Essential Tools for Making a Better Confession

COMMENTARY: Let us heed the words of Pope St. John Paul II, who once told young people that the fastest way to mature was to become better penitents.

Above, a Catholic priest hears a confession during the annual Mother of Perpetual Help in the forest near the village of Dubok, Belarus, on July 1, 2018.
Above, a Catholic priest hears a confession during the annual Mother of Perpetual Help in the forest near the village of Dubok, Belarus, on July 1, 2018. (photo: Sergei Gapon / AFP via Getty Images)

“Receive the Holy Spirit,” said the risen Lord to his apostles. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The sacrament of Penance, instituted by Christ himself, is one of the greatest gifts of Divine Mercy, but it is widely neglected. To help rekindle a new appreciation for such a profound gift of Divine Mercy, the Register presents this special section.


For many Catholics, the only formal training they receive for the sacrament of penance and reconciliation is what they are taught before making their first confession in second grade. Sometimes that instruction can be superb; other times it can be inadequate doctrinally or practically, but in either case, the training given to 8-year-olds is never designed to last for a lifetime.

If Catholics regularly receive the sacrament at least each Lent and Advent, using a good examination-of-conscience sheet fit for their stage and state in life, and receiving the grace of patient, encouraging and helpful confessors, they normally mature as penitents. But if they go rarely, or if their principal experience is of long Saturday afternoon confession lines or huge penance services where the emphasis can become giving absolution to as many people as possible as quickly as possible, that spiritual development may not happen.

When I preach retreats — whether for clergy, religious or laypeople — I generally encourage retreatants not just to take advantage of the opportunity to go to confession, but to try to make the best confession of their lives. I’ve been moved by how many try to respond to the challenge, using the time on retreat to prepare better and go more deeply. Others have told me candidly over the years that they would like to make better confessions but don’t really know what to do.

To make better confessions begins with greater faith, hope and love: faith in God’s working through the sacrament he established on Easter Sunday evening (John 20:19-23), as well as faith that God can give us his mercy through the same instruments through whom he gives us his Body and Blood; hope that helps us to trust in God’s promise to grant us his mercy and a fresh start if we turn to him; and love for God that makes us regret how we have injured our relationship with him, as well as love for others that leads us to ask for God’s help to repair the damage that — by our thoughts, words, deeds and omissions — we have inflicted.

The next step is improved preparation for confession. This involves striving to make better examinations of conscience, to have greater sorrow, and to formulate firmer purposes of amendment.

An examination of conscience is not a forensic accounting of the soul or an exercise in psychological introspection. It is seeing our behavior in the light of God, the truth he has taught and the charity to which he has called us. It involves seeing how our choices have strengthened or wounded our relationship with God and others and taking personal responsibility for those choices.

How do we calibrate our conscience, this inner organ of sensitivity, to God and his ways? The word of God, the teaching of the Church, the wisdom of the saints and the practice of virtue all help. In terms of examining our conscience for confession, most people are trained by looking at their lives through the light of the Ten Commandments. Frequent penitents no longer committing grave sins against the commandments can find examining via the Decalogue quite dry.

In those circumstances, it’s good to scrutinize one’s soul through the prism of the seven capital sins, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, the beatitudes or through the twofold command to love God and neighbor. Doing a brief examination each night can sensitize our conscience to the areas of daily harmony and disharmony with God, leading us to thank God for his accompaniment, ask forgiveness for the times when we haven’t corresponded, and solicit his help for the morrow.

Examining our conscience, however, is not the most important part of preparation, even though it is where people generally spend most of their time. The most important part is sorrow.

St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests and perhaps the greatest confessor in the history of the Church, used to teach, “It is necessary to spend more time asking for contrition than making the examination of conscience,” and he called contrition “the balm of the soul.”


St. John Paul II, in 1984, said that contrition is “the essential act of penance on the part of the penitent” and the “beginning and the heart of conversion.” He worried, however, that the “majority of people in our time are no longer capable of experiencing” contrition because they are no longer sufficiently motivated by the love of God to experience true sorrow. They may experience “imperfect” contrition — sorrow because of the present or future consequences we suffer due to sin — but less frequently “perfect” contrition, which means sorrow out of love for God.

How does one grow in perfect contrition and accordingly prepare for confession? I generally recommend that people examine their conscience holding a crucifix, since Jesus died to take away each sin we’ve committed. Sin is not just the transgression of a rule or even the wounding of a relationship, but, ultimately, an action with a cost that Christ had to pay on Calvary.

Real contrition not only helps us to experience having wrongly selected Barabbas in disguise as “the better deal” over Christ, but also to desire the extraordinary love of God to rescue us from the eternal consequences of that choice.

Such contrition also leads to a much firmer purpose of amendment, which is the third act of preparation. The more sorrowful we are, the greater our resolve not to wound the Lord, himself or others again. Few people spend much time in preparation for confession fomenting their resolve never to sin again; their commitment remains basically a wish. True sorrow, however, leads us to come up with a solid plan not only to avoid recurrent behavior but also to exercise the virtues we need not to give into temptation again. This plan of spiritual conversion should be just as serious as what Bill Belichick draws up for the Super Bowl.

How do we make such a plan? I’d recommend, first, to depend more on supernatural help than human willpower. “We trust too much in our resolutions and promises,” St. John Vianney once said about the amendments we make, “and not enough on the good God.” Second, I’d urge you to get spiritually cutthroat, like Jesus suggests when he declares we need to be willing to pluck out eyes or chop off hands and feet if they lead us to sin (Mark 9:43-47). It’s to say, “What would I do to avoid this sin if I knew I would physically die if I committed it again?” We could and would avoid almost anything if we knew that the consequences were that stark.

When we come to confession, we should seek to be candid, clear and concise, stating how long it’s been since our last confession and getting off our chest first what we think are the most serious sins. I’d urge you to pray for your confessor, that he might really be an instrument of God, giving you good advice and helping you to experience a little of the joy of heaven at your absolution. We should not be afraid to ask the priest for help if we need it, since confession is not an oral examination but a sacramental encounter. We should receive absolution as the restoration of our soul to its baptismal beauty and a participation of Christ’s triumph over sin and death.

After confession, we should try, as quickly as we can, not only to do the penance imposed by the confessor and to live our firm purpose of amendment with the same seriousness with which we complete our penance, but we should also seek to pay forward the mercy we’ve received, remembering the Parable of the Two Debtors (Matthew 18:21-35) and the need to forgive as we have been forgiven. Transformed, we should become ambassadors of divine mercy, trying to draw others to receive the same gift. And we should try to form the habit of frequent confession, perhaps taking up Pope Francis’ suggestion of going every two weeks.

St. John Paul II once told young people that the fastest way to mature was to become better penitents, because it was through the experience of confession that not only would we be freed of the weight of sin but learn those areas in our lives where we need God’s help. That advice is valid no matter how young we are. And this Easter season is a grace-filled chance to start acting on it.

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