For five frequently asked questions about confession, the Denver Catholic consulted Msgr. Bernie Schmitz, former vicar for clergy and a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Denver.
Q: What if I feel nervous about going to confession?
A: That may be a good sign because it may indicate you’re being honest and honestly facing what’s going on in your life, just like someone would be nervous when making a momentous decision in their life. When people come to confession and they’re nervous, they should say it, tell the priest. Then the priest will know and it acknowledges the human reality. Confession is an extremely spiritually intimate moment, so for someone to say “I’m nervous about this” is to say “What I’m talking about is very serious in my life.” (And remember) more often than not, whatever you say, the priest has already heard it in some other context, in another confession, or in some other way.
Q: Should I go to confession if I haven’t committed any sins?
A: I think for someone to say that haven’t committed any sins is presumption, and that’s a sin. If someone thinks they haven’t committed any sins, they need to go back for a serious examination of their conscience, a fearless inventory of life. If someone takes that step of fearlessly looking at their lives, using the 10 Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, they’re going to find there’s brokenness in their lives and that opens them to God’s grace.
Q: Do I have to go to confession before receiving Communion?
A: If you’re in a state mortal sin, yes, you should go to confession before you go to Communion. If you have doubts about whether you’re in mortal sin then that’s a reason to go. If your conscience is bothering you that much (that you’re questioning it), then you really should go to confession as soon as you can. For a sin to be mortal, the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, the object is a grave matter and committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.
Q: How often should I go to confession?
A: If I’m an Olympic athlete and go once every four months to practice my downhill skiing, there’s no way I’m going to win a gold medal. The reason: my muscles haven’t been trained to remember what to do. If I go to confession with a frequency—once a month, once every two weeks—I awaken my conscience. I begin to be aware of things in my life, and if I’m not doing that, my conscience becomes a little deadened (just like my muscles if I don’t ski regularly). I recommend going to confession at least once a month, and making it regular like every second week of the month; so it’s something you just normally do. Then when there are doubts, trouble in your life of some kind, you have built that foundation on which to discern what to do, and find a way to the Lord’s healing.
Q: Why do some people call it confession, some reconciliation, and others penance?
A: The names emphasize different aspects of the sacrament. Penance refers to repentance, sorrow and resolution to amend one’s life with God’s help. Confession refers to the act by which one tells their sins to the priest. Reconciliation refers to the goal of the celebration by which the sinner is reconciled to God and the Church. The ritual for the sacrament is called the Rite of Penance, but is fitting to refer to it with any of these titles. In fact, the Catechism refers to it also as “the sacrament of conversion” and the “sacrament of forgiveness.”
This article was originally published in March 2014.