First Confession Advice

by Jimmy Akin

in Sacraments

A reader writes:

My husband is in RCIA, and he thinks he has to be in the Confessional for 6 hours, relaying every horrid thing he ever did in his childhood, like the one time he killed a bird out of meanness, and all those times he didn’t keep holy the Sabbath growing up, etc.

Okay, just to make sure you know: Your husband doesn’t need to confess anything from before he was baptized. Baptism wipes out all sins prior to it, so if he wasn’t baptized until sometime after he was an infant then he doesn’t need to worry about that chunk of his life.

And he keeps asking me for an example of a venial sin. Believe it or not, I can’t think of an example.

Well, killing a bird out of meanness and not keeping the Sabbath holy as a non-Catholic strike me as two good examples.

Killing a human is a grave sin, but killing an animal is not–unless by killing it you somehow gravely damage a human being (e.g., by killing the horse of a man who needs the horse to earn his livelihood or killing a very expensive purebred pet or something).

Similarly, non-Catholics are not obliged by canon law to attend Mass or to refrain from servile labor on Sundays. Their obligations for Sunday observance are much more general and, not being bound by a specific standard, they generally do not sin mortally if they fail to go to church or otherwise observe Sundays. This is especially so for those raised in households where Sunday observance was very lax.

Second, our pastor and instructor, whom I love and respect, kind of laughed and said, "I’ve been a priest for 35 years and I haven’t yet met someone who’s broken all ten Commandments."

I was thinking to myself, "Oh, yes you have. You’ve met me."

Further, my husband has also broken all ten. All one has to do is read one of those Examination of Conscience books to figure out that most people have broken all ten.

True, but you have to realize that the things listed in an examination of conscience aren’t all mortal sins. For example: "Have I stolen the property of another?" is only mortal if you gravely harm the person from whom your steal. If you take a box of pens home from work then that’s going to be venial (unless for some really weird reason the existence of your place of employment hinges on its having that box of pens or something).

If you steal a thousand bucks from work, though, that’s going to be mortal since that thousand dollars represents a thousand dollars of damage that was done to some person or persons (like your fellow employees) who would otherwise have it (the loss of a thousand bucks being a serious matter for anyone who isn’t very wealthy).

My husband was raised in a single parent home where religion was not a priority. I asked him the other day, "When you (stole the candy, killed the bird, missed Church) did you know it was a sin?" He replied that he knew in his heart those things were bad, even if he didn’t know they were ‘sins’. So, does he have to confess them?

The fact that he couldn’t articulate the word "sin" in connection with them doesn’t of itself mean that he’s off the hook, because he still knew they were wrong and did them anyway. But the fact that he was raised in this kind of religiously lax family (in the case of missing church) and that he’s talking about very small things (stealing candy, killing a bird) mean that the grave matter needed for mortal sin is not there.

Am I going to be an old woman before my husband emerges from the Confessional?

That would depend on whether there is a mini-black hole or other extreme gravitational force in the confessional that could warp spacetime while your husband is making his confession.

I mean, we’re trying to have kids, for crying out loud.

Good luck with that! We need more kids around!

Can you, at your leisure, please explain ‘First Confession: What to Say, What not to Say"?

In a post I did earlier today (by a strange coincidence), I talked about how the process of making a confession generally works, and I’m sure that they’ll give your husband additional guidance in his RCIA course.

I would say this, though: It is clear that your husband is currently suffering from a case of confessional scrupulosity, by which I mean that he’s overestimating what sins he needs to confess. This is a normal thing in persons just coming into the Church, because he hasn’t yet had a chance to learn what does and does not need to be confessed. As he learns more, this tendency should go away.

A standard piece of advice for people who have scrupulosity is that they are to confess ONLY those sins which they are CERTAIN were mortal sins and to refrain from confessing everything else, simply saying "And for all my sins I am sorry."

I would therefore look through the Ten Commandments, with a knowledge of the different ways one can offend against them, and say, "Can I remember any cases where I KNOW that I GRAVELY offended against one of these DELIBERATELY and KNOWING that it was a grave violation at the time?"

Since he was raised in a religiously lax family, he likely did not know that many of the sins he may have committed in his life were grave violations, even if they were.

Making this kind of confession will suffice. As long as he doesn’t deliberately hold back something that he KNOWS to be a mortal sin then the absolution will be valid, and if he later comes to the conclusion that something he failed to mention was mortal then he can confess it at that time.

I’d also be patient with him. First confessions of adult converts can often take a while. I think that my first one lasted for something like 45 minutes (though that may be a bad memory and it may have been considerably less). It took so long not because I had that many mortal sins to confess, but because I was new to confession and was in the same situation as your husband.

I didn’t know what to confess and I wasn’t efficient at it, so I went into too much detail and confessed all kinds of things I didn’t know to be mortal, just to be sure. I didn’t know, for example, that I could just say "I have THIS to confess and THAT to confess" and move through things swiftly. Today the same initial confession would take me five minutes–ten tops, depending on any questions the priest wanted to ask me.

