Lent has begun. It’s the time to fast, pray and give alms. These 40 days are also a good opportunity to better understand the sacrament of reconciliation.

The key to making a good confession is knowing oneself, says Chicago’s Father Peter Armenio, a priest of Opus Dei. “Self-knowledge is the building block for contrition. I can’t be sorry unless I know myself,” says the priest who spends long hours each week hearing confessions.

He explains that honesty and the Holy Spirit will help us come to know the dominant area where we fall again and again.

“No one escapes this life without a dominant defect. With that, we should always be working at them,” he shares. “The more we are humble and the more we are cognizant of our weakness before God, the better we are operating in the spiritual life.”

As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his 2010 Lenten Message, “Conversion to Christ, believing in the Gospel, ultimately means this: to exit the illusion of self-sufficiency in order to discover and accept one’s own need — the need of others and God, the need of his forgiveness and his friendship.”

Know Yourself

Father Chris Collins, a priest studying for his doctorate in theology at Boston College, recommends a regular examination of conscience to assist with self-knowledge.

As a Jesuit, Father Collins is well versed in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. In the 16th century, Ignatius founded the Jesuits and wrote the Spiritual Exercises, a 30-day program of meditations, prayers and consideration of one’s life and relationship with God.

“The examination of conscience should be seen in light of what St. Ignatius called the First Principle and Foundation,” explains Father Collins. “It states that: ‘Humans are created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord.’ A daily examination of our minds and hearts is a way of staying in touch with how we are doing on that path.”

St. Ignatius advocated examination of conscience twice a day, at midday and evening. The Spanish saint also stressed the need for a regular particular examen: looking at one weak area.

“If I’m working on anger or impatience, then let that be my focus for my daily examen. When did I fall into anger? When could I have gotten angry but didn’t? It is just as important that we honor God for the progress that we are making in avoiding our sin,” Father Collins says.

By using these spiritual practices consistently, the sacrament of reconciliation truly becomes a healing experience between us and the Lord.

“What is important in all of this,” explains Father Collins, “is that the examination of ourselves does not become a project of private perfectionism but rather a way of working on our relationship with God in Christ and his body the Church.”

In Milwaukee, Ellen Mary Raster knows the benefits of monthly confession in her own life over the past 15 years.

“When I first went to confession,” the 42-year-old mother of six explains, “I was much more attuned to the emotional aspects of the confession. For example, who was the priest? What did he say? How did I feel before and after? Now, my focus is more on the mercy that Jesus makes available to me. There is also a more profound sorrow for my lack of love which causes me to hurt him who deserves everything I can give.”

Don’t Be Discouraged

At times, confessing the same sins can become discouraging. When those feelings arise, Raster recognizes who’s at work. “If confessing the same sin over and over again gets to me, then I am allowing the devil to do his work. He’s trying to lead me down the wrong path,” she says.

Her solution to overcome discouragement is asking Jesus to help her not take herself too seriously: “Doing this also helps me to concentrate more on his beauty and less on the ugliness of my sins.”

In the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Father Kris Stubna says real conversion takes time. Father Stubna, who serves as the secretary for education in the diocese, says that every encounter in reconciliation becomes a step forward in the spiritual life.

“It may seem to some people that we are saying the same things over and over, but each encounter in that sacramental moment we are acquiring grace, and we are meeting the Lord face to face,” he says. “I think being able to make a good and holy confession grows out of a person’s relationship with the Church. To make a good confession isn’t about that singular moment, but above it is about our relationship with God.”

As the Catechism states in No. 1468: “The whole power of the sacrament of penance consists in restoring us to God’s grace and joining us with him in an intimate friendship.”

Eddie O’Neill writes

from Green Bay, Wisconsin.