Advent is upon us! It is a time of preparation for our Lord's birth at Christmas. Whenever we encounter Jesus, it means we have to be ready for him! Therefore Advent, like Lent, is a special time of conversion: it is a penitential season.
The Church is called to pray and do penance for ourselves and on behalf of others year-round, but especially during Advent and Lent. If you haven't been to confession in a long time, or just go to confession every once in a while, I strongly encourage you to go during Advent or Lent! Priests make themselves super available, and many of our fellow Catholics share in the experience of our Lord's mercy in this season. Maybe I haven't sold you on going to confession. That's okay. I just ask you to read on to hear how to get more out of confession. I speak not only on behalf of the confessions I have heard, but from my own time as a penitent in the confessional.
First of all, keep in mind that confession is absolution of post-baptismal sin to reconcile you back to communion with God and the Church. All sin is forgiven at baptism, but if you are like the rest of humanity, you probably don't live your baptismal life in Christ perfectly! You fall short and sin. Sin ruptures communion as it breaks, divides, and does violence to what is healthy and wholesome. Read the news and you will see these effects of sin as it tears apart families, marriages, self-confidence, and faith. Sin is the most awful thing on earth. It's not just bad news, but the worst news of all. The good news of the Gospel is that God doesn't want us to live with it, and gives us Jesus to reconcile the human person to himself, to others, to the Church (Christ's Body), and to God. Confession is the Sacrament that God gives to his Church for the purpose of reconciliation. Confession restores, heals, binds up wounds, and uproots sin at its source. More on this below!
Second, in confession we are to confess all of our serious and mortal sins. Mortal sin destroys God’s divine life in us. Venial sins (less serious) chip away at that life. Mortal sins are always (1) serious or grave matter, (2) done with full knowledge of its seriousness, and (3) done with full consent. God gave us all a conscience to discern moral truth, so to not have knowledge about the seriousness of actions like murder, theft, perjury, calumny, adultery, fornication, pornography, masturbation, rape, incest, violence, hatred, etc. implies that our conscience has been malformed. It is not good to live without full knowledge of the moral value of our actions. Full consent means we have not been coerced into the action. Habit also plays a role in limiting our freedom of consent to certain actions. Chronic sex addicts may have formed a bad habit that keeps their serious sins from being mortal sins, but this is not used as an excuse - they need to struggle and respond to God’s grace to break free from sinful habits and re-pattern their mind, heart, and behavior according to Christ.
You may also confess the venial sins that chip away at your relationship with God. The key for confessing venial sins is that you should be confessing them to God on a daily basis. Take your daily, minor offenses (your venial sins) to God every night. Review your day and ask for his pardon. Take them to Mass and receive God’s mercy for your venial sins in the Penitential Rite and in your faithful reception of the Eucharist. Strictly speaking, you do not need Sacramental Confession for the absolution of venial sin. Mass and daily prayer are the normal ways of receiving absolution for venial sins. When people come in to confession with a rapid-fire list of ALL of their venial sins, I don’t find that this ‘shooting off’ of sins in confession really helps them. These penitents become discouraged and tell me they have been confessing the same sins for years without improvement. In addition to confessing all mortal and serious sins in the confessional, I would recommend confessing only the venial sins that are causing you the most strife. This allows the priest to center in on one or two areas of your life and equip you to work on them with new fervor and diligence. It is not discouraging, but transformative and uplifting!
Next, a confession with a priest should take about 5 minutes. It doesn’t matter if it’s been 5 days, 5 years, or 50 years since your last confession - confession should not be a burdensome commitment of time and energy! Confessions are not counseling sessions, time for chit-chat, or long stories of sins (like AA 5th Step). Perhaps you need one of these. Just tell the priest so. He will help point you in the right direction or find time to meet with you in the future. However, for the brief time you share with the priest in the confessional, and for the sake of others waiting for the priest to hear their confession, the focus must remain on God’s mercy for you.
This brings us to our final consideration which I would like to elaborate in a few points. To keep confession centered on God’s mercy means that you be prepared with your examination of conscience. People consider the confession itself as the most laborious process of the confession, but it is actually the preparation for the confession that we should spend most of our time with.
To summarize, the examination of conscience brings forth your SINS, its ROOTS, and the WOUNDS it causes. Rather than making confession longer, entering the confessional with this knowledge helps you to get the most out of your time in confession. Being able to share not just the ‘sins’ with the priest, but their roots and the wounds they create and sins they conceal, puts you in a very good position of transparency before the Lord. Moreover, it allows the priest to give you good advice and a suitable penance that will really help you grow.
The confessional is the greatest place on earth because it announces the victory of Christ in your life as he puts an end to sin and the death it brings. When you go to confession, be sure to examine your conscience well and ask the Lord what roots he can reveal to you regarding your sinful behavior, and what wounds sin has inflicted that have been left unhealed. The venial or serious sins we commit always have a root and always create or conceal a wound. Getting in touch with yourself in this way will ensure you will be getting the most from confession.