Also, if it is going to take a long time, you can simply stay home while your husband does it. He also might want to make a special appointment for it rather than making other people wait in line during a really long confession.

One thing that might help your husband get through it would be to write out a list of what he needs to confess. If he does this, he should do it BY HAND (NOT on a computer, where there could be an electronic record of it created accidentally or by spyware).

If he thinks he may be overcome by emotion, he can also hand the list to the priest and say "I confess THIS." If he does that, he should afterwards get the list back from the priest and DESTROY it (tearing it into little bits and flushing it down the nearest men’s room toilet would be a good way).

Measures such as these should allow him to get through the confession more quickly and get back to your marriage . . . already in progress.

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{ 21 comments }

Denise Downing February 27, 2006 at 12:44 pm

Is you have been through your First Reconciliation (as an adult convert), confessed mortal and venial sins as best as you can remember, are not all your sins absolved then? This is what I have been taught, but if that is not so, then guess I better go back through the list of mortal/venial sins and see what else I can remember.. don’t want to end up in hell over something I simply forgot to mention…
Or am I totally wrong in this?

BillyHW February 27, 2006 at 12:49 pm

If he thinks he may be overcome by emotion, he can also hand the list to the priest and say “I confess THIS.”
I had no idea you could do that.
If he does that, he should afterwards get the list back from the priest and DESTROY it (tearing it into little bits and flushing it down the nearest men’s room toilet would be a good way).
So that’s why the church toilet never works right.

Cathy Ward February 27, 2006 at 1:24 pm

That’s great advice.
I also had no idea one could write their sins down, so as to avoid being overcome by emotion.
Excellent post!

Breier February 27, 2006 at 1:44 pm

Jimmy can correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe his advice applies to situations where would LOSE YOUR POWER OF SPEECH because of severe emotion. The mere feeling of shame or tears of contrition (which are a gift of God) are not a sufficient reason to write your sins down and had them over.
For a concrete example, the written list of sins is used to make an ORAL and AUDIBLE confession of one’s sins. If you become too choked up and can’t continue, then you could hand the list over.
But he’s not saying that you can generally just write your sins out instead of confessing them orally. Writing them out is an aid to memory for an oral confession.
But clarification on Mr. Akin’s views would be appreciated!

Theocoid February 27, 2006 at 3:45 pm

When I was in RCIA as a revert (they didn’t have a program for returning Catholics at that church), they encouraged us to attend a reconciliation service. Now this wasn’t simply a communal penance service. There were many priests, and each person was supposed to go up to one and whisper their sins to the priest in the presence of everyone else. Needless to say, the context didn’t encourage anything more but a general recitation of sins by category.
I went to reconciliation one on one a few weeks later to make sure I dotted my T’s and crossed my I’s. I’ve also recounted a few incidents about which I have felt a great deal of guilt in separate sessions. So I think that first general reconciliation set me up (as one with somewhat obsessive tendency to beguin with) toward some scrupulosity in this area.
Any suggestions about how to approach this, Jimmy? I try to attend reconciliation frequently, but I do sometimes wonder whether a general recounting of my past was enough.

Jimmy Akin February 27, 2006 at 5:13 pm

Jimmy can correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe his advice applies to situations where would LOSE YOUR POWER OF SPEECH because of severe emotion. The mere feeling of shame or tears of contrition (which are a gift of God) are not a sufficient reason to write your sins down and had them over.
No, it can be enough. The decisive thing is whether or not the sins get confessed, not how they get confessed. If you find it easier to confess them out loud, one at a time, you can do that. If you find it easier to confess them in sign language, you can do that (as long as the priest speaks sign language). If you find it easier to make the confession in writing and say “I have this to confess” then you can do that.
The important thing is that you communicate the information.
There is a dimension to confession where doing it out loud, one at a time has an emotional impact on you that can be salutary, but then writing them down also forces you to confront your sins emotionally.
It is a judgment call what approach you feel is best for you given the overall balance of factors, and it is not required that people use the paper method only if the emotional force will be so overwhelming that they will be unable to speak. If they foresee significant difficulties (e.g., in the case of a first confession covering many years) then the paper method can be warranted even if they do not think that they will be so emotional that they will be unable to talk.

Jimmy Akin February 27, 2006 at 5:18 pm

Theocoid: I’m not sure from what you’ve said whether you still feel that there are outstanding issues that need to be confessed at this point.
If you’ve mentioned all the things that you need to, even if they were scattered over different confessions, you have already confessed what you need to.
If you still have a few issues to mention then mention them.
Only if the situation is irretrivably mixed up in your memory to where you can’t tell should you *ask* a priest or spiritual director whether a general confession would be advisable in your case.
Since you’ve indicated an obsessive tendency about this, the presumptive answer is “No, you shouldn’t make one.” Only if you have compelling reasons to do so should you go that route. (A compelling reason could be finally getting the issue settled so that you don’t have to worry about it; but if you foresee that doing a general confession likely will reinforce the pattern of scrupulosity and not end the worries then you should resist the impulse to make a general confession.)

