For Protestants, the most unknown aspect of Catholic devotional life is confession. Unless you’re Catholic, you cannot experience it. A Protestant can attend a Catholic baptism, confirmation, wedding, ordination, and Holy Mass; however, he cannot attend a confession or know what it’s like until he actually makes one for the first time.
Now most Protestants have seen it in movies. You go into the wooden box, a door slides behind a screen, and the Catholic says, “Bless me Father for I have sinned, etc.”
Okay, that’s pretty much how it begins, but let’s look at it from a devotional point of view – how it really goes for a Catholic.
Ideally, a Catholic makes a nightly examination of conscience every evening. This means that he prays to the Holy Spirit in order to remember his faults during the past day. He then prays an act of contrition at this moment with the intent of confessing these faults in confession.
Before entering the confessional (that is, the box), he prays to the Holy Spirit (and to Mary and other saints) that he might make a good confession and be given the gift of true repentance and contrition. My practice is to ask the Holy Spirit for the light to see all my sins. Then I ask the Blessed Virgin Mary to obtain for me the grace to be truly sorry for my sins. You see, confession isn’t just about forgiveness of sins, it’s also about growing in sacramental grace.
In the confessional, there is sometimes the option to go behind the screen or face to face (I always choose the screen). The priest will recite a prayer and then you say, “Bless me Father for I have sinned, it has been # weeks since my last confession and I accuse myself of the following sins.”
Next you list all your sins in kind and number. If the priest cannot hear you or understand you, he’ll stop and ask questions. When you get to the end, you say, “For these sins and all those that I cannot remember, I humbly repent and ask for absolution, counsel, and penance.”
The priest will then give you some advice or encouragement. He may make a general judgment that your struggles are related to a common vice. If you cry, he will comfort you. If you are scared to confess a sin, you say, “Father, I’m afraid to confess something.” He’ll walk you through it. If you are unsure if something was a sin or not, you ask him and talk it out. It’s very pastoral and safe. Then the priest gives you your penance. The penance is the sign that you wish to start a new life in Christ – that you’re going to make a change. The penance also shows a willingness to make reparation for the harm you’ve caused (for example, to return stolen money or apologize to a wounded spouse). A common penance is “Three Hail Mary’s” or “a decade of the Rosary” or “Three Our Fathers so that you’ll grow in the virtue of temperance.”
Then the priest says, “Now please make an Act of Contrition.” This is a prayer you say to God out loud and the priest listens to you say it. It’s proof to him that you really are sorry for your sins and not just playing “pinball Catholicism” (click here to see what I mean by that).
The Act of Contrition goes like this:
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love.
I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and avoid the near occasions of sin. Amen.
Then the priest gives you absolution: “I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father and of Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
The priest then tells you to go in peace and usually asks you to say a prayer for him.
After that, you leave the confessional and go into the church where you pray your penance quietly and pray about anything else that is on your heart.
That’s confession. It is certainly one of my top three favorite things about Catholicism.
Taylor Marshall, Ph.D.