who follow each other, at least nine could show the same list – as a matter of fact, alas, they do!
So, why do you expect your confessor to give you the precise advice you need, advice for you and not for another? Your particular case is not revealed by your confession which gives him no means to grasp an understanding of you. He would need to be a wonderful and intuitive psychologist in order to guess, through this fast series of standard faults and through the screen of the confessional where he cannot see your face, to know what words he should tell you that could reach and encourage you to make the efforts you personally must make. We cannot expect all confessors to be a Curé d’Ars! Normally, a confessor will give you back what you have brought to him.
In addition, if the penitent begins a long listing, in which he wants to be exhaustive, and if he means to tell almost all the venial sins that one can commit – in fact that he has probably committed – so that the listing is said fast and lasts many minutes, then the confessor is totally bogged down and wonders: “Is there anything characteristic in this confession?” Thus, finding nothing particular, he just gives a general exhortation, which is hardly useful. Who’s to blame?
So, how do I confess well?
Let us first emphasize that venial sins are free matter concerning confession. You are not obliged to confess them. An act of contrition well done, a true act of love of God or the use of a sacramental with faith and humility qualify for obtaining forgiveness of them. Therefore, a confession which comprises only venial sins is not necessary for salvation. It is rather a way of sanctification. It is recourse to a Sacrament, by which we are cured and strengthened through the purifying blood of Jesus. It is also, secondarily, an exercise of humility based on the knowledge of yourself and the accusation of what holds up your spiritual progress. So, you are free to choose the venial sins you want to confess among all those you have committed.
Does that mean you will choose the slightest and push into the background the most embarrassing? No! It would be the opposite. A good examination of conscience should cause to emerge from the multitude of your daily sins, those which are the most dangerous for the vitality of your soul, because of their frequency or of their malice. The personal characteristic features of your own sinful soul are not similar to another soul’s, like your face is not similar to another. We all roughly commit the same sins, as we all have a nose, a mouth and ears. So the importance, for you, of such a fault, and the place it takes in your spiritual life and also its nearness to other faults of the same kind, is what compose your face as a sinner. This is what a skillful examination of conscience brings out. It is useless to accumulate a long list of sins in confession: five or six, well chosen, would be enough to see yourself and to show you as you truly are in front of God.
Now comes maybe the most practical remark. You still have to tell your sins with their own reasons and circumstances. “I have lied!” This signifies nothing. Psalm 115 says: Omnis homo mendax – every man is a liar. In what way did you lie? To whom? In what circumstances? Why?
“I have lied to a sick friend who expected my visit, because it annoyed me to do it.” This is a lie with a particular quality. “ I have lied in a salon by claiming that I have some relations which actually I don’t have; I have lied to my superiors in order to obtain a day off which I was not entitled to; I deceived a customer about the quality of my work in order to be paid more...” The simple confession “I have lied” would not give a precise idea of the quality of your sin.
“I have lacked charity” – the most common sin! Why do you use this neutral expression? Say rather: “I have said to someone I don’t like hurtful words, knowing that it would distress him” or “I have despised a classmate not very intelligent” or “I have refused to help a friend who was in need” or “I have made fun of a disabled person.”
There are so many ways to be vain. What about yours? Do you spend too much time for your grooming and dressing? Do you look at yourself in the mirror at every turn? Do you display your talent every time you are in company and try to attract attention by your brilliant conversation?
What about your laziness? How does it show up? By your obstinacy to stay in your bed when it is time to get up? By neglecting your duties and failing to accomplish what you are supposed to do? By your nonchalance in your behavior or an exaggerated love for comfort?
These few examples – we could find more – help us to understand what we mean when we say that you have to confess precise acts with the circumstances in which you have done them. Find the keywords which are the most capable of expressing your fault as it has really been committed by you and not by just anyone. It is for your own benefit. First, because it compels you to see yourself as you truly are; then because it is a salutary humiliation (it is more humiliating to say: “I have spent half an hour a day to make up my face” rather than: “I have been vain.”); and finally because your confessor can see the state of your soul from what you say and can give you suitable advice.
Having said this, you are not invited to chatter. Confessing with precision is not “telling stories.” Confession is not supposed to be drowned in a flow of accounts, explanations and digressions in which the penitent forgets that he confesses his sins and the confessor doesn’t understand what your sins are. Sometimes priests hear a so called confession as a justification or defense; sometimes as an evaluation about someone else; sometimes as a complaining about the hardness of the present time. It is quite legitimate to need to unburden your heart and to receive consolations, or to ask for explanations for your life. But in this case, separate the two matters: do your confession first by just telling your faults; then tell the priest that you have something else to say.
In what manner should I confess?
As we have already said several times, the priority to be valued in the Sacrament of penance is the purification by the blood of Jesus Christ, not the exhortation of the confessor. This purification is obtained by contrition. This truth involves a consequence regarding the manner in which you bring your faults to the tribunal of penance: you don’t have to enumerate your sins, but to confess them.
Every priest who hears confessions is struck every day by a kind of indifference, at least seemingly apparent, displayed by many penitents who state their faults. They enumerate their sins and draw up a list. If it is well done, it seems that they have accomplished what the Church expects from them. Then they just have to receive the absolution and leave freed. The formality is done.
But it is not the case. Nothing is “formality” in the field of religious acts. You don’t have to fulfill the obligation to attend Mass, but to participate in it. Confession is not about a duty you must do, but is essentially a matter of retraction and disavowal of the evil you have done, so that you can be forgiven. It is a matter of love, a matter of heart (i.e. of will). You come to acknowledge you did evil, you lacked the love due to God by refusing to do one of his wills (the will that we must be honest, just, pure, loving etc…) It has to be manifested by the way you tell your sins. Confiteor! (It is recommended to recite “Confiteor” (I confess) before you start your accusation.) “I confess; I recognize; I admit; It is my fault; I am guilty; I beat my chest.” So your accusation has to be along this line. It is not about noting that you have been evil and bringing this fact to the knowledge of the priest. You have to express the regret for having been evil.
