"I haven't been to confession for a long time and wouldn’t know where to begin. Should I be afraid?"

Confession is an encounter with our loving God, so we never have to be afraid, worry, or wonder what to do or say. The priest will help us.

This sacrament is a great gift of God’s compassion and mercy. Everyone sins, and God gave us Confession to provide a special opportunity to wipe the slate clean from sin and begin again. The Sacrament of Reconciliation brings great relief to the sinner. When we are troubled because we have done something wrong, we have the absolute assurance from God that our sins are forgiven, if we are truly sorry and try to do better in the future. Where else in life can we get this assurance — not from a psychiatrist, not from a counselor, not from a friend, but only from God through the ministry of the priest-confessor.

It’s natural to be concerned about pouring out one’s soul to another human, especially one we may not know. That’s what we do when we go to Confession. It helps, though, to remember that we really pour our soul out to God. The priest is God’s witness. This sacrament is very different from telling a friend or counselor about the wrong we have done.

The approach to the Sacrament of Reconciliation has changed from the past. Today, we regard it primarily as a sacrament of God’s mercy, not of God’s judgment. God’s forgiveness comes through the priest’s words, but the priest is not primarily seen as a judge, as may have been the case in the past. This image often brought fear into people, especially those away from Confession for a long time or who had something serious to confess. Today, the priest is better seen as a dispenser of God’s mercy.

There are two ways to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The first is individually, between the priest and penitent. The second is during a Rite of Reconciliation with a number of penitents who admit their sinfulness in a penance service. At a given time in this service, each penitent goes to confession individually to a priest to receive absolution. Often, these penance services take place during Advent and Lent.

No matter who the priest is, he has the power to absolve sins in confession. Having said this, though, one priest may reflect God’s mercy to a particular penitent better than another. Even though God forgives our sins, his forgiveness comes through the ministry of a human priest. In observing and listening to different priests at Mass or hearing of a particular priest-confessor from a friend or neighbor, a penitent may choose a priest with whom he or she is most comfortable when confessing one’s sins.

As to the issue of where to begin, if someone has been away from confession for a long time, here a few suggestions:

  1. The first thing is to decide to go to confession. After that, it becomes easier.
  2. The penitent can go into a Catholic Church at the appropriate time, go to the confessor who is there and confess anonymously through a screen or face-to face. Both opportunities are available in most confessionals. Another way is to choose a particular priest. A penitent can contact the priest, ask for an appointment, and go to confession in that way.
  3. Before confessing, the penitent asks for the help of the Holy Spirit and tries to remember the sins committed since the last confession, especially mortal sins.
  4. A central part of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is sorrow for sin. The penitent tells God that he or she is sorry for one’s sins and firmly resolves to do better in the future.
  5. When the person goes to confession, it may be wise to begin, “Father, it’s been a long time since I last went to confession and I need your help. I want to make a sincere, good general confession of my past sins. Will you help me?” Then, the penitent follows the direction of the priest. If the penitent remembers any mortal sins, he or she mentions them. The penitent follows the advice of the priest, receives a penance to perform, makes an act of contrition, and receives the priest’s absolution for one’s sins.
  6. The penitent leaves the confessional and performs the assigned penance given by the priest.

One final comment. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a wonderful gift of God. It’s to be cherished, not feared. Is God inviting you today to accept this great gift of divine mercy? It may be one of the best gifts you ever receive. Make the most of it and receive it often.