Our eldest made his first confession last month, and I decided to avail myself of the opportunity to (finally) memorize my Act of Contrition. I figured at age 36 and with a moderate following on the internet of people coming to me to read about Catholic Things, I should perhaps be prepared to recite this basic prayer I’ve been saying at least a dozen times a year, on average, since childhood.
If you’ve spent any time in the confessional then you are perhaps acquainted with the existential terror that can fill one’s soul when the moment is drawing nigh: Fr. is winding down his “advice and accompany” section of the Sacrament and you’re about to go onstage, so to speak. With sweating palms your eyes dart right and then left, looking for the laminated card kept on hand, I suppose, for 8 year olds and people coming home after a couple decades away from the box. (Because surely everyone else has memorized this thing by now.)
Sometimes you find the card, and other times you maybe fumble through something fresh and original like “O my God I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee who are so good and I firmly intend to avoid the near occasion of sin and MY GOD JESUS WHO DIED ON THE CROSS HAVE MERCY ON ME.”
Now dripping with sweat and performance anxiety, you make eye contact with your bewildered confessor and smile uncomfortably trying to telegraph that you are, in fact, done now. And he may or may not stretch out that awkward pause trying to figure out if he just heard your act of contrition or some original spoken word poetry and then you get your penance and you’re done.
Anyway, as we worked alongside our school to prepare Joey for his first confession, I availed myself of the copied print out he brought home to memorize. Before he turned off his reading light each night we’d say it together, at first using the paper and eventually, sooner than I’d have guessed, reciting it on our own.
Who knew how quick it would go, memorizing it? Not I, who recited some garbled approximation of it with increasing panic during each confession of my adult life.
This experience got me to thinking, what other tweaks could I make to best avail myself of this precious Sacrament of healing?
1. Go frequently
I love going to Confession. That wasn’t always the case, but about 5 years ago, right around the time we moved back from Rome, I started going once a month. Not a huge increase in frequency, but enough that it became both easier to examine my conscience and recall my sins and also more comfortable – joyful, even – to make my confession.
According to canon law one is obliged to confess only once a year, and only mortal (grave matter, full knowledge of the gravity, and willful intent to commit) sin at that. Frequent confession is permitted and even, it seems to me, encouraged, in this section here:
1. A member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and number all grave sins committed after baptism and not yet remitted directly through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession, of which the person has knowledge after diligent examination of conscience.
2. It is recommended to the Christian faithful that they also confess venial sins.
If I’m confessing venial (not grave moral matter, not premeditated) sins, which comprise the bulk of my sins these days, thanks be to God, then the more frequently I confess, the more venial sins I unload – because I’m guessing I rack up a couple dozen a day. Or so. Maybe more on Mondays.
I have found that the more I practice examining my conscience, the more sensitive my conscience becomes, funny that.
I’m still not up to a regular, daily examination, though I would like to get there eventually. It helps to take more frequent inventory, though, and brings failures and acts of cruelty and anger to the forefront of my mind so I can file them away for next time. I want to compare it to going grocery shopping without being home to look in the fridge or pantry first. You have a general sense of what to put on the list, but it might surprise you to know how exactly how little milk is left in the fridge.
2. Find a regular confessor, or try to go to the same priest every time, if multiple options are available.
Having a regular priest with whom to practice this sacrament can be a tremendous source of spiritual progress. Maybe confession isn’t readily available in your area, and if so, you’re not alone. I firmly believe that the supply has to rise in response to the demand, and that if more Catholics start turning out for Confession, the parishes and dioceses will have to reform the availability to meet the need. If a line of 20 souls, or even 10, are routinely turned away over the course of a month of Saturday afternoons, perhaps it will occur to Father to extend access beyond that single 40 minute time slot. If it does not occur to him and if polite requests are not well received, perhaps you can communicate yourself best in a letter or an email, signed from all of his confession-desiring parishioners.
If all else fails you can always contact your bishop and respectfully (kindness goes a long way, too) inquire whether there might be a way to increase access to the sacrament in your diocese. It would be a tremendous motivation to (most) bishops to hear this from their flocks.
If you do have good access to the sacrament already, consider having a standing arrangement, either formally or informally, to confess to the same priest each time. Better yet if you can, make your confessor your spiritual director; to be able to receive this sacrament of healing in the context of spiritual direction is a tremendous gift.
3. Make it a (family) habit
In my research into other moms’ best practices for raising Catholic kids, many of them seem to be working from the same playbook. Have a regular day each month for family confessions, and make it opt-out rather than opt-in. Just assume your kids all need to go, as you do, every month, and make a regular appointment out of it.
Extra credit points for taking them for ice cream or hot chocolate afterwards to emphasize the sweet taste of forgiveness.
4. Write it down
We encouraged our son to do this for his second confession after he’d revealed that it was awfully hard to remember more than one sin. He especially liked the possibility of burning the paper afterwards, though I think we ended up just tearing it up and tossing it out.
It’s helpful to get things down on paper sometimes, and can be useful in looking for patterns and occasions of sin, etc. Having things listed out with dispassionate objectivity can really help dispel any shame or anxiety around saying the thing you’re dreading having to confess.
Spoiler alert: if he has been hearing confessions for even a month’s time, the priest has heard it all. Seriously, all. My friend told me just 5 weeks after his ordination he had already heard every possible existing sin confessed at least once in his second month of priesthood.
You won’t shock him, trust me on this one.
5. Find a good examination of conscience
(and commit yourself to making a frank and regular assessment)
This is the best examination of conscience I’ve found, and it helped me to identify some bad habits that, frankly, I was failing see as sin and therefore failing to confess. For example, I’d seen my habit of working on Sundays as more of a minor shortcoming because #reallife.
Now I’m recognizing more and more that when I seek out big house projects to work on, take big shopping trips beyond what is absolutely necessary, and toss in load after load of not-technically-essential laundry on Sundays, I’m failing to set aside the Lord’s day both to worship the Lord and to enter into His rest, trusting that He will make up the difference. I realized that no, I didn’t trust God to make up for lost time on Sundays. That maybe other people could take that day to worship and relax and recharge, but that I could have used an 8th day of the week, frankly, and so used Sunday more or less as a second Saturday + Mass tacked on.
Finally, maybe this one is obvious, but invite the Holy Spirit to come into your heart and illuminate your sins when you are preparing to confess. It is to Him that we are seeking to be reconciled, and it is Him to whom are hearts are most fully known.
And it is also to Him whom we confess.
Father is the open phone line, the email server, the wifi router to heaven. He is there to receive contrition and to transmit grace and forgiveness and freedom, in return. He is not the source but the conduit of grace. And his is not the power to absolve, but Christ’s alone, entrusted through the ministry of the Church to His faithful servants, His priests.
It bears pointing out that even bad priests can hear confessions, and that even wicked men can say the Mass and confect the Eucharist and, in the name of Christ, absolve us of our sins. It is a profound mystery that Christ would entrust His treasury of graces to fallen human beings, and would extend these saving graces to us through other broken, fallible human beings equally in need of salvation.
Lent will be here in a little more than a week. Perhaps the Lord is calling you to make time for confession this year, perhaps for the first time in many years. A priest gave us his number one tip for confession at a retreat I attended last weekend: just chill out. And come.
He is waiting for you.