This post is part of a series on Getting the Most Out of Mass: tips to best dispose yourself to receive graces available during Mass (this will be specifically about Sunday Mass, but some of these ideas will also apply to daily Mass). We're in the section on preparing yourself before Mass.
Catholics review their lives, considering all the ways they have failed to live up to Jesus’ call to “be perfect.” (Matthew 5:48), to Love God with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and their neighbors as themselves (Mark 12:30-31). This is called an “examination of conscience.” We make a list (mental and/or physical) of all these failures (sins).
We privately confess those sins to God via a Catholic priest or bishop and ask forgiveness. As long as we are sorry, God forgives our sins through the ministry of the priest or bishop.
Why do we go to Confession?
If we make a full confession of our sins (i.e. laying them all bare, not willfully hiding any sins) and we are sincerely sorry, God completely forgives all our sins. In forgiving them, He removes those sins from us forever. There are still temporal effects of our sins (e.g. if I stole something, I still need to give it back–and maybe add a little for restitution), but the guilt of the offense before God is completely gone. My relationship with Him is restored.
Why do we go to a Catholic priest or bishop for Confession?
Jesus gave to certain men the ability to be channels of His forgiveness (John 20:23) and those men ordained other men to carry on the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18). This ability has been passed down through ordination to all Catholic and Orthodox bishops and priests. They are the only ones who are officially designated by God for this ministry.
Why do we have to tell our sins to the priest or bishop?
When Jesus gave those men the ability to forgive sins, He said: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23, emphasis mine). Those are big “ifs!” Either this man is going to forgive my sins or he is not. This can mean the difference between Heaven and Hell for me. But how is he to know A) what sins to forgive, and B) whether to forgive them? Only if we confess our sins to them (James 5:16) will they know what the sins are and be able to judge whether we’re actually sorry.
Why do we go to Confession in preparation for Mass?
Firstly, Confession prior to Communion is necessary if a person has committed a serious sin (e.g. murder, sexual sins, skipping Mass, etc.). In this case, he cannot receive Holy Communion until he first goes to Confession. If he receives Holy Communion without being forgiven from his serious sin via Confession, he commits another serious sin (sacrilege). That is why St. Paul stated:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. (1 Cor 11:27-29)
If I have committed a serious sin and I receive Holy Communion, I “eat judgment upon myself” (i.e. I commit yet another serious sin—and with only one mortal sin I have chosen now to go to Hell when I die, now I’m adding more). Thankfully, God is so bountifully merciful that with one good Confession He wipes away every sin I’ve ever committed (or just all the ones I’ve committed since my last Confession since He wiped all the previous sins away then).
Secondly, clearing away all of one’s sins (even if one doesn’t have any serious sins) allows the person to be more open to the graces God is offering. Grace is God’s life in you. Going to Confession is like cleaning your house in preparation for hosting the most important guest ever.
The Church requires going to Confession at least once per year and recommends going at least once per month. You can get more in-depth advice by finding a trusted priest or bishop who can lead you in spiritual direction, which can often involve Confession.
I find it helpful to make an “Examination of Conscience” every evening. This is a simple reflection on the day, considering all the ways I failed to live up to Jesus’ call to “be perfect,” (Matthew 5:48) and writing them down in a notebook. That way, when I go to Confession, I already have a list of things to confess. This can also be very helpful for noticing patterns of sins and trying to root them out. Each day, you can set goals regarding sins you want to conquer and at the end of the day, you can compare how you performed compared to your goals.
The more I pay attention to even the small ways I’ve failed, and humbly admit them in Confession, the more God opens my heart to receive more grace and to love Him and others more deeply. Of course, this also helps me to see even more ways that I had never noticed I was turning away from God in minor ways, but that is a good thing. Sin is like cancer and Confession is like surgery. As I confess each tiny sin, it’s like pointing out to the surgeon what things need to be removed. If I fail to take note of a particular sin, it will grow into something worse. We should all want to be as thorough as possible in confessing our sins because we want to be as close to God as possible and should want to remove anything that could lead us away from Him.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I really began to understand the power of Confession. Growing up going to a Catholic school, we went to Confession occasionally, but it never sank in that God really wanted to forgive me—that He loved me so much right where I was, but He loved me too much to let me stay there. I happened to be given the opportunity to hear a talk explaining Confession and extolling the benefits of laying every sin bare before God as though they were all little cancers, so that He as the Divine Physician) could remove each of them and stop them from festering in my soul.
Afterward, there was an opportunity to go to Confession. I took a long Examination of Conscience and made what I consider the first real Confession of my life. It was amazing to walk out of the confessional knowing for certain that all the baggage of guilt and shame from my life up to that point was completely forgiven. I was given a new start on life and truly felt like a new man with a great weight lifted off my shoulders.
Unfortunately, prior to that point, I had developed some fairly serious addictions to sin, and it wasn’t long until they started creeping back. However, God supplied for my lack. Something about that experience of new life stuck with me and gave me hope. So I doubled down. I went to Confession as often as I fell, and God led me to develop a couple devotions: visiting Jesus in the Tabernacle and praying the Rosary. Through this tri-part spiritual attack, God freed me from my addictions and I have been free for over fifteen years now. I’m a living witness to what Jesus said “if the Son frees you, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)
What About You?
- What impact has Confession (especially regular Confession) made on your life?
- Have you found any great Examinations of Conscience for yourself or your kids?