Make an Examination of Conscience and Go to Confession

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.

What:

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:

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?

God uses priests as His instruments of forgiveness

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.

Going Deeper:

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.

I Confess:

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?

Set Aside Sundays and Holy Days as Days for God

With this post, we start on our first section of Getting the Most Out of Mass: Preparation. In order to be best disposed to receive graces during Mass, it's best to get ourselves ready (this will be specifically about Sunday Mass, but some of these ideas will also apply to daily Mass). That starts with setting the day aside for God.

What

Sundays and other Holy Days of Obligation are the main days of gathering for Mass, but Mass may be celebrated almost any day and time.

On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass.

Code of Canon Law (CIC) 1247

If possible, take Sundays and Holy Days off from all work (your job, housework, lawn work, shopping, sports practices, etc.). Catholics try to work enough on the other days to allow for a true leisurely rest on Sundays and Holy Days. Often, this will take extra planning ahead to make sure you are prepared for Sunday.

Moreover, they are to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body.

 Ibid.

We are required to attend Mass every Sunday and Holy Day (“holiday”) of obligation. Depending on your diocese, you may have more or fewer Holy Days.

Why

Why Sunday?

The Resurrection Mural, Ron DiCianni

Whereas God began creation on Sunday (the first day) and finished by resting on Saturday (the seventh day), Jesus’ Resurrection on Sunday becomes both a capitulation of creation (the eighth day) and a start of something new (first day of a new week). Combined with the Holy Spirit’s descent on Pentecost Sunday, it was obvious to the Church that a new day of the Lord1 had been established. Catholics celebrate every Sunday as a “mini-Easter.”

We celebrate Sunday because of the venerable Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and we do so not only at Easter but also at each turning of the week”: so wrote Pope Innocent I at the beginning of the fifth century, testifying to an already well established practice which had evolved from the early years after the Lord’s Resurrection. Saint Basil speaks of “holy Sunday, honoured by the Lord’s Resurrection, the first fruits of all the other days”; and Saint Augustine calls Sunday “a sacrament of Easter.”

Dies Domini 19

Jesus rose from the dead “on the first day of the week.”2 Because it is the “first day,” the day of Christ’s Resurrection recalls the first creation. Because it is the “eighth day” following the sabbath3, it symbolizes the new creation ushered in by Christ’s Resurrection. For Christians it has become the first of all days, the first of all feasts, the Lord’s Day (he kuriake hemera, dies dominica) Sunday:

We all gather on the day of the sun, for it is the first day [after the Jewish sabbath, but also the first day] when God, separating matter from darkness, made the world; and on this same day Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead.4

Sunday is expressly distinguished from the sabbath which it follows chronologically every week; for Christians its ceremonial observance replaces that of the sabbath. In Christ’s Passover, Sunday fulfills the spiritual truth of the Jewish sabbath and announces man’s eternal rest in God. For worship under the Law prepared for the mystery of Christ, and what was done there prefigured some aspects of Christ:5

Those who lived according to the old order of things have come to a new hope, no longer keeping the sabbath, but the Lord’s Day, in which our life is blessed by him and by his death.6

The celebration of Sunday observes the moral commandment inscribed by nature in the human heart to render to God an outward, visible, public, and regular worship “as a sign of his universal beneficence to all.”7 Sunday worship fulfills the moral command of the Old Covenant, taking up its rhythm and spirit in the weekly celebration of the Creator and Redeemer of his people.

CCC 2174-2176

Why Rest?

The Gathering of the Manna, James Tissot

We imitate God by resting once a week. The weekly rest has been an explicit expectation of God’s people since the Exodus when God gave the Israelites manna in the desert and commanded them to only collect it 6 days a week. (Exodus 16:5, 22-30)

Rest is something “sacred” because it is man’s way of withdrawing from the sometimes excessively demanding cycle of earthly tasks in order to renew his awareness that everything is the work of God.

Dies Domini 65

 This weekly rest is also a foreshadowing of the eternal rest we hope to enjoy with God in Heaven. We work now and will rest later.