Theocoid February 27, 2006 at 5:57 pm

Thanks. The general confession was only the first one under those constrained conditions. All of the following were as specific as I could be given the 25-year period and my fuzzy memories.

michael hugo February 27, 2006 at 6:00 pm

Missing Mass is a Mortal sin:
Given how precious the Mass is plus the Old Testament precedent which was rightly adapted by the Church, the Code of Canon Law (#1246) proscribes, “Sunday is the day on which the paschal mystery is celebrated in light of the apostolic tradition and is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church.” Moreover, “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass…” (#1247). Therefore, the Catechism teaches, “Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit grave sin” (#2181), and grave sin is indeed mortal sin. Recently, our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, repeated this precept in his apostolic letter Dies Domini (Observing and Celebrating the Day of the Lord, #47, 1998).

michael hugo February 27, 2006 at 6:03 pm

0ops! Ignore the post above.
Jimmy said,
“not keeping the Sabbath holy as a non-Catholic”
I missed the “non” part.

Laura February 27, 2006 at 6:34 pm

wow,
I had no idea you could write your sins down and thand them over like that. I’m a little confused does making a written list of your sins still go along with the valid form and matter of the sacriment? I mean, if the sacriments must have proper form and matter don’t you have to be in the confessional with the priest and speaking your sins? I thought this was why you couldn’t write them down or confess on line or over the phone. Believe me I saw that question asked of a priest in a chat room.
anyway, I hope my questions were clear,
thanks and God Bless,
Laura

Mary February 27, 2006 at 7:04 pm

On the writing down issue: besides retrieving and making sure the list is destroyed, it may be best to make sure that no identifying information, either of you or of anyone else.
“Committing adultery with Jane” for instance — particularly when the name is less common than Jane.

John Henry February 28, 2006 at 4:37 am

Question: Does anybody know of a book that could help someone to learn the basic principles that help to decipher what is and what isn’t grave matter for mortal sins. I confess to being as confused as the subject of this post when it comes to what is and what isn’t grave matter (e.g., I would have said killing a bird out of meanness was grave). Preferably entry level. And I mean other than the CCC, which I have read. Thanks.

francis 03 February 28, 2006 at 8:33 am

So, can you electronically transmit your sins to a priest and just come in physically for Absolution? In places that have long confessional lines (and yes, there still are some), maybe this could speed things up a little– when you show up at the church for your confession you’re given a laptop word-processor, and while you’re examining your conscience you type your sins into it. When the person in front of you comes out of the confessional you hit “transmit” and your “e-confession” shows up on a viewscreen on Father’s side of the confessional. He then reads your sins, asks you about them as necessary, and absolves you.
Or is this a really, really bad idea, as my instincts kind of suggest?

Maureen February 28, 2006 at 9:24 am

One word:
Hacking.
Seriously, in a world where some people are overcurious and other people are trying to get listening devices in confessionals, not a good plan. Nothing that’s input into a computer is ever really gone, either.
That said, if someone was paralyzed and unable to use sign language to communicate but could type with a stick on their head, etc., certainly using a keyboard would be OK. But the priest and penitent would probably have to be very careful to keep things as secure as possible.

Breier February 28, 2006 at 10:57 am

Jimmy,
Are you saying that oral confession of sins is optional? Or normative with exceptions (writing, sign language, etc.) given for a just cause? Are you saying that we don’t need a reason to make a non-oral confession?
I read that before the 1917 Code of Canon Law, there as no requirement for an auricular confession, but that the Code instituted it. I don’t have a copy of the 1917 Code and couldnt’ find anything in the 1983 so I’m not sure how that stands.

Tom March 4, 2006 at 11:49 am

I am having the same issue as Mary above. How is “Grave Matter” defined? Are there any resources that focus on this issue?

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Trish March 28, 2006 at 9:20 am

I’m an adult who is going to be making my Confirmation next month and I have never been to confession. Is there such a thing as asking for “Absolute Reconciliation” if I cannot remember all of my sins?

Tim J. March 28, 2006 at 9:36 am

Trish-
There is no need to ask for any special kind of Reconciliation. If you do your best to remember and confess all the sins you are aware of, then all your sins will be forgiven, even ones you may not recall at the time. That is the power of the sacrament.
The only way the sacrament would not work is if you intentionally withheld some mortal sin that you were aware of, and in that case NONE of your sins would be forgiven, not even the ones you DID confess – the sacrament would have no effect at all.

Linda April 5, 2012 at 8:50 am

This was so helpful. Thank you. I will be making my first confession today and this discussion really settled alot in my mind and heart.

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