Question: I haven’t been to confession in many years. But I feel something is tugging at me to go. Do I have to confess every sin since my last confession? What about ones I no longer remember? Are priests really bound not to tell anyone what someone tells them while in the confessional? I’m really anxious about going again. — Anonymous in New York
Let me start by noting the “tug” that you are feeling. I think I know what that’s like. Sometimes it feels as though God has me by the scruff of the neck and doesn’t want to let go. It almost always works out best when I take that seriously and act on how God is leading me. I don’t think you would be asking these questions if you were not taking this prompting by God to heart. That’s a good thing.
As for your questions: They all strike me as the questions that someone is likely to ask who hasn’t been to confession for an extended period of time. The anxiety you feel is not surprising. Returning to the sacrament after a long absence is not easy and is bound to stir up these kinds of uncertainties.
Before addressing each of your specific concerns, let me say this.
The best place to begin is to know that God wants to give you his mercy.
He is ready to forgive, and He doesn’t demand from us a “perfect” performance in the confessional. More than anything else, God wants us to have genuine sorrow for our sins. If you are worried that you might have forgotten something, know that God is less interested in perfect recall than in the sorrow that is in your heart, and in your resolving to avoid sins in the future.
This is related to your question about having to confess every one of your sins. For one thing, if it’s a long time since your last confession, it will be impossible to remember all your sins. The Church has always made a distinction between serious sins, those that cause us to be separated from God’s love, and less serious sins, which wound God’s love — but which do not separate us from it. The more serious sins, mortal sins as they are called, need to be confessed in the sacrament of reconciliation. Venial sins, the less serious ones, do not carry that same requirement, but we are still invited to acknowledge them before God in the sacrament. In a confession that looks back at some distance, I think it may help to identify “sinful tendencies” in your life, those habitual ways in which you acted out of selfishness.
If you are not sure whether a particular sin is mortal or venial, you should feel free to ask your confessor. I also think that your conscience will help you to know which sins need to be brought before God’s mercy and forgiveness. While it may not be an absolutely infallible guide — it does need to be well formed — your conscience usually steers you in the right direction.
Those who confess their sins to a priest in the sacrament will often say that the effect was like having a heavy weight removed from them. The absolving of our sins frees us from the burden of a guilty conscience. In turn, that means that we are given a fresh start in our lives as Christians. This is one of the sacrament’s greatest blessings.
Let me say a couple of other things that might be part of a good examination of conscience.
In the Confiteor that we say at the beginning of Mass, we ask forgiveness for “what I have done and what I have failed to do.” Our Catholic tradition speaks of sins of commission and omission. We tend to associate sin with actions of one kind or another and can be less attentive to the failures to act when the opportunities present themselves. We can, too, often turn a deaf ear to those in need, to prefer our comfort to doing our part in lifting the burdens of others. This may be the result of a certain shrinking of our heart that makes us indifferent and insensitive not only to the distant stranger in need, but sometimes even to those with whom we live. One grace of the sacrament, as we live out its call to conversion, is to give us hearts more open to others.
As you prepare to celebrate the sacrament and struggle perhaps to put order into your examination of conscience, let me offer these questions for your review.
What is your primary vocation in life?
Is it to be a good spouse or parent or grandparent?
Is it to be a good lay person in the world?
You might ask yourself, how am I doing in the responsibilities that are given me in the carrying out of my vocation. This will lead you in the direction of seeing that Jesus’ great commandment of love has the most important claim on your life.
How have I loved my spouse or my children? How have I helped to build up the communities to which I belong – my family, my parish, my colleagues in the workplace, etc. How have I helped the poor? How have I done in my duty to give honor to God?
I’m thinking that this approach to an examination of conscience will help to make your confession more “real” and not simply a list of sins with little relation one to the other.
Your last concern, a very serious one, has to do with what is called the “seal of confession.” Is a priest really obligated never to reveal anything that is said in confession? Since this is a matter of the highest import, allow me to quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the “sacramental seal” because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains “sealed” by the sacrament.
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1467.)
Please know that I pray for you as you return to the sacrament after a time away. The Scriptures make it abundantly clear: reconciliation to God and neighbor is a cause for much rejoicing. May you have a share in that joy.
God bless you.