Why Holy Days Too, and Not Just Sundays?

Certain celebrations (e.g. Christmas) are considered so important that they act like another Sunday within the week. We attend Mass on those days and try to take them off from work (if possible). We call them Holy Days of Obligation (a.k.a., “Holy Days” or “Holidays”).

Going Deeper

“Sunday is a time for reflection, silence, cultivation of the mind, and meditation which furthers the growth of the Christian interior life.”8 Don’t let Mass be your only prayer on the Lord’s Day. Dedicate the whole day to God through:

  • Prayers (Liturgy of the Hours, Reading Scripture, Angelus, Rosary, Divine Mercy Chaplet, Singing Hymns, Freely talking to God, etc.)
  • Learning about the faith (Bible Study, Catholic Study Classes, books on Catholicism and/or living the Catholic Life)
  • Wholesome leisure activities (sports9, games, reading, writing, drawing, etc.)
  • Time with family
  • Time building up Catholic community
  • Service to those in need
  • Etc.

Some people and (even whole cultures) have established rituals that mark these days as different from the rest of their week—like the old Austrian tradition of ringing bells on Saturday afternoon/evening to tell everyone they may stop working and start preparing for Sunday:

Here I must first tell what a typical Sunday in Austria was like in the old days up to the year before the second world war. As I have spent most of my life in rural areas, it is Sunday in the country that I shall describe.

First of all, it begins on Saturday afternoon. In some parts of the country the church bell rings at three o’clock, in others at five o’clock, and the people call it “ringing in the Feierabend” [FIE-er-AH-bend]. Just as some of the big feasts begin the night before—on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, Easter Eve—so every Sunday throughout the year also starts on its eve. That gives Saturday night its hallowed character. When the church bell rings, the people cease working in the fields. They return with the horses and farm machinery, everything is stored away into the barns and sheds, and the barnyard is swept by the youngest farm-hand. Then everyone takes “the” bath and the men shave. There is much activity in the kitchen as the mother prepares part of the Sunday dinner, perhaps a special dessert; the children get a good scrub; everyone gets ready his or her Sunday clothes, and it is usually the custom to put one’s room in order—all drawers, cupboards and closets. Throughout the week the meals are usually short and hurried on a farm, but Saturday night everyone takes his time. Leisurely they come strolling to the table, standing around talking. After the evening meal the rosary is said. In front of the statue or picture of the Blessed Mother burns a vigil light. After the rosary the father will take a big book containing all the Epistles and Gospels of the Sundays and feast days of the year, and he will read the pertinent ones now to his family. The village people usually go to Confession Saturday night, while the folks from the farms at a distance go on Sunday morning before Mass. Saturday night is a quiet night. There are no parties. People stay at home, getting attuned to Sunday. They go to bed rather early.

Trapp, Maria. Around the Year With the Trapp Family

Cultivate a sense of awe regarding Sunday.

God rested for a day as a model for us. God rose this day to open the gates of Heaven. God sent the Holy Spirit this day to fill us with His love and incorporate us in His mission to bring souls to Heaven. God has allowed you to know about Him and is allowing you to read these words right now. God gives you Sunday as a day to dedicate to the cultivation of His friendship. Consider: “Who am I that I have been blessed with the knowledge of the one true God Almighty and the knowledge that I can particularly use Sundays to draw closer to Him (and that He wants me to draw closer to Him!)?”

Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy

Growing up, I remember numerous times learning the Ten Commandments, and that the third commandment “Keep Holy the Lord’s Day” meant that we were supposed to go to Mass and to rest on Sundays. Prior to having a job, I didn’t really notice people doing work on Sundays. I never really considered it much—it was just nowhere on my radar. The experience of my first job requiring that I work on Sundays was a shock. After getting out of the restaurant, my eyes began to open to see just how casually I treated Sundays. I made a point of not having a job where I would have to work on Sundays. Beyond Mass and not going to work, however, I still struggled to fully understand what “keeping the Lord’s Day holy” meant.

