"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).
Minor or venial sins can be confessed directly to God, but for grave or mortal sins, which crush the spiritual life out of the soul, God has instituted a different means for obtaining forgiveness—the sacrament known popularly as confession, penance, or reconciliation.
Is Confession necessary?
Yes, and we can see this in our daily lives. If you are a husband or a wife, and you do something to offend your spouse, your relationship cannot be restored to its former state until you say you are sorry - and sometimes it takes some action on your part to make up for your wrong. This is true in any human relationship, and it is true of our relationship with God. When we do something against Him, we need to go to Him to tell Him we are sorry. Fortunately, as the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) shows us, He is quick to forgive.
What is the difference between Confession, Reconciliation, and Penance?
They are all simply different names for the same Sacrament. Each name reflects a different reality of the Sacrament: that it entails a confession of sins, that it brings about a reconciliation between God and man, and that it includes the need to do penance for our sins. It doesn't matter what you call it - just as long as you go!
What if I'm embarrassed about what I have to confess?
Then you are normal! None of us are proud of our failings, and it can feel awkward to admit them to another person. So don't fret if you feel embarrassed to confess your sins - and don't let it keep you from going. The grace and forgiveness you receive far outweigh any feeling of embarrassment. It is common to hear people say that they have a feeling of great relief after leaving the confessional, even though they were nervous and embarrassed beforehand. And also, priests have heard every sin under the sun - there is nothing you can confess that will surprise or shock them, so just let it all out.
Why can't I just confess my sins to God directly?
God wants us to confess to Him directly, but He also understands the need for us to confess aloud to another person. Christ gave His Apostles the power to forgive sins, but not the power to read minds, so the only way they could exercise this power is to hear our confessions. In other words, God wants us to confess to a priest who ministers in Christ's name, and He gave priests the authority to forgive sins in that name.
Do Catholics still go to Confession?
Yes! It might be widely believed that no one goes to Confession anymore, but this is simply not true. Catholics young and old still go to Confession and find healing and forgiveness in the Sacrament. And while it is true that fewer Catholics go today than in previous times, this is often because the Sacrament is misunderