Before you place a foot in that confessional, remember this: God loves you, and his mercy is unconditional.
“The reason that’s so important is because love casts out all fear,” said Father Gary Selin, who teaches future priests at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary how to be confessors. “If we begin by looking at our sins, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the darkness. We need to first see (our sins) in the light of who God is, and it’s in the light of God who loves us.”
It’s understandable, he said, for the faithful to feel fear before the sacrament of reconciliation—fear of admitting a sin, fear of what the priest will say. But, he added, the key to a good confession is to begin with a recognition of God’s love, and calling on the Holy Spirit for light to see failures.
“If we start here then our examination of conscience will always be on firm foundation because it’s focused on our life in him that helps to see how to become love,” Father Selin said. “As a person grows in their confessional experience the Holy Spirit will work with them on a deeper and deeper level. It’s actually quite beautiful.”
He said he teaches seminarians about the Sacred Heart of Jesus and how it’s the symbol of God’s love. The light of his heart symbolizes the understanding of sins given by the Holy Spirit, and the flames of his heart signify how his love burns away sins.
There are many ways to examine one’s conscience, he said. Using the 10 Commandments is a traditional method from the Old Testament, and the Beatitudes from the New Testament is a helpful way for penitents to see how their lives may fall short.
Even without these methods, Father Selin suggested a simple examination that involves asking oneself these questions: “Among the sins that I have committed, which one offends God the most?”; “Which is the easiest for me to commit?”; and “What grace do I now ask from God through this confession?”
In the quest for forgiveness, Father Selin said it’s also important to examine why a sin is committed—if the motives are for reasons of fear or damnation or for sorrow for having offended God.
“We want to look at what we did, but also see why,” he explained. “That helps us see where our heart is. Jesus is the healer in confession when we present our wounds to him, but we also want the medicine provided for us.”
Everyone needs mercy, he said, and frequently over a lifetime. The sacrament of penance is not simply a fire extinguisher used to put out the flames of a big mess. It’s a sacrament available for faithful to use as a way to grow in love of God.
“Our whole lives as Catholics are really about falling head-over-heels in love with God,” Father Selin said. “When we see it in that aspect, confession makes sense. When we start to grow in that, the sacrament of penance is a real gift.”
6 ways to examine your conscience
The tradition of the Church has given faithful Catholics many methods to help prepare for those grace-filled moments of absolution. Below is a helpful guide of some of the top ways to examine one’s conscience before entering the confessional.
1. The 10 Commandments
Faithful have used the 10 Commandments as a thorough way to examine their lives and develop their own conscience.
2. The Beatitudes
In Matthew 5:1-13, Christ proposed a set of guidelines that can be used to examine one’s conscience.
3. The Seven Capital Sins
The capital sins, from which all other sins flow, are usually present in each person in some form: Pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony,
envy and sloth.
4. Sins against the Holy Spirit
In Matthew 12: 31-32, Jesus warns about the sins against
the Holy Spirit.
5. The Theological Virtues
A look into the failures of living the theological virtues—faith, hope and charity—can give light to areas of potential growth.
6. The Precepts of the Church
The faithful of the Church are also bound to follow its precepts, which give direction to help them toward their eternal salvation.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops www.usccb.org;
The Catholic Education Resource Center www.CatholicEducation.org; CatholicCulture.org; The Gregorian Institute www.thegregorian.org/blog; BeginningCatholic.com; GoodConfession.com; www.FocusEquip.org
How to Make a Good Confession: A Pocket Guide to Reconciliation
with God by Father John Kane;
The Seven Capital Sins by Fulton J. Sheen;
A Primer for Confession by New Hope Publications
“Laudate”; “iPieta”; and “Confession: A Roman Catholic App”
This article was originally published by the Denver Catholic in 2014.