Adults Preparing for First Confession

by Jimmy Akin

in Sacraments

Confession  Since we are approaching Easter, many candidates will be making their first confession in preparation for reception into full communion with the Church.

This can be a scary thing if you've never been to confession before, particularly since this first confession may cover a period of years in one's life, rather than a shorter time.

In light of that, I thought the following e-mail exchange (with the inquirer's identity shielded, per my usual policy) might prove helpful to some preparing to be received.

An inquirer wrote:

I have a huge issue. I am looking to convert to Catholicism and have heard all the horror stories involving confession. I committed [a particular act] and am extremely revolted by what I did, and have prayed that it might be removed from my being. I have also read in several places online about the penance for such acts. As I would be confessing it in my first confession would those penances allow me to still take part in the confirmation activities and first Eucharist? What would the penance be? It is a thing that brings me great shame and I am still not sure if I could voice it in regular company, let alone to the priest who is acting as the corporeal Christ.

I responded:

Thank you for writing. I want to praise you for your willingness to respond to God's call, even when it means facing some difficult situations. He will surely bless you for that.

It is also clear that you are sincere and want to do God's will. Again, he will bless you.

I am not sure what horror stories you are referring to regarding confession. There are times when priests make mistakes, but the vast majority of priests are very kind and gentle in confession. This is true of confession in general, but it is especially true in first confessions.

Typically the penances that are given are saying a few prayers, perhaps reading the Scripture readings for the day, meditating in front of the Eucharist for a few minutes–that type of thing. I would not worry about getting a severe penance. While such were more common in earlier centuries, today penances are very mild.

You also do not have to have completed the penance before you can receive the other sacraments. Thus if you went to confession right before confirmation or the Eucharist, you could go ahead and receive these sacraments and do the penance afterward.

More typically, candidates for reception into full communion will go to confession a day or more before they are received into the Church and confirmed.

Also, I should mention, that if you are not baptized then when you are baptized it would take away all previous sins without the need to confess them.

If you are baptized and thus need to confess the act, but find it difficult to say out loud, then take heart! You don't have to say it out loud. You can write it down on a piece of paper, hand it to the priest, and say, "I have this to confess" (or words to that effect).

In fact, for first confessions that can be kind of lengthy and in which one might have a bunch of sensitive and easy-to-forget stuff to review, using the written form is not a bad idea. Just make sure that you take the paper and completely destroy it afterwards so nobody can read it. (Burn it, tear it up and flush it down the toilet, whatever.)

Also, don't worry about the priest serving on behalf of Christ. God already knows all of our sins, and the point of the priest is so that we can be reconciled with God.

I hope this helps, and God bless you! I'll be keeping you in my prayers. Please keep me in yours.

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Tony Pelletier March 5, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Gonna be praying, too.

Chad McCullough March 5, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Thank you very much for this. I’m 42 and preparing for RCIA. I have a little time before I will go through this but I’m sure I’ll be nervous. This is a very exciting time in my life but a little nerve racking, as well. :)

Matt March 5, 2010 at 4:56 pm

I’m prepared to go just this side of an absolute guarantee that an adult Candidate’s first experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is always going to be far easier than he or she anticipates. Especially if they’ve heard things they describe as “horror stories” about the process.
Jimmy is a closer-to-authoritative source on this than I am, of course, but allow me to chime in with confirmation of his general statement about the (lack of) harshness in assigned penance. Mine (for 35 years worth of accumulated sins, some of them fairly egregious) was completed in less than 10 minutes.
The hardest part is facing yourself. Once you’ve done that (and it sounds like the letter-writer already has), sitting before the man standing in persona Christi, to face God, turns out to be so easy as to feel anticlimactic. You’re going to come away thinking something along the general lines of “THIS is what I was scared of???!!!”
Indeed my reaction gave me my first real “Aha!” moment making clear what the error of scrupulousness feels like. You go into the confessional wondering if God’s mercy really is big enough to cover all the bad stuff you’ve done, and then you come out with a new understanding of just how vast that mercy is, and how puny your sins really are, in the grand scheme of things.
God loves you. He wants to forgive you. All you need do is approach. And as hard as that certainly seems now, when it’s all over, you’ll be wondering what ever posessed you to be scared of it.
May the Peace of our Lord and Savior be with you now and always, Mr. or Ms. Anonymous. And welcome to the fold.

