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I’ve suffered from scrupulosity for as long as I’ve known about the Sacrament of Penance and mortal sin. I’m not going to lie to you. There have been a couple times I’ve remembered an unconfessed sin riiiight before Father granted me absolution and snuck that sin in really fast.
But there have also been times I’ve considered getting back in line after leaving the confessional–unsure of whether or not I confessed every single mortal sin I’d committed since my previous confession.
Satan has a sneaky way of tempting me not to trust in God’s complete forgiveness of me through the Sacrament of Penance, which is why I began writing out a thorough Examination of Conscience before getting in line for confession.
This practice has tremendously cut down my scrupulosity as well as strengthened my appreciation for the Sacrament. So let’s talk about the Sacrament of Penance, how it is validly performed, and how an examination of conscience (like the free PDF I’ve compiled!!) is an important practice for Catholics striving to make a good confession.
May the stain of guilt be washed away by the Blood of Our Savior, Jesus Christ!
What is the Sacrament of Penance?
Those of us who’ve sinned after the initial soul-cleansing of Baptism must return to the Church through the Sacrament of Penance according to the Council of Trent:
“For those who fall into sin after Baptism the Sacrament of Penance is as necessary to salvation as is Baptism for those who have not been already baptised” .
Confessing our sins to a successor of the Apostles is the way Jesus ordained for us to receive is overflowing mercy:
“He said therefore to them again: Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you.  When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost.  Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.”(John 20:21-23)
“But if thy brother shall offend against thee, go, and rebuke him between thee and him alone. If he shall hear thee, thou shalt gain thy brother.
 And if he will not hear thee, take with thee one or two more: that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may stand.  And if he will not hear them: tell the church. And if he will not hear the church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican.
 Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven.”Matthew 18:15-18
“This authority is not conferred by a popular vote, but rather through the divinely established structure of the Church. The power to forgive sins is given by Jesus to his apostles directly, and through the apostles to their successors” .
Why Do Christians Need to Confess to a Priest?
The Sacrament of Penance is the way Jesus gave us to quell our uneasiness about our own ability to perfectly, with a truly contrite heart, ask for forgiveness. This paragraph from the Catechism of the Council of Trent is super powerful for anyone suffering from their scrupulous thoughts like me:
“. . .our Lord instituted the Sacrament of Penance, by means of which we are assured that our sins are pardoned by the absolution of the priest; and also to tranquilize our conscience by means of the trust we rightly repose in the virtue of the Sacraments.
The words of the priest sacramentally and lawfully absolving us from our sins are to be accepted in the same sense as the words of Christ our Lord when He said to the paralytic: Son, be of good heart: thy sins are forgiven thee” .
WHOOP! As with all Sacraments, there is matter and a form to confession. Unlike the other Sacraments that have a physical sign as matter (water for Baptism, chrism oil at Confirmation), the ‘matter’ of the Sacrament of Penance are the acts of the penitent, — namely, contrition, confession, and satisfaction” .
The form of this sacrament is a priest stating “I absolve thee.”
“. . .since the Sacraments signify what they effect, the words, I absolve thee, signify that remission of sin is effected by the administration of this Sacrament”.
We are freed from the bondage of sin and death by Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross through the Sacrament of Penance. Jesus knew that we would need a way to ‘be sure’ of our forgiveness (because we’re a broken and untrusting people), so he gave us a simple way to receive absolution!
How Does a Valid Confession Go?
There’s a simple (and 100% free) process to receiving absolution through the Sacrament of Penance:
1. God will put it upon our hearts to return to Him.
True contrition is one of the required parts of penance. To be contritely sorrowful doesn’t mean you must be actively weeping or feeling super emotional about your sins. It means you need to be humbly and genuinely sorry for offending Our Lord.
A powerful way that I tap into sorrowful contrition is acknowledging the fact that the sins I have committed drove the nails into Jesus’s wrists and feet. My actions pained Our Lord and cut me off from Him and eternal life.
“contrition is an act of the will, and, as St. Augustine observes, grief is not penance but the accompaniment of penance” .
2. Find a parish with a faithful priest
and check their website for times when the Sacrament of Penance is offered (sometimes called “reconciliation” or “confession”). Oftentimes, confession is held on Saturday afternoons or even before / after Sunday Mass.
3. You’ll want to spend some time thoroughly examining your conscience (more on that below).
4. “The sinner, then, who repents, casts himself humbly and sorrowfully at the feet of the priest . . .
In the priest, who is his legitimate judge, he venerates the person and the power of Christ our Lord; for in the administration of the Sacrament of Penance, as in that of the other Sacraments, the priest holds the place of Christ.”
5. “Next the penitent enumerates his sins, acknowledging, at the same time, that he deserves the greatest and severest chastisements.”
6. You ask for pardon for all your sins usually praying an Act of Contrition like this one:
“O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love.
I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen” .
7. The priests grants you pardon and absolution saying something like this:
God, the Father of Mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son,
Has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins;
Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace,
And I absolve you from your sin. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen
8. Then he gives you a penance to perform.
Someone once explained performing your confession and penance like fixing a nail hole. The sins we commit are nails driven into the wood of the Cross. Receiving absolution through the Sacrament of Penance removes the nails, but leaves a hole that needs to be filled.
