Advice on Confession from the Saints

Briana Talley

Advice on Confession from the Saints

St. Augustine said, “The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works.” One of the precepts of the Church is to go to confession once a year, which means it would be a grave matter to not go to confession at least once a year. Just as we are encouraged to communicate frequently, we are encouraged to go to confession frequently. The precepts of the Church do not provide a complete road map of perfection, but rather demonstrate the bare minimum that the Church has set forth on the reception of the sacraments. So, in the case of confession, if going once a year is the minimum, what is ideal for a soul striving for intimacy with God and to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48)? Many of the saints over the course of history have recommended weekly confession (discuss with your spiritual director to see if monthly, biweekly, or weekly is a good place to start for you). For example, St. John Paul II attended at least once a week himself. St. John Vianney would hear confessions for 16-18 hours a day when there was good weather and for 11-12 hours a day when weather was poor. St. Francis de Sales, doctor of the Church and master spiritual advisor, encouraged the faithful to go to confession once a week.


Now, personally, the thought of going to confession once a year is a bit overwhelming. How can one recall all of their sins over the past year? Unless they were taking notes along the way, this just seems impossible. But at that point, why not attend more often in order to receive sacramental grace and clear your conscience regularly? The saints encourage us to make use of a daily examen (some even recommend referencing your examen multiple times a day). “Many complain of being unable to recall in the evening what they have done during the day; how then can they recall what they have done during a month or a year? This shows how very difficult it is to make a good confession without daily examination of conscience” (Father Crasset, Considerations Chretienne).


Pope Pius XII said that frequent confession “gives us a more thorough knowledge of ourselves, stimulates Christian humility, helps us to uproot our evil habits, wages war on spiritual negligence and tepidity, purifies our consciences, strengthens our wills, encourages spiritual direction and, by virtue of the Sacrament itself, increases grace.” In Divine Intimacy, frequent confession is considered to be a “school of perfection.” The sacrament of penance brings us closer to Jesus by washing away our sins and by giving us grace to avoid sin in the future. “It is well to remember that the efficacy of the absolution is not limited merely to sins that have already been committed, but that it even extends into the future. By means of the particular sacramental grace, the soul is strengthened beforehand against relapses and it is offered the fortitude to resist temptations and to carry out its good resolutions.” (Divine Intimacy, p. 296)


St. Francis de Sales offers an insightful and practical way to examine your conscience to prepare yourself for the confessional, which will assist the priest in offering astute spiritual direction. He advises the penitent to not only make “superfluous accusations” in the confessional such as, “I have not prayed with as much devotion as I ought.” He says it is important to give the particular reason you committed the venial sin or imperfection. So, instead of confessing a general lack of devotion in prayer, instead say “if you have had voluntary distractions, or if you have neglected to choose the place, or the time, or the posture requisite for attention in prayer, accuse yourself quite simply of whatever the fault may have been without making a general statement which conveys nothing in confession” (Introduction to the Devout Life, Pt 2, XIX).


St. Francis de Sales also states that it is important to include if we remained for a long time in the sin. Was this something I struggled with for 15 minutes? 3 days? “We must therefore confess the deed, and the motive and the duration of our sins; for though ordinarily we are not bound to be so punctilious in the confession of venial sins, and though we are not absolutely bound to confess them, yet those who wish to purify their souls well in order better to attain a holy devotion, should be careful to give the spiritual physician a clear knowledge of the evil of which they with to be cured, however small it may be” (Introduction to the Devout Life, Pt 2, XIX). He goes on to say that “if we accuse ourselves in this clear manner, we disclose not only the sins which we have committed, but also our evil inclinations, customs, habits, and other roots of sin, and by this means our spiritual Father obtains a better knowledge of the heart which he is treating, and of the most suitable remedies to apply to it” (Introduction to the Devout Life, Pt 2, XIX). 


If we are serious about attaining perfection, let us frequently seek out the sacrament of penance with devotion. Jesus longs to grow in intimacy with us, and He is waiting for us in the confessional, as a good father waits with outstretched arms for his repentant son. His love and His mercy beckon us closer to Him, deeper into His most Sacred Heart. He longs to grant us joy of the soul and peace of mind by frequently approaching the Sacrament of Penance.


“How ineffable is the Sacrament by which we are nourished with the immaculate Flesh; yet is it not more touching still that in the Sacrament of Penance Jesus goes in search of the Christian who has betrayed Him, of the soldier who has deserted the camp, of the son who, after having been nourished at His table, has gone far away to eat even the husks of swine? Instead of being indignant or repelling one who has made such poor use of His boundless gifts, Jesus through the Sacrament of Penance offers him pardon and mercy; He heals this soul which, [though] formerly clothed in the wedding garment of grace and regenerated in His precious Blood, has fallen into sin, making itself His enemy” (Divine Intimacy, p. 205).


Sweet Heart of my Jesus, grant that I may ever love Thee more.