Therefore, it would be good to repeat for each fault: “I accuse myself of…” It would be much easier if you accuse only a few sins. It helps to avoid falling into a kind of indifferent coldness through contenting yourself in just relating your sins instead of confessing them.
Is it appropriate to accuse some sins of your past life already forgiven in previous confessions?
As an exercise of humility, this could be good to recognize yourself once again, as guilty of an old sin already forgiven, if this doesn’t bring any trouble to your conscience. A second good reason is that the Sacrament will bring its purifying grace in a special manner to the source of infection from where this sin formerly came, which may not be totally cleansed.
It can also be good, in certain serious occasions of your life (before marriage, before taking vows, during a retreat etc…), to make a general confession regarding the last past year or a longer period. But there is a condition: it should not be done because of a conventional custom, but because you really need it. You must be pushed by an interior necessity, not by the fact that it is a custom, especially during retreats.
Nevertheless, some people may abstain from looking at their past life. These are the scrupulous. The scrupulous persons are sick and their sickness precisely consists of an anxiety which makes them unable to know if they have done something or not, or if they have done something right or wrong in such an action. They want to be sure, and the more they look for certitude, the less they are sure. In the confessional, they want to be sure that they have completely said all or that they honestly have true contrition, but for never being sure, they indefinitely repeat. Indeed, it is an exhausting search which increases their sickness while pretending to soothe it. There is still one way to be cured: obeying the confessor with no discussion. He will give the order to close one’s eyes on the past in an absolute manner.
The firm intention
There is a kind of concern which is not only peculiar to scrupulous people and that even sincere people know. This concern expresses itself as such: “Why do I have to tell this sin? I probably don’t regret it because I know I will commit it again.”
This matter is about the firm intention.
First, let us clearly distinguish: “foreseeing that I will fall again” and “wanting to fall again”.
For sure, a penitent who wants to fall again and who is decided to repeat his fault at the first occasion is not a penitent. He has no contrition. He misuses the Sacrament and deludes himself about the effectiveness of the absolution which cannot clean a sin if its author doesn’t disown it. Thanks be to God, this is not the usual case.
Most of the penitents have a keen feeling of their weakness which is justified by the unfortunate experience of their relapses. They think that their good intention, severely tested once again, will not be more effective than it was previously. And they conclude: “I don’t have contrition!” This is a mistake. They basically call “evil” the evil they have done; they wish they had never done it and would like to be able to avoid it now. So, this is contrition.
In order to forgive us, God does not require that we are sure to not sin again. This certitude would be very similar to presumption. He simply asks us to have the intention to do what we can with the help of His grace to avoid sinning again. Is this our intention? Then we don’t have to fear hypocrisy and insincerity. Our gloomy forecasts should not change our intention. In reality, a gloomy forecast in itself is a sinful mistrust of the grace available in the Sacrament. The sacrament of Penance is really a means to progress, not mainly because of the psychological effort it imposes on us, but rather it applies to our sick soul the expiatory blood of Jesus Christ which is its remedy. Jesus doesn’t only grant his forgiveness by the merits of His Passion, but He also gives us some purifying graces and strength for the struggles we still have to pursue, especially graces regarding the sins we have confessed. We should have confidence in those graces, not in the problematic capacities of resistance of our good will.
So, don’t worry about “tomorrow”. Tomorrow’s grace will be sufficient for tomorrow as long as you keep confidence and continue to pray. Today, you have the grace of today, which is a grace of contrition. Bearing now in your imagination the temptation of tomorrow is bearing a burden for which you do not have help. It is no wonder if it seems to you too heavy and crushing.
This is not the sense of being unconcerned, because the accusation involves a resolution. You will entrust the execution of this resolution to the help of God and you will have to work to keep it. In order to be effective, a resolution must be precise, about such or such sin to avoid, not about all the sins you have confessed. You can even do better by considering, from the experience of the past, the circumstances that may lead to a fall and the occasions which can push you to sin. Then you can focus your resolutions on occasions which you must avoid.
For example, if you know that certain company pushes you to gossip, particular reading lead you to impurity, such opening a drawer in your mind revives bitterness or such conversation rouses your anger, then your resolution will be to shun this company, to give up this reading, to leave this memory as a closed drawer or to avoid this subject of conversation. Acting this way is considering yourself as you really are. You can succumb in such an occasion while someone else would remain strong. Acting this way, you are not tempting God by putting yourself in danger. Finally, acting this way is being logical with your contrition.
After your accusation of sin, why not guarantee your resolution by submitting it to your confessor? This would help you to keep it better.
If you follow this advice, your confession will no longer be a tedious repetition of “standard” sins and a chore as it too often is. It would rather be one of the most powerful means of sanctification that the Church offers to you. When you go to the tribunal of penance, you will be aware that you go to Christ on the Cross who holds in His crucified hands the forgiveness He obtained for you with His blood. Aware of your misery, particularly since you will more easily understand your daily weaknesses and be confident in God’s mercy, especially since you will beg Him for obtaining the hatred for your sins, you will step into the confessional with the humble disposition of the prodigal son: “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, I am not now worthy to be called thy son.”
This is why you can leave with a new strength, based on a liberating assurance: “ Go in peace my son; thy faith has made thee whole.”
 In French: Je m’en accuse comme Dieu m’en reconnaît coupable.
 Remember this advice is for people who confess regularly.
 The same remark applies to television which can be a frequent occasion of sin.
 Or this TV programme.