The quote above from Maria Trapp is part of a chapter about her experience of Sundays from her days in Austria and the cultural changes she saw as she moved to the United States. When I first read it, something in me saw so much good in those pre-World War II traditions of Austria’s Sundays. How I wished to have had traditions like those growing up—a bell that marked the end of work on Saturday afternoon and everyone would use the rest of Saturday to prepare for Sunday. Sunday would include Mass and other activities (hiking, playing, resting, visiting—especially the sick, etc.) that were dedicated to glorifying God through healthy leisure and service to others. Of course Maria noted that each person needs to interiorize these actions. Many people in her time simply did the things others did without reference to God. We each need to learn the significance of Sunday as the Lord’s Day and offer to Him our leisure and service.

What is Considered “Work”?

At first, it seems very cut-and-dried—don’t work on Sundays—but over the years, I’ve found a number of situations that have made me question what is considered “work.” For instance, as I mentioned above, God’s original command not to do work on the Sabbath was specifically directed at gathering food (the manna in the desert). It would seem inappropriate, then, to go shopping (modern man’s way of “gathering food”) on Sundays. However, I’ve had a few times when someone in our family got sick on a Sunday and I’ve needed to run to the store for some supplies. While shopping to stock the cupboards seems inappropriate, emergency needs seem appropriate.

I spent a year as a farmer and I now have a small garden. While I recognize that harvesting on a Sunday would be inappropriate (gathering food again), eating a snack directly out of the garden while I’m walking through my backyard is totally fine—like Jesus’ disciples eating the heads of grain as they walked through a field on the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:1-8) So it seems okay to pick something and eat it, but to pick food for later is more like work. Much of the rest of garden/lawn work, however, should be saved for other days of the week.

When we lived in a suburb of Philadelphia in our second year in this country, we found that the rich man’s Sunday delight seemed to consist of putting on his oldest torn pants and cutting his front lawn, or washing his car with a hose, or even cutting down a tree (doctor’s orders — exercise!); while the ladies could be seen in dirty blue jeans mixing dirt and transplanting their perennials. There was none of that serenity and peace of the old-world Sunday anywhere until we discovered the Mennonites and the Pennsylvania Dutch. They even rang the church bells!

Ibid.

Sunday Workers

There are many instances of people whose work is necessary on Sundays: priests, first responders, those taking care of the sick, military personnel who are needed for defense, etc.

Sanctifying Sundays and holy days requires a common effort. Every Christian should avoid making unnecessary demands on others that would hinder them from observing the Lord’s Day. Traditional activities (sport, restaurants, etc.), and social necessities (public services, etc.), require some people to work on Sundays, but everyone should still take care to set aside sufficient time for leisure. With temperance and charity the faithful will see to it that they avoid the excesses and violence sometimes associated with popular leisure activities. In spite of economic constraints, public authorities should ensure citizens a time intended for rest and divine worship. Employers have a similar obligation toward their employees.

CCC 2187

Family needs or important social service can legitimately excuse from the obligation of Sunday rest.

CCC 2185

Also, there are certain chores that must still be done on Sundays: feeding our families, feeding animals, watering plants that need daily water, etc. It can be helpful to try to do as much as possible on Saturday and Monday. We have been trying to implement getting all dishes washed and put away on Saturday evening so that nothing is left for Sunday.

Service to others is very appropriate to do on Sundays.

Those Christians who have leisure should be mindful of their brethren who have the same needs and the same rights, yet cannot rest from work because of poverty and misery. Sunday is traditionally consecrated by Christian piety to good works and humble service of the sick, the infirm, and the elderly. Christians will also sanctify Sunday by devoting time and care to their families and relatives, often difficult to do on other days of the week.

