by Rev. Albert F. Ernst, O.S.F.S.
A great tragedy took place in Jerusalem more than nineteen-hundred years ago. It took place around noon on Good Friday. A great multitude is making its way to Mount Calvary. Apart from the crowd there is another group of women weeping. Near the top of the hill there is another group, a smaller one. Among this second group one sees a heart broken mother as she sees her only son hanging in mid air between two murderers.
The murderers speak, one to criticize, "If thou are the Christ, save Thyself and us," and the other to plead Jesus' innocence and to confess his own crimes. He says, "Dost thou not even fear God, seeing that Thou art under the same sentence. We indeed justly, for we are receiving what our deeds deserve; but this Man has done nothing wrong." The robber makes a public confession and then he asks for pardon and forgiveness, "Lord remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom." Jesus' heart is touched and Jesus said to him, "Amen say to thee, this day thou shalt be with Me in paradise." Nine words were spoken by the sinner, nine words from Jesus, and a thief and murderer join the angel's choir.
This true story that you know so well and I have just told has been repeated thousands of times. Every time a priest forgives confessed and repented sins, this story is re-enacted. The drama of Confession has not always had the dramatic details of Calvary, yet it is that same drama which is unbroken since the time of Christ's death. The important, the necessary things from the story of Calvary are always present in every Confession, the telling of sins, sorrow and repentance, amendment of one's life, and the words of absolution spoken by the priest in the name of Jesus Christ and by the power of God.
Before going to Confession we must prepare for it. We do so by becoming recollected and by asking the Holy Spirit to recall all our sins. Four or five minutes is usually enough if you are in the habit of going to Confession frequently (every week) and are not in the habit of committing mortal sin. Those who go only once a year or who lead careless lives must spend much time in examining their conscience. Don't worry about details or precision of numbers during examination of conscience.
The most important thing in making a good Confession is being sorry for your sins. You don't go to Confession to dump your sins into the priest's lap and then go off. I'll tell you why you go there, it is to make up with God. There is something special about that. You get a tiny realization of what I mean, if you every had a disagreement with a friend and then made up with that friend after the disagreement.
There is another excellent way to prepare for Confession. It is the way St. Francis de Sales recommends. The moment we have fallen into sin we should examine ourselves and find out why we did such a stupid thing. Then be sorry and ask God for His forgiveness. The best that you can do in such a case is to go before the Blessed Sacrament. Kneel down before our Lord and say, "Well, Lord here I am. I did it again, committed that same sin. I promise you that I'll start all over again." Yes, that's our life. We are weak, we are going to fall. However, we must pull ourselves together and ask forgiveness and start all over again. It's just like the batter who struck out in the first, fourth and sixth innings and then comes back in the ninth to knock a second base hit or a home run. Look here, perhaps you sin every once in a while. You don't have to live in the state of sin. Ask God's pardon and then start all over again.
After the preparation, enter the confessional. When the priest is ready, begin your Confession by saying, "Bless me, Father for I have sinned. My last Confession was made a week or two, or a month ago. Then confess your mortal sins and whatever venial sins you wish to mention. You must tell the names of the mortal sins, the number of times each sin was committed and any circumstance that changes the nature of the sin. For example, if something is stolen that belongs to the church, it is a sin of stealing and a sacrilege. You must tell all mortal sins committed since your last Confession. Venial sins may be confessed and are sufficient material to receive the sacrament when there are no mortal sins to confess. It is not necessary to confess venial sins, for they can be forgiven by acts of contrition. Venial sins do not take God's grace away from the soul but only lessen it. However, spiritual writers advise that venial sins and even imperfections or faults be told in Confession. Why? In order to excite us to greater sorrow for sin, to help us gain a complete hatred of sin and a more perfect love of God.
You need not mention a sin about which there is doubt, but it is useful. If they are mentioned in Confession, you should tell the priest that you are doubtful as to whether it is a sin or not. If you forget to mention a mortal sin in Confession, it must be confessed in the next ordinary Confession.
There is only one way to make a bad Confession, and that is to want to. If you don't do that, then forget about the past. To conceal deliberately a mortal sin in Confession is a mortal sin and it ruins the whole Confession. A bad Confession is a sacrilege, for it is the abuse of a sacred thing. It is an attempt to deceive God. To repair, to make good a bad Confession, the penitent must tell the priest that a mortal sin was concealed. He must tell the priest the name of the mortal sin concealed and all the other mortal sins confessed in the bad Confession and any that have been committed since.
Whatever questions are asked, answer them sincerely and humble. After confessing your sins you may say, "For these and all the other sins of my past life, particularly my sins of (...) I am heartily sorry and beg your absolution." Accept the advice and penance given by the priest. While the priest recites the words of absolution, say the act of contrition in a low tone of voice. Recite or perform the penance immediately after leaving the confessional. Thank God for the gifts of grace and forgiveness.
As I have already mentioned, one of the most important things when going to Confession is to be sorry for your sins. Our contrition must be sincere. This means that three things are necessary: 1. sorrow for having offended God; 2. hatred of the sins committed; 3. firm purpose of sinning no more.
All these elements must be present, and they are if we make a good act of contrition which comes from the heart. In other words, we must mean what we say.
Besides resolving to avoid sin, we must determine to avoid those persons, places and things that usually result in our sinning again. If you know that whenever you fool around with a certain person you will use foul language, avoid that person. If you are willing to go to any movie, even those condemned by those who warn us of their indecency, you are not serious in your desire to avoid sin. The same goes for things. If you read books or magazines dangerous to faith or morals you cannot be sincere in your contrition. Your are looking for trouble.
What happens when you make a good Confession? When mortal sins are forgiven in the confessional, they are also forgiven in heaven. However, we must keep in mind that to every mortal sin there is attached eternal punishment and temporal punishment. The eternal punishment is made to disappear by a good Confession. As far as the temporal punishment is concerned, some is taken away, some remains depending on how really sorry we are for our sins. Therefore, we make up for some of that temporal punishment that remains by performing whatever the priest asks of us. This entails sacrifices and we call them penances.
Accept the penance the priest gives you. Willfully to neglect the penance imposed in Confession would be to commit another sin. The seriousness of the sin would depend on the number and seriousness of the sins confessed. We should remember that whatever penance has been given, it is absolutely nothing when compared with the actual forgiveness of sins. Ordinarily it is not too severe.
In any case my friends, go to Confession often. Make a good Confession. If you do, you will leave the church or chapel, full of peace and as we often express it, "Well, I'm ready to be hit by a truck now."