How to Make a More Contrite Confession
In the spiritual life, perhaps nothing is greater than forgiveness – the grace received in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The act of naming our sins and asking for pardon is both humbling and empowering. In the confessional, we lay ourselves bare before the Lord and ask for His healing. St. Isidore of Seville said, “Confession heals, confession justifies, confession grants pardon of sin, all hope consists in confession; in confession there is a chance for mercy.” So what can we do to make the most of this beautiful sacrament? By starting with the end goal of reunification with God in mind, we can make each confession better than the last. Here are five tips for making a more contrite confession.
1. Start with the End Goal in Mind
When beginning to prepare for confession, I like to start by reflecting on why I am going. Beyond relieving guilt or checking a task off my “Catholic to-do list,” I think of the Sacrament of Reconciliation as restoring relationship. When I make a confession, I am doing so to tear down the wall I built between myself and God through my sin. It can be helpful to think about this as you would go about repairing a relationship with a spouse or close friend or family member who you have harmed. Your goal is not to just to say the words “I’m sorry for what I did,” but to restore and put right what you made wrong so that you can resume your relationship of love and trust. This is what we do when we approach God in confession. We admit what we have done to damage our relationship with God, ask for pardon, promise not to damage that relationship again, and make an act of penance to show our love for God and the preciousness of that relationship. When I start my preparations thinking about it this way, I free myself of fear about the sacrament, self-judgment of my sins, and resistance to going to confession. What I find in place of all that is authentic sorrow for my sins and desire to be healed of them so that I can grow closer to God.
2. Prepare What You Will Confess
A good apology is well thought-out: premeditated, if you will. So too is a good confession. Spend some time quieting yourself to reflect on what you have done and not done, said and not said. If you can do this reflection in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in adoration or before the tabernacle, even better. Many Churches have Examination of Conscience booklets or pamphlets listing the Ten Commandments. Think about not just the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law. Are you truly ready to not repeat those mistakes? Can you confess them with authentic remorse? Reading Scripture is another great way to prepare. Many priests recommend reading Luke 15:11-32, the parable of the prodigal son. The way the father accepts the prodigal son back into his arms so readily and lovingly is a wonderful model for how the Heavenly Father accepts us in the confessional.
I find that making my preparation in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist or while contemplating a crucifix helps remind me that God has already promised to forgive my sins, no matter what they are, and to heal the wounds they leave behind. Contemplating on Christ’s great love in the crucifixion is a wonderful way to inspire remorse before confession. When you’ve given adequate prayer time to your preparations, write out a short summary of what you found within yourself so you can take it into the confessional with you.
3. Look for Patterns
My best confessions have always been those where I’ve spent enough time reflecting in preparation to notice deeper patterns in my behavior. If you can identify what is behind an action or lack of action, you gain insight into the deeper wound that needs healing. Ask God to enlighten you on your own motives, desires, and fears. Perhaps you tend to repeat the same sin because underneath it is something deeper, like a lack of trust in God or a false belief about yourself. These deeper issues may be something to ask priestly counsel for in the confessional or to discuss with your spiritual director.
4. Go Often
The more you partake in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the better your confessions will become. Just like frequenting the gym helps strengthen your physical muscles, frequenting the confessional strengthens your spirit and enables you to gain self-awareness so that you can better avoid those things which lead you to sin. Becoming in tune with your failings is life-giving when you know where to go to start anew.
5. Keep an Open and Humble Heart
Approach the confessional with an open and humble heart. Trust that Christ is present and speaking through your confessor. Be open to whatever message Christ may have for you there. His words are always motivated by love for you and a longing for your soul to be whole. No penance is too simple or too hard. God will provide the grace and strength you need to complete your act of penance.
In our deeply flawed and hurting world, the fact that God readily and freely gives His mercy to all those willing to approach Him in repentance is simply amazing. We should not take for granted the beautiful healing God wishes to give us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The more prepared we are to receive that healing, the more God can do for us. And you just may find that the more you approach God for forgiveness, the easier it is to extend that forgiveness to the other flawed human beings around you. The world deeply needs mercy, and God is just waiting for us to receive it.