“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been 40 years since my last confession.” Often the penitent will then pause and add, “Father, I do not know where to begin”, and the priest will say, “You have already begun and are half way there.”
In such instances, the priest-confessor, is reminded of similar confessions in the Gospel. A woman follows Jesus into the home of a Pharisee and washes and dries the feet of Jesus with her tears and her hair. The Pharisee who invited Jesus into his home to share a meal did not expect to see a woman at the feet of Jesus when he returned after making preparations for the meal. The woman was one of many who had heard Jesus proclaim in the streets, “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is near”. (Mark 1:15). That day she was overcome with remorse and followed Jesus into the Pharisee’s house.
Surviving as a prostitute one day into another and another she often heard Jesus speak to the crowds and sinners like herself. Jesus’ words of mercy washed over her one day and for a moment she felt freed of her addiction for the first time in years. The chatter and noise of the street faded in the distance as she followed Jesus into the home of the Pharisee. Falling at Jesus’ feet she began to weep, quietly and uncontrollably. Jesus did not wince. He knew why she was there, and the woman knew that Jesus knew why she was there. When Jesus’ host returned to the table where Jesus sat the Pharisee in his mind questioned, Why would this prophet associate himself with this known sinful woman. He did not appreciate the generosity of God’s mercy. (Luke 7:36 ff).
We are not told what sins the woman confessed or what she may have asked Jesus. As a rich young man in another instance whom Jesus met who was also concerned about his salvation had asked Jesus, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” and Jesus answered, “keep the commandments.” (Matthew 19:16-17). But we do not know what the woman and Jesus said, and we know that there is no pre-arranged script required for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
All that is required is a sincere acknowledgment of serious or mortal sins, an act of contrition and the acceptance of a penitential act or prayers before the priest-confessor absolves the penitent from his or her sins, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Some people bring with them a list of transgressions to recite which is acceptable but not necessary.
Others come to the confessional to discuss some matters of conscience or are in some quandary about something all of which is also acceptable. Some wish to confess anonymously behind a screen and others want to talk face to face both of which are acceptable. All that is required – no matter how long a time it has been – a week, a month, a year or forty years – is sufficient forethought and sincerity.
Doubts can always be confessed as doubts. The details of sins confessed are not required only the kinds of sin and their degree of gravity. How serious is the injury to God or neighbor? The fine points of our sinful failings are well known to God beforehand more than we can understand. All God’s waits for is the admission of sin, sorrow and a contrite resolution not to sin and to avoid the occasions of sin. Finally, recite either a set formula for contrition such as, “Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you . . .” etc. or use one’s own words such as, “I am sorry for these and all my sins and want to amend my life.”
The intention to amend one’s life is important which no penitent should ever be reluctant to repeat. I usually tell children in the confessional to say, “I am sorry for my sins and promise not to do them again.” I then tell the penitent to listen to the words of absolution and the forgiveness of their sins and thank God for his mercy. The priest-confessor also thanks God for his mercy in the sacrament when he needs it - as he remembers Jesus telling his priests, “whose sins you forgive [in my name] they are forgiven” (John 20:23). Then the priest absolves the penitent of his sins:
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has
reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness
of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I
absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy
Go in the peace of the Lord.
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