Chris March 5, 2010 at 6:56 pm

I can agree, it ain’t easy. Heck, I am 7 years into my Catholic walk and getting ready for confession gives me the heebie-jeebies. And it’s weird because I vocally defend and wholeheartedly believe in the sacrament. It’s just that when it’s time to actually do it, I get butterflies and so on. That will pass with time I suppose.

Mary March 6, 2010 at 10:17 am

My experience is that anticipiating it is always worse than the event — but that doesn’t help the next time I’m anticipiating it.

Paul Ray March 6, 2010 at 12:49 pm

I, too, will be confirmed this Easter Vigil! First Confession, to me, I know will be difficult and possibly embarrassing but at the same time I CANNOT WAIT to unload these burdens! Even though I have repented of them and have made a firm resolve not to commit them again I know that the words of absolution will be unbelievably liberating!

Matt Yonke March 6, 2010 at 3:57 pm

As a convert who had to confess pretty much every sin there is at my first confession let me affirm everything Jimmy says. I’m not aware of a way to get rid of the nerves ahead of time, but rest assured it won’t be terrible and it’ll be great when it’s over!

Angela Messenger March 6, 2010 at 9:11 pm

I left the Church for many years and when I returned I had to go to confession. I had to wait in line for awhile but this lady in front of me kept chatting with me and kept me from hurdling the pews and running out the side door. When I got to the confessional I noticed a HUGE fire extinguisher next to it… – it wasn’t needed LOL!
I entered the confessional with my “list” and promptly burst into tears. A box of tissues came around the curtain. Father waited patiently while I collected myself. I made my confession and waited…..
Father said, “That was a beautiful confession.” I was like – HUH?! I probably broke nearly every single Commandment and he said my confession was beautiful?!
I said weakly, “Father, I had a choice to confess to 3 priests and you won the “jackpot” – I’m sorry. He said, “No, JESUS has won the jackpot.”
Then he absolved me and gave me my penance (probably a few Hail Marys and Our Father – can’t remember now) and I felt like I was kneeling in Jesus’ heart – I felt surrounded by warmth and light and I knew I was “home.”
You receive GRACE in the Sacrament and it’s beautiful!

Wes March 8, 2010 at 12:30 pm

I’m currently in RCIA and am looking forward to being confirmed this Easter Vigil. Last week I did my first confession – something I had been thinking about and dreading for YEARS. I had carried all these fears and anxieties about what it would be like, harsh and judgmental, or that I’d be required to perform some penance that would be self-incriminating (as I’ve seen in television and movies).
It wasn’t like that at all. The priest was the very definition of gentleness. It wasn’t an anticlimactic experience for me – it actually overwhelmed me with unexpected emotion. In class we were cautioned not to put too much thought into whether or not we “feel something” after – the sacrament absolves us either way – but for me it was pretty intense.
As a side note, it’s been almost a week and I’ve had little problem resisting the temptation to a particular sin I’ve struggled with on a daily basis for all my life. I don’t know if that’s grace, or just not wanting to mess up a clean slate, or both, but it’s welcome!

Maureen March 8, 2010 at 7:13 pm

1. The chances are fairly good that the priest has heard someone confess your sin before. Even if it’s horribly heinous. Priests get around.
2. There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents….

Jeremy March 11, 2010 at 10:44 am

I found myself in the exact same position as all of you RCIA-ers just 5 years ago. Not only will you find that your fears were unfounded, but I think you will find the Sacrament of Reconciliation to be one of the most beautiful of the Sacraments. I was very apprehensive about how things would be inside the confessional—some make it sound worse than a visit to the dentist. But instead, when I walked in, I noticed nothing but a tremendous sense of peace. It was similar, really, to the first time I visited my can almost hear God prodding you to come forth, and saying “I’m very glad you’re here”.
And rest assured–no matter what you have to confess–if your confessor has been a priest for more than 5 years or so, he has just about heard it all. And probably more than once.
So go on in there and just let it flow.:)

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