What Happens During Confession?

A primer for non-Catholics.

Confession, also called reconciliation or penance, is one of seven Catholic sacraments. During confession, a Catholic tells a priest her sins and receives absolution for them. Confession practices vary from church to church, but the scenario described below is typical.

Before going to confession, a Catholic might "examine her conscience" by reviewing past actions, thoughts, and patterns of behavior. Some Catholics evaluate their behavior in light of the Ten Commandments.

Catholic churches often offer confession on Saturday afternoons. The sacrament ordinarily takes from 5 to 20 minutes. First, the Catholic goes into a church and either enters a confessional (a small closet-like room, often at the back of churches) or a regular room designated as a confessional. Depending on the church and the person's own choice, the person kneels or sits, and then speaks to the priest through a screen or face to face.

Inside the confessional, the Catholic:

  • Makes the sign of the cross and says: "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," or simply begins to speak.
  • Tells the priest how long it has been since she last confessed.
  • Confesses her sins. While in the past people numbered sins ("I yelled at my brother 5 times"), some people now tend to summarize sinful behaviors ("I didn't treat my brother with respect" or "I didn't show my brother love").

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    The priest then might question the person or elicit more information. While some priests might help a person understand why she is acting in certain ways, confession is not equivalent to a psychotherapy session. Sins must be recognized as sins and not personality issues.

    The person says a prayer expressing sorrow for her sins, such as the Act of Contrition:

    O my God, I am heartily sorry
    for having offended you,
    and I detest all my sins
    because of your just punishment,
    but most of all because they offend you, my God,
    Who are all good and deserving of my love.
    I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace,
    to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin.

    The priest often gives the person a "penance," or deeds to perform to heal her relationships with God and others. For smaller sins, the priest might ask her to say certain prayers, such as several "Our Fathers." For more serious sins, more serious penances are specified, such as making restitution. The person is expected to perform the penance after she leaves the confessional or in the following days.

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