A guide for confession

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If you could perform a simple act that would make you feel strengthened, free and at peace, would you do it? Confession presents Catholics with such an opportunity, but for many individuals, even those who deeply love the church, confession is tough. Some avoid it for years, others for decades.

Known also as penance or reconciliation, the sacrament, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, was instituted by Jesus Christ to offer sinners God's mercy and forgiveness for offenses committed against Him; at the same time, it is to reconcile sinners with the church, which also is wounded by their sin.

"Ultimately, confession is the unconditional love and forgiveness of God poured out to us," said Father James R. Searby, parochial vicar of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington. "It's returning to a friend."

Missionhurst Father Pascal NG. Kumanda, parochial vicar of St. Ann Church in Arlington, encourages those who have been away from the sacrament for a long time to remember that God is "waiting for them with open arms - not to judge, but to show them His love and care."

Why you should go: Mercy is bigger than sin - always

There are countless reasons people stay away from confession, including anxiety, embarrassment and fear.

Father Kumanda remembers standing in line as a 9-year-old in his native Congo, waiting with around 100 other children for his first confession.

"While my friends were moving forward toward the confessional, I was moving backward," Father Kumanda recalled. "It was because I was thinking that after confessing my sins, the priest would judge me, yell at me and tell my mom what I did. Based on my experience, I do believe that others may think the same."

For those who feel that way, Father Kumanda's response is: Try to relax. "We don't go to confession to face a judge or law enforcement (officer) who is investigating something about us," he said. "We go to confession to meet a loving and forgiving Father."

Father Searby said it's good to remember that we all have embarrassing sins. "We need to have a better sense of humor about ourselves," he said. Children do things that make us chuckle, and that's how God sees our failings. Understanding that does not minimize our need for repentance, but it helps us see that "in the grand scheme of things" mercy is bigger than all of our sins, said Father Searby.

If you are anxious because you don't recall the act of contrition you learned as a child or worry you'll fumble through the steps of the sacrament, "remember confession is a dialogue between friends," Father Searby said, and that the "priest is there to lead you through it."

How do you prepare for the sacrament?

Don't prepare for confession like a job interview, "but rather like an encounter with a loving and caring Father who is waiting to lift up His son or daughter," said Father Kumanda.

And be honest with yourself. "We know our big issues and our small ones," said Father Searby.

Ask your heart: How have I lived the Eight Beatitudes? How have I kept the Ten Commandments? How have I lived the seven virtues or vices? (See Father Searby's examination of conscience below.)

Even if it's a sin you've confessed before, it's good to bring it up again if it's a recurring struggle. "Priests are healers," said Father Searby. If you go to the doctor you shouldn't hide old wounds that continue to hurt once in a while, he said. The doctor wants to hear about it, "because maybe he can give you a remedy. The confessional is the doctor of the soul."

What do you do during confession?

Whether it's face to face or behind a screen - both are equally beneficial, said Father Searby - you may always ask a priest for guidance if you're unsure of what to say or do.

As you come to the sacrament, attempt to "enter joyfully into it," Father Searby said. He said stepping into the confessional can feel like going for a jog. "We initially don't want to do it, but after four steps, you start feeling better, your blood is pumping, you're doing it." Showing up is the difficult part, he said.

Mortal sins must be confessed in kind and in number during confession. If you've been away from the sacrament a long time and can't remember exact numbers, just do your best to be specific, said Father Searby. According to the catechism, a mortal sin is the knowing and willful violation of God's law in a grave matter, for example idolatry, adultery or slander. "Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God," states the catechism.

In addition to mortal sins, which must be confessed specifically, "we can talk about the disposition that led us there, as well as the venial sins," said Father Searby. Venial sins injure but do not break our friendship with God. However, "deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us, little by little, to commit mortal sin," according to the catechism.

It's important to remember, Father Searby said, that you are confessing your sins to a sinner. "Priests are not some perfect guy judging you. I'm a sinner, you're a sinner; let's admit it together."

While the penitent is thinking of their sins, Father Searby added, the priest is "thinking of the mercy and power and health that the soul is going to have."

