Dear Fr. Joe: How do I go to confession?

Q. Father, it’s been so long for me and I know I need to go to confession: I’m worried about the “How to” of it all … so, how do I go to confession?

A. What a great thing that you’ve decided to return to the sacrament of reconciliation! This moment holds the potential for you to really take the next big step in your relationship with Jesus and his Church! Let’s go through the “How to” of it all. I’ll also include some helpful tips at the end.

So, first things first: You need to prepare. Get your head and heart ready to go. If you can, I recommend you sit down in church (preferably in front of the Blessed Sacrament) and have with you a pen and paper. Ask God to guide your mind and heart to lead you to know your sins so that you can claim his mercy. Really settle into that prayer until you are comfortable.

TIP #1: We need to ask God to guide our preparation for this great sacrament. Calling to mind our sins on our own without God’s help can lead to either a profound depression (sorrow without hope) or too lax of an approach.

As you sit there, think of the things you know you’ve done wrong: Don’t sugarcoat them, don’t over-describe them. You and God know exactly what you are talking about. Simply walk through your life and see where you have sinned. There are tons of good guides out there for this; we call them an “Examination of Conscience.” If you can’t find a good guide, there is nothing wrong with looking at your Bible at Exodus 20: 2-17: that’s where you’ll find the Ten Commandments.

Basically, as you look through your life, you are asking God what is present there that keeps you from loving God and receiving his love. You are looking for wounds that you have inflicted on yourself, your family or the people around you.

To be clear, you are not looking for things where other people have wronged you. This is one of the most common mistakes people make in confession. This isn’t a time to describe other people’s sin, it’s a time to confess your own.

So, now you are making your list. If you are not a list-maker type of person, then do whatever it is you need to in order to have a clear mind and purpose when you go into the confessional.

Next, look at the times the church offers for reconciliation and put on your calendar that you are going. No matter what happens that day, you are committed to getting to confession and getting right with God.

TIP #2: If confessions are listed as being from 1p.m.-2 p.m., get there at 1:00p.m. Stake out your place in line. Often, people will wait for the last minute and show up at 1:50 p.m. and find that there is a line. The priest may have booked something for after confessions. If that’s the case, then you might get frustrated.

Once it’s your turn, head into the confessional. You’ll immediately notice that you have two options: face-to-face or anonymous. Before you go in, you’ll probably want to have a plan as to which you are going to do. If you’re not sure, here are some ideas.

Anonymous: This is my personal preference. In this option, there is a screen or door for you to sit or kneel behind. This way, you cannot see the priest and the priest cannot see you. As a priest, I like this preference because it takes me, the confessor, out of the equation as much as possible. This is a moment between you and God and the priest is there to facilitate it. In my opinion, this frees you up from any worries about shame or the priest remembering something.

Face-to-face: This option is one you choose when you take the chair across from the priest. He sees you, you see him. The blessing of this choice is that you can see the priest’s face, you can read his expressions and hopefully, see his passionate conviction when he tells you that you are forgiven your sins.

So, now you’ve made your choice and it’s time to get to business. The priest will begin by making the sign of the cross and saying out loud “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” At this point, he may say a short prayer or read a Scripture to you. When he is finished, you’ll say “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been such and such time since my last confession.”

Tip #3: Don’t hesitate to tell the priest at this point if you are nervous or scared or worried about how to do this. That information can help the priest guide you through this process!

I’m out of room, but next time we’ll talk about what happens next.

Enjoy another day in God’s presence!