Our Act of Contrition, commitment to sinning no more, and performance of penance in reparation for our sins fills that hole back in.
A Note on Making an Act of Perfect Contrition
The Church does acknowledge that a person could achieve perfect contrition that is in itself sufficient to obtain pardon. Namely, the perfect detestation of sin (no selfishness, just intense contrition proportional to the magnitude of the sins committed), the ardent desire to confess those sins, and a firm resolution to amendment of life.
If someone died in a car accident on their way to confession, there’s certainly hope that what God sees in their heart is that perfect desire to return to Him.
But the Church does not require this perfect contrition for us to be forgiven: “if the sinner have a sincere sorrow for his sins and a firm resolution of avoiding them in future, although he bring not with him [perfect contrition] all his sins are forgiven and remitted through the power of the keys, when he confesses them properly to the priest.”
This brings a couple questions to mind for me. And who better to answer them than the Council of Trent:
Q: Which sins do I have to confess during confession?
A: “All mortal sins must be revealed to the priest. Venial sins, which do not separate us from the grace of God, and into which we frequently fall, although they may be usefully confessed, as the experience of the pious proves, may be omitted without sin, and expiated by a variety of other means.”
Q: How much detail do I have to go into about my sins?
A: “We should not be satisfied with the bare enumeration of our mortal sins, but should mention such circumstances as considerably aggravate or extenuate their malice.
Some circumstances are so serious as of themselves to constitute mortal guilt . . .
Thus . . . if he has had sinful relations with a woman, he must state whether the female was unmarried or married, a relative, or a person consecrated to God by vow. These circumstances change the nature of the sins; so that the first kind of unlawful intercourse is called by theologians simple fornication, the second adultery, the third incest, and the fourth sacrilege . . .”
Other relevant circumstances include:
- how many times you’ve committed the sin
- what your vocation in life is
- the state of sin you were in when committing the sin (i.e. receiving communion in a state of mortal sin)
- the place where you committed the sin
Q: What happens if I conceal a sin on purpose?
A: “. . .if the penitent confesses only some of his sins and wilfully neglects to accuse himself of others which should be confessed, he not only does not profit by his confession, but involves himself in new guilt.
. . . the penitent must repeat his confession, not omitting to accuse himself of having, under the semblance of confession, profaned the sanctity of the Sacrament.”
And here’s the Q&A all of my scrupulous homies need to hear:
Q: What do I do if I forget to confess something?
A: “But should the confession seem defective, either because the penitent forgot some grievous sins, or because, although intent on confessing all his sins, he did not examine the recesses of his conscience with sufficient accuracy, he is not bound to repeat his confession.
It will be sufficient, when he recollects the sins which he had forgotten, to confess them to a priest on a future occasion. It should be noted, however, that we are not to examine our consciences with careless indifference, or to be so negligent in recalling our sins as to seem as if unwilling to remember them. Should this have been the case, the confession must by all means be made over again.”
Q: How Should Catholics Examine Their Conscience?
A: With “care” and “attention. . .before anyone approaches the tribunal of Penance he should employ every diligence to excite himself to contrition for his sins, and that this he cannot do without endeavouring to know and recollect them severally.”
There are quite a few examinations of conscience online and that are commonly shared outside confessionals. These examinations often go through the 10 Commandments and the more common mortal sins (excessive drinking, receiving the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin, skipping the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on Holy Days of Obligation, etc).
I find that these examinations are a good launching pad for recalling the sins I’ve committed, but that an examination of my conscience utilizing the seven deadly sins gives me a more complete picture of the ways I’ve offended God since my last confession.
For scrupulous folks like me, the more thorough the examination of conscience, the better!
Here’s my Examination of Conscience Process:
- I like to start with a prayer to the Holy Spirit. Asking Him to illuminate all the sins I have committed and to grant me contrition and resolve to never commit them again.
- Next, I go through the seven deadly sins and their sub-sins. I use a prayer book I was gifted while Anglican to really get into the nitty-gritty subsections of the big seven.
- I’ll then go through the 10 Commandments and / or meditate on the Passion of Christ. I don’t guilt myself for the sins I’ve committed, but I do allow the magnitude of what I’ve done to foster that contrition!
- After writing down all the sins I’ve committed, their number, and any relevant circumstances, I pray once more to the Holy Spirit thanking Him for showing me my sins and asking Him to show me any more sins I might have committed before I go to confession.
- Then I take my list and get myself to the Sacrament of Penance asap! If it’s a couple of days away, I pray for peace and patience in waiting to be reconciled to God. I trust that the Lord has given me the Sacrament of Penance and that He knows my intention to get there as soon as a parish near me offers it.
An Examination of Conscience and Traditional Confession Prayers for Catholics
In case you’d like to try an in-depth examination of your sins, I created this downloadable examination of conscience for you!
It’s completely free and follows the format I shared above (including the seven deadly sins, their sub-sins, the 10 commandments, and common mortal sins).
 The Catechism of the Council of Trent; The Sacrament of Penance (165-191)
 The Bible (Douay-Rheims)
 Catholic Answers; Bible Navigator, Matthew 18
 EWTN; Act of Contrition