CCC 2186

The Gray Areas of Sunday

Other situations are even grayer to me. Sunday should be intentional; we should plan well so that we are prepared to worship and rest on Sunday (gathering extra food during the week, getting clothes and other supplies ready on Saturday, etc.). However, what if we forget something or what about spontaneous opportunities for which we’re not prepared? For example, we were planning to spend a day at the beach after Mass, so we packed up our beach gear on Saturday and put food in a cooler on Sunday morning, but somehow we forgot to get ice on Saturday. Either we risk food spoilage with no ice, we cancel the trip, or we buy ice on a Sunday. I don’t know what the appropriate thing to do is, but I broke down and bought the ice. Another time, we were enjoying a Sunday afternoon with some friends and the idea of our families making a meal together came up. We thought this would be a great way to continue to celebrate the Lord’s Day, but we didn’t have all the food we needed for that meal—I think we had decided to make tacos together (something easy for a large group with some dietary restrictions), but didn’t have enough shells or chips or something similar. That was a tough one, but I think someone ended up going to the store on that occasion, too.

I really enjoy playing team sports, but I’ve found a great difference between playing a pick-up game on Sundays and playing in a league or having a practice for league play on Sundays. There’s definitely a different mentality between the two types of games. I’ve played in many sports leagues and tournaments throughout my life, but I’ve found that pick-up games are much more relaxing and fun-natured. Somehow, when there’s something official about the game, it changes—becomes less leisurely. I wouldn’t say that leagues are inherently bad, in fact, CCC 2187 seems to say if you work in a leisure profession (like sports or restaurants), your work on Sunday is providing others with the opportunity for leisure. However, if it’s not my profession to provide leisure for others, it seems like an official sports league practice or game on Sunday might be on the darker side of the grayscale. I probably would not sign myself or any of my family members up for a sports league that practices and/or plays on Sundays. In contrast, as a young adult, I used to organize a weekly Sunday pick-up volleyball game at the beach in the summers. It was a great event. We played hard—there were many well-played games—and we definitely got better over the years, but it was a friendly competition—pushing each other to become better but still generally keeping it light-hearted. When it was warm enough, many of us would jump in the bay afterward. As I learned more about Sundays, we even started praying for God’s blessing on our games.

Sabbath Made for Man

In all this, let’s also remember Jesus’ words: “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) Resting on Sunday is ultimately for your benefit. It’s good for us to take a step back from our workaday lives. It’s also good for us to take steps to increase our relationship with God and our love for other people.

In Short

I have noticed that the more I have tried to set aside Sunday for the Lord, the better I have been at focusing myself on the Mass and disposing myself to receive more graces.

All in all, I think if on Sundays you’re attending Mass, trying to avoid work (including yard work, shopping, etc.), and offering everything you do to glorify God, you’re off to a good start. Continue to pray and ask God to show you how to properly use His day.

Further Reading

To learn more about this topic, I recommend St. John Paul II’s letter Dies Domini, the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s section on the Third Commandment (paragraphs 2168-2195), and Maria Trapp’s chapter The Land Without a Sunday as a good start to deepening your understanding of Sunday. All of these have been quoted here, but reading them in their entirety will provide more context.

What about you?

  • How have you seen Sunday best lived out as the “Lord’s Day”?
  • What are some ways you dedicate Sundays to God through rest, prayer, etc.?
  • What resources have formed your understanding of the third commandment?
  • What challenges have you faced in keeping the Lord’s Day holy?
  • Do you have any stories or anecdotes about keeping Sunday as the Lord’s Day?

Footnotes

  1. First day of the week (Acts 20:7); “The Lord’s Day” (Rev 1:10)
  2. Cf. Mt 28:1; Mk 16:2; Lk 24:1; Jn 20:1
  3. Cf. Mk 16:1; Mt 28:1
  4. St. Justin, I Apol. 67:PG 6,429 and 432
  5. Cf. 1 Cor 10:11
  6. St. Ignatius of Antioch, Ad Magn. 9,1:SCh 10,88
  7. St. Thomas Aquinas, STh II-II,122,4
  8. CCC 2186
  9. There is a difference between a pick-up game of basketball and a mandatory practice/game because one is on a league team.