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What Happens In Confession 

From the June 2001 Messenger

In the last few months, we have discussed the purpose of confession and described how the sacrament is practiced in our community. This month, we will turn our attention to what confession itself entails. There are several essential elements to confession that must be present for the sacrament to be effective. These are the stages of the spiritual process that unfolds in the mystery of repentance.

The most fundamental element is conviction, sometimes described as contrition. This is the sense that one in fact has done something wrong, that one has violated God’s commandments and contradicted His will. Simply put, it is the recognition that by specific deeds, words, or thoughts – or by failing to do what one should do - one has not loved God completely or one’s neighbor as oneself. Divine grace operating in and through the conscience brings this realization to us. The Holy Spirit illumines our heart, and we know we have sinned and stand guilty before God.

Sorrow, regret, or remorse accompany the recognition of one’s sin. This sorrow arises from a sense of having offended God, from the realization that one’s fellowship with him has been ruptured or compromised, and possibly, from the knowledge that one has hurt another person. A person may recognize that he has sinned, but unless sorrow for the sin is present, he has not experienced conviction or contrition.

Conviction, however, goes further than mere sorrow for sin. A person who is truly contrite is not only sorry for his sin; he detests it. He hates the thought of what he has done. He recognizes its evil, and the baneful effect it has on his relationship with God and others. Although this may or may not involve strong emotion, he is sure of the nature of his sin and wishes it removed from him.

Hatred of one’s sin then gives rise to another movement in the soul: the desire to amend. A person who truly detests his sin wishes to renounce it and be better. He hopes never to fall into it again, and so aspires to a virtuous life. Thus, with the desire to leave behind his sin forever and henceforth to lead a God-pleasing life, his contrition stimulates him to seek the sacrament of confession. He knows he has sinned and is uneasy with himself because of it. He carries a burden of guilt and finds it nearly intolerable. He knows he needs forgiveness for his spiritual equilibrium to be restored. He detests his sin, wants to be rid of it, and desires to amend his life.

Contrition then must be completed by confession, that is, by the active acknowledgement of one’s specific sins in the presence of the priest as the minister of Christ. It is obvious that the actual confession of one’s sins is necessary to the process of repentance. Once one has spoken forth his sins, the priest may offer some counsel and/or impose a penance. These are not essential to the sacrament in all cases, but may be required in some cases. We will discuss them later.

The final essential spiritual element in the process of confession is absolution. This is the declaration by the priest, upon evidence of the penitent’s sincere repentance, of God’s forgiveness of his sins. In the Byzantine tradition, the last couple of lines in the prayer of absolution read as follows: “May that same God forgive you all things, both in this world and the world to come, and set you uncondemned before his dread judgement seat. And now, having no further care for the sins that you have confessed, you may go in peace." With that, all the stages of the process of confession have been completed, and the mystery of repentance has been fulfilled.

s prepared. He should name what the sin is and give an indication as to whether it was a one-time event, or how frequently it has occurred. Giving the priest a general idea is good enough; one need not worry about being exact. Only as much detail as the priest needs to have a general understanding is needed. If the priest is not clear concerning something, he will ask the penitent questions to help clarify matters. A penitent should not volunteer, nor a priest request, an inordinate amount of detail – especially regarding sexual matters. Again, a priest will ask questions if it is necessary to establish a proper diagnosis.

Penitents must remember that they are there to confess their own sins, not the sins of others. If for instance, one is harboring unforgiveness due to an offense caused by another, the focus should be on the unforgiveness in one’s own heart, not on the nature of the offense that occasioned it. Oftentimes penitents will spend much more time talking about how they have been wronged than the nature of their own sin!

It is also critical to recognize that the purpose of confession is to confess one’s sins, and not the place to discuss one’s problems, worries about other people, theological questions, or concerns about parish life. It is a common mistake for people to approach confession to seek “answers” for their problems or questions. Yet this is not the purpose of confession! If one has such concerns, then it is appropriate to call the church office and make an appointment to talk to the priest. It is not that such issues are unimportant, it is simply that confession is not designed to address them.

The critical element in confession is the simple confession of one’s sins. This is what we do there. We openly acknowledge the specific ways we have failed God.

As one’s specific sins are being confessed, the priest may offer some brief words of counsel, ask some questions, or assign a penance. After all is finished, the priest will pray the prayer of absolution. Absolution is the assurance that the sins one has confessed are indeed forgiven by God.

The absolution ends with the words “Now, having no further care for the sins you have confessed, you may go in peace.” The penitent departs in the faith that his sins are indeed forgiven. Then he may return to the pew and pray the “Prayers following Confession” found on page 45 of the Pocket Prayer Book.