It's time for the BIG SCARY SACRAMENT!
OK, it's not really that scary.
But everyone seems to be afraid of it. So, let's demystify it, shall we?
First: the question I always get from people who aren't Catholic:
Can the priest ever tell anyone what you said?
Huge, big, fat, NO. Never ever ever ever--at least, not if he wants to keep being a priest. Violating the seal of the confessional means BIG TROUBLE.
Don't worry about that. He can't tell. Ever. Not even if you said you killed someone and the police are currently doing a 50 state-wide hunt for you.
So, that's out of the way. Let's talk about what the sacrament is and what it does and all that stuff.
Confession is basically what it sounds like--you confess your sins. The priest is acting in persona Christi--in the person of Christ--at that moment. You're not actually confessing to a priest in a sense that you're telling another fallible human what you've done wrong. You're confessing to God and the priest is the human mediator, as it were.
Now--why confess to him when we can talk directly to God? Why do you Catholics make things so complicated?!
Because God knows us.
God knows what there's a big difference between telling God you're sorry for something--and actually hearing someone say "Your sins are forgiven." Confessing to another person requires guts. It really does. You're going in and admitting all the things that you've done wrong, all those mistakes you've made. You are vocalizing all these things to another person, and you know that person is right there, listening to what you're saying.
It's very easy, in the Penitential Rite of the Mass, to sort of skim over the prayer.
"Oh my God, I am sorry for my sins....did I turn off the coffeemaker? ....through my fault, through my fault....what is the woman in front of me WEARING?......I ask blessed Mary eve-virgin.....I'm really hungry right now."
See what I mean? Sure, you're saying that you mess up and you're sinful and blah blah. But it's not really personal.
Confession is entirely personal. It's your list of sins, your mess-ups. It's all the ways that I, personally, have offended God.
So before you actually get in the confessional (Or "reconciliation room", or whatever parishes call it these days), you have to do some prep work. You have to do....an examination of conscience.
The examination allows you to do a deep-cleaning, as it were, and see where you've sinned. There are things you might not even have thought were sins, that are. But there are also a lot of things that people think are sins, that aren't. Feelings, for example, aren't sins. They're not willed actions. If a guy cuts me off in traffic and my immediate, unwilled reaction is anger, that's OK. The problem would be if I made my anger CLEAR to said driver. (You know what I mean.) Does that make sense? So you don't need to go in and tell the poor priest every single thought you've ever had.
Catholics believe in two types of sins: venial and mortal. Venial sins wound your relationship with God; mortal sin kills it. Basically, if you die with mortal sin on your soul and un-repented, then you're in Big Trouble. (Meaning, you did something Bad, and you're not sorry you did it.) Only Mortal sins need to be confessed. You can't receive communion in a state of mortal sin. So when you have mortal sins, you need to confess them in kind (as in, what you did) and number (how many times you did it.). "I committed adultery with my neighbor's wife eight times in the last month." "I had an abortion." "I stole $5,000 from my company." Etc.
(brief detour: There are conditions for mortal sin. If you've seen the movie Chocolat, you know what they are, but if you haven't: Grave matter, full knowledge, and deliberate consent. Therefore, if someone forces you to have an abortion, it's not a mortal sin for you. If someone rapes you, again, that's not a sin for you. If you're forced to steal the money at gunpoint, same deal.
Likewise, if you didn't know it was a serious thing--like, missing Mass without good reason--same deal. The Church excuses ignorance to a point.)
So anyway, you've examined your conscience. If you've committed mortal sins, you've written down the number of times and what it was. You're ready to go in.
My church offers confession every single day. That's right. EVERY DAY! And before all the weekend Masses. If your parish is not quite that.....awesome, check the schedule. Or you can call and make an appointment with a priest. Sometimes you have options--face to face, or behind the screen. Sometimes you don't.
Here is a guide to confession. Even more quickly: you go in, you confess. The priest may ask questions or talk to you a bit, after which he will give you a penance. You always get a penance. You have to do said penance. Then you say your act of contrition, the priest absolves you, and you're done. Voila!
It is suggested that Catholics confess once a month. It is required that Catholics confess at least once a year, during the Easter season. I know that St. Pope John Paul the Great went to Confession every week. Personally, I try to go once a month.
The form and matter for confession is as follows:
Form: The prayer of absolution.
Matter: the verbal confession of sins.
And you have to be sorry. That's right. You can't go in and NOT be repentant. That sort of....is nuts. And invalidates the whole thing. You have to be sorry, otherwise, why are you there?
In the quote below C.S. Lewis is commenting on this phrase from the General Confession in the Book of Common Prayer, “But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders.” At my church, we say this confession, but replace “offenders” with “sinners.” The quote is one of the best I have ever read on how to confess our sins and the results of confession. Almost every line, especially of the last paragraph, is worth your careful time.
“It is essential [when confessing our sins] to use the plain, simple, old-fashioned words that you would use about anyone else. I mean words like theft, or fornication, or hatred, instead of ‘I did not mean to be dishonest’ or ‘I was only a boy then’ or ‘I lost my temper. I think that this steady facing of what one does know and bringing it before God, without excuses, and seriously asking for Forgiveness and Grace, and resolving as far as in one lies to do better, is the only way in which we can ever begin to know the fatal thing which is always there, and preventing us from becoming perfectly just to our wife or husband, or being a better employer or employee. If this process is gone through, I do not doubt that most of us will come to understand and to share these old words like ‘contrite,’miserable’ and intolerable.’
Does that sound very gloomy? Does Christianity encourage morbid introspection? The alternative is much more morbid. Those who do not think about their own sins make up for it by thinking incessantly about the sins of others. It is healthier to think of one’s own. It is the reverse of morbid. It is not even, in the long run, very gloomy. A serious attempt to repent and to really know one’s own sin is in the long run a lightening and relieving process. Of course, there is bound to be a first dismay and often terror and later great pain, yet that is much less in the long run than the anguish of a mass of unrepented and unexamined sins, lurking in the background of our minds. It is the difference between the pain of a tooth about which you should go to the dentist, and the simple straight-forward pain which you know is getting less and less every moment when you have had the tooth out.”
Some Protestant churches offer the opportunity for confession. It's not seen as a sacrament, I don't think, the way Catholics see it. C.S. Lewis went to confession. I know a Lutheran pastor who offers it to his parishioners.
Confession is good for the soul, if not for the ego. And that's the way it's supposed to be.