What do you say for the act of contrition?

After confessing your sins, a penitent says an act of contrition. It need not be long or fancy, Father Searby said. The most important elements include: your contrition, your willingness to do penance and your firm resolve not to commit the sins again. There are "many beautiful acts of contrition; pick one that speaks to the truth of your heart," said Father Searby. (See suggestions below.)

Need extra motivation?

Go with a "confession buddy," a friend or family member who can hold you accountable and share in the joy of the sacrament. It is through friendship that we "first come to have friendship with Jesus," Father Searby said, so friendship necessarily grounds our faith life. He encourages fathers to go to confession with their sons, mothers to attend with daughters and married couples to go together.

What about those who go regularly?

Catholics should go to confession as soon as possible after they've committed a mortal sin. If they're seeking to grow in holiness, confession once a month is recommended.

For those who receive the sacrament regularly, Father Kumanda assures them that "God is very proud of them."

"They need to keep up the good work. They need always to keep in mind what Pope Francis says: 'God never gets tired of forgiving us,'" he said.

If you still need a push

"Freedom is the greatest gift," said Father Searby. "The thing God values the most is our freedom. He wants you and He wants me to be as free as possible, because when we are free we can love, and God is love - so the more we can love the more we can be like Him." Confession, he said, gives us such freedom.

"After confessing my sins and receiving absolution, I always feel renewed, relieved, strengthened and at peace," said Father Kumanda, adding that after he gives absolution to others, they often leave with a smile. "To me that smile, even small, says a lot."

Examination of conscience

- In what areas of my life am I not at peace?

- Where am I angry, depressed, discouraged, anxious, bitter or resentful?

- Where am I too focused on myself?

- What areas of my life, my thoughts, my desires, have I not yet given over to Jesus as Lord?

- What wouldn't I want to talk to Jesus about?

- What wouldn't I want Him to see?

- In what ways am I not responding to what God wants me to do?

- How has He transformed my life or been present to me today?

- What graces were given today?

- How did I respond well and not so well to those graces to love God, myself and those I encountered today

(Source: Fr. James R. Searby)

Confession, step by step

Greeting: The priest will welcome you; he may say a short blessing or read a Scripture passage.

The Sign of the Cross: Together, you and the priest will make the Sign of the Cross. You may then begin your confession with these or similar words: "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been (give the estimated time) since my last confession."

Confession: Confess all your sins to the priest. If you are unsure of what to say, ask the priest for help. This can be a time for dialogue, with the priest offering insight and counsel. When you are finished, conclude with these or similar words: "I am sorry for these and all my sins."

Penance: The priest will propose an act of penance. The penance might be prayer, a work of mercy or an act of charity.

Act of contrition: After the priest has conferred your penance, pray an act of contrition, expressing sorrow for your sins and resolving to sin no more. A suggested act of contrition: "Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner, and give me the grace to never sin again."

Absolution: The priest will extend his hand over your head and pronounce the words of absolution. You respond, "Amen."

Praise: The priest usually will praise the mercy of God and will invite you to do the same. For example, the priest may say, "Give thanks to the Lord for He is good." And your response could be, "His mercy endures forever."

Dismissal: The priest will conclude the sacrament, often saying, "Go in peace."

(Sources: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Fr. James R. Searby, The Light is On)

Acts of contrition

O my God, I am sorry for my sins because I have offended you. I know I should love you above all things. Help me to do penance, to do better and to avoid anything that might lead me to sin. Amen.

God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You, and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all because they offend you, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to confess my sins, do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.

For more acts of contrition

Go to Acts Of Contrition.

The Light is On for You

Ash Wednesday brings the faithful into Lent by reminding us of our mortality and that "we are made not for here but for heaven," said Fr. James R. Searby, parochial vicar of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington. "So Lent is a great time to prepare for our ultimate goal, to repent and to be transformed."

Through the Light is On initiative, all Catholic parishes in the Arlington Diocese and Washington Archdiocese offer confession every Wednesday evening during Lent. For more information, including parish locators, go to thelightison.org. Check the parish for specific times.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016