When Should You Go to Confession?

When Should You Go to Confession? May 20, 2014


Today’s topic: What are the pitfalls of the grab-a-priest method of securing a sacramental confession, and if not that method, when should you go to confession? First some basics. You need to go to confession if you’ve committed a mortal sin.  And you should do it ASAP.  In the meantime, make a sincere act of contrition, that is to say: Pray to God and tell Him you are sorry for committing that sin.  Example: God, I am very sorry for doing _______.  Please forgive me.

Then get your rear end into the confessional as soon as you possibly can. This is a drop everything and make confessing a top priority situation. Show up late to the barbeque, go without a gallon of milk until Monday, whatever you need to do in order to get yourself in line and in front of a priest.

–> If there is truly no Catholic priest available, but there is an Orthodox priest who will hear your confession, confession to an Orthodox priest works as an emergency back-up plan.  We aren’t talking, “I can’t be bothered to turn out at 4:30 on Saturday, and anyway the Orthodox are cooler, look at those beards . . ..”  We’re talking, “Here in rural Siberia, next train to a Catholic priest comes on the 5th of the month, I sure hope I don’t die before then.”

Before you accost some innocent cleric with an emergency confession, do a reality-check to make sure you actually committed a mortal sin.

How you feel has nothing to do with it.

Allow me to repeat:

How you feel has nothing to do with it.

You could be in the depths of despair over the blackness of your soul because you failed to smile cheerfully at the grocery store lady, and you have not committed a mortal sin.

You could be utterly indifferent to the fact that you just raped and killed someone, guess what, doesn’t matter how you feel, guilty as charged.

Three conditions for a sin to be mortal, and if these apply to you, head straight to confession:

1. It concerned a serious matter. Killing or seriously injuring an innocent person.  Stealing very valuable items or large sums of money. Full-on drunkeness.  Adultery, contraception, fornication, bigamy, IVF, artificial insemination.  Stuff like that.

No matter how wicked you felt doing it, small sins (venial sins) are, though worse than the measles, not mortal sins.  A mortal sin kills the life of the soul.  A venial sin damages your soul and strains your relationship with God, and poses all kinds of dangers to you and to others, but it is not a situation in which emergency confession is needed.

2. You knew it was wrong.  So you choked when I put “contraception” up there as a mortal sin, because you’re thinking geez louise, everybody does that.  Well, now you know better.  Before you didn’t, now you do.  If you know something is a serious sin and you do it anyway, you are culpable — guilty — of a grave offense against God.

If, on the other hand, you just walked off the compound in which you were raised, and truly had no idea that __________ was a serious sin, you aren’t culpable for what you did before you knew better.  It’s a good habit to confess in this situation, for a variety of reasons I won’t belabor.  But true brainwashing actually is a mitigating factor.

3. You freely chose to do it.  The things you do when the bad guys have a gun to your head, or in your dreams, or when you are recovering from surgery and still under the influence of those really good drugs they give you . . . those are not freely-chosen actions.  That said, Father’s going to ask a few pointed questions if you insist that it really was an accident when you slept with that hot male nurse post-op.  The drugs wear off, Father’s no dummy.

Likewise, accidents are accidents.  Sin always involves a choice.  {–> Pastoral aside: If you accidentally kill or maim someone, go ahead and seek out sacramental confession to put your mind at ease.  No sane priest will refuse to hear your confession under such circumstances.}

If these three apply to you, it is reasonable for you to approach a not-in-the-middle-of-something priest, and say, “Father, I’ve got a mortal sin to confess, do you have 60 seconds to hear my confession?”  And if he says, “Yes, actually I can give you a full 70, let’s go, In the name of the Father . . .”, there you are.

Make it snappy: “Bless me Father for I have sinned, it’s been 48 hours since my last confession.  I committed the act of bestiality three times, murdered two small children (noisy ones), and stole $10,000 from an impoverished widow.  For these and all my sins I’m truly sorry.” Father’ll take it from there, and if he wants to spend extra time with you he will.

But Father might not have 45 seconds even, and will instead direct you to a better time and place to hear your confession.  Show up.

On the Fly Confession of Venial Sins

There are priests who are good with the P.E.G-endorsed method of random acts of sacramentality.  It’s okay to ask a priest who is not busy, and who is visibly open to crazy questions, “Father, do you happen to be available for an unscheduled confession right now? It’ll take me about ______ minutes.” Learn to accept no for answer.  Father might be practicing his fake smile, but actually he has twenty-seven things to do in the next hour.  His throat might be sore.  His ears might hurt.  He might be drop-dead tired.  He might still be in therapy for the trauma he experienced last time he agreed to such a request.

Things You Don’t Need to Confess

Why would Father grow wary of on-the-spot confessions? Because he meets a lot of crazy people.  You might be one of them if you:

  • Confess, every time, the same act you committed in 1973.  Once is enough.
  • Give long-winded explanations of every single unkind thing you every did.  “So then I was at Target, and I was trying to find the Fair Trade Decaf, but I can never really decide if I should drink decaf or just switch to herbal tea, and this lady came up to me . . .”
  • Treat your decidedly venial sins as if they were mortal sins.  If your husband used a condom and you aren’t sure whether you are culpable for having intercourse with him under those circumstances, sure, disturb a priest and find out the answer.  If you made a frowny-face at the guy who cut you off in traffic, save it for Saturday afternoon.

How Often to Confess Venial Sins

There is not a set rule on confessing venial sins.  You must confess your mortal (serious) sins, and you need to do that at least once a year so you can receive Holy Communion during Easter, but that guideline is a bare minimum.  Sacramental confession of venial sins is something you do not because you absolutely have to, but because it’s good for you. Some very general rules of thumb:

  • If you are going to confession more than once a week, that’s a red flag for scruples.  Let your priest advise you, and pare back to weekly unless you are clearly told otherwise.
  • Once a week, once a month, or something in between is a good general maintenance program to keep your soul nice and shiny and help you grow spiritually.
  • Once every few months may be all you can realistically manage, depending on the availability of priests in your area and the other obligations of your state in life.
  • Listen, we all have bad decades.  Get to confession when you can, and go ASAP if you commit a mortal sin.

Summary: No more than once a week unless your priest tells you otherwise, explicitly, and then go as you can in order to take advantage of the many graces God has to offer you through the sacrament.

If You Can’t Be Fast Be Last

How to make your fellow parishioners not hate you: Don’t be a confessional hog.  Your parish may have limited hours for confession. This might the pastor’s fault or it might not be, and that’s beside the point.  When there is only so much time to hear everyone’s confession, Father can’t give you twenty minutes of talk therapy if he’s going to give everyone else a chance to confess. It’s best to make an appointment if you want to spend a long time in confession.

If there are only three of you in line on Saturday afternoon, you can probably put yourself last in line and get away with a slightly longish confession (though someone else might show up, so you still need to be considerate). If there’s a long line of penitents, list-and-desist, get your absolution, and then call the Parish office Monday morning to make an appointment for follow-up discussion at another time.    


Artwork: Francesco Novelli – Amad. Gabrieli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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