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Jim McDermottMarch 09, 2023

Lent is a time when a lot of people think about returning to the sacrament of reconciliation. But if it’s been a while, that can be kind of a daunting idea. What are the words I’m supposed to say, exactly? And what happens if I don’t do it right?

If you’re someone who’s thinking about going back to the sacrament, here are a few tips to help you get more comfortable.

1) You actually can’t do it wrong.

The most important thing you need to know about the confession is that you can’t do it wrong. Even if you don’t remember the act of contrition (we’ll get to that) or realize after the fact that there was something you forgot to include (we’ll get to that, too) or, God forbid, you get a priest who treats you poorly, the sacrament still “happens”—that is, you are still forgiven by God.

In the church, we can sometimes get so wrapped up in things being done in some version of the “right” way that we forget that the fundamental truth of the sacrament of reconciliation is that God loves us even though we make mistakes. We cannot very well believe that but then say, “But if you say the words wrong this doesn’t count.” Your confession always counts because to God you always count.

Lent is a time when a lot of people think about returning to the sacrament of reconciliation. But if it’s been a while, that can be kind of a daunting idea.

2) You don’t have to include everything.

I think most of us were taught as kids that you prepare for the sacrament of reconciliation by making a list of all your sins, and then in confession you read that list.

This is an absolutely fine way to proceed, within reason—remember, in most circumstances there are other people also waiting to confess. But it is not a requirement. In the formula of absolution the priest says, “I absolve you of your sins,” not “the sins you’ve mentioned” or “the sins you’ve described in detail” but simply “your sins.” So if you forget something or want to focus on some things at the expense of others, that’s O.K.

With this in mind, one question I like to consider when thinking about confession is “What is bringing me to confession right now? What is most weighing on me?” Those are the things that I want to make sure I mention.

And if you’re someone that feels like forgetting something means it has not been forgiven, you might end your confessions with some sort of reference to your sins more generally, like “I ask God to forgive me for these and all my sins” or “to forgive me for these sins and anything I might have forgotten.” Doing that is absolutely not necessary—again, it is understood in the formula for absolution that God is forgiving you of your sins in general. But if it helps you to add that, go for it!

3) You don’t have to know the Act of Contrition (or even what it is).

The sacrament of reconciliation has a pretty simple structure: The person comes in and confesses whatever it is that is on their minds; a lot of people start their confessions with “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned, it’s been X many months since my last confession.”

Then they and the priest might talk a little bit about what they’ve said, in a conversation that should not be intrusive on the priest’s part but advisory and caring.

[Sex and Confession: 5 helpful guidelines]

The priest offers some sort of penance, usually a prayer or something else that can be done pretty much immediately after the confession. The person makes an act of contrition, and the priest does the prayer of absolution.

In my experience, though, the act of contrition often throws people. Either they don’t remember the prayer exactly, or they don’t have any idea what that is.

An act of contrition is not necessary for the confession to “count.” You’ve come to the sacrament and confessed your sins. That is an act of contrition.

To be clear: an act of contrition is not necessary for the confession to “count.” You’ve come to the sacrament and confessed your sins. That is an act of contrition. (Also, see: “You can’t do it wrong.”)

As to what it is, the act of contrition is a prayer that the person makes just before the prayer of absolution in which they express their sadness about what’s happened and their desire to change. There are some set forms of that prayer, and many parishes have copies within the confessional for people to use. On its website, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lists three forms, including one that is really simple: “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

But if you want, you are also allowed to say your own little prayer, like “I’m sorry for what I’ve done, God. I feel terrible about it. Please help me change.”

4) A bad confessor is not your fault.

When we go to confession, we put ourselves in a vulnerable position. And sometimes the trust that that involves is not respected. The priest talks to you like he’s a judge trying to decide how much to punish you or asks follow up questions that feel intrusive. Or on the other hand, he offers no reaction to your confession other than to tell you your penance, like you didn’t just share something really personal. Maybe you’ve even had a bad experience like this already, and that’s a reason you have not been to the sacrament in a while.

Obviously, no one can guarantee that you won’t have a bad experience in the confessional, any more than they can guarantee the person driving the bus or selling you your movie ticket won’t do that poorly. There are no “Rate My Confessor” websites as of yet, either, though word of mouth within a parish can be a useful way to figure out who might be a good confessor. So can paying attention to whose homilies or Masses speak to you.

But one thing is absolutely without question: A bad confessor says nothing about either the quality or validity of your confession. It is God who does the forgiving, not the priest. And just as we believe that God can work with our mistakes and love us in the midst of them, so we believe as a church that God’s sacraments still “work” even when the middle man is deeply flawed or a guy whose general way of proceeding is just not right for us.

Of course, it would be better not to leave the confessional with an empty or bad feeling inside. And if you’ve had an experience like that, it can be hard to convince yourself to try again.

If you think you want to go to confession but you are not sure what you want to confess, you might try thinking in terms of your relationships with others.

If you want to try again but you are afraid, one thing you might do is start your next confession by letting the priest know where you are at and what happened. “Father, I have some things I really want forgiveness for, but before we start, I just need to say that the last time I went to confession the priest said some things that really hurt me, and so I’m coming back with a lot of apprehension.” Most priests will really appreciate getting that kind of information up front, in the same way that they appreciate hearing how long it has been since your last confession, if you care to share it. It helps them understand where you are coming from and just how important this moment is.

And maybe it frees you up inside, too. So often the hardships that we cannot share end up making it hard for us to share anything.

5) If you’re looking for something to concentrate on, think about other people.

If you think you want to go to confession but you are not sure what you want to confess, you might try thinking in terms of your relationships with others. What have I done that has hurt other people—held them back or undermined them? Where in my relationships have I fallen down on the job or do I feel like I need help?

It is worth noting that we don’t call it the sacrament of forgiveness or mercy but the sacrament of reconciliation. In the broadest sense, we are coming to God asking for help to restore our relationships with him and others. And so bringing to confession any places where those relationships have broken down or we have done harm is always a good place to start.

[Read next: We need a second examination of conscience: How are the people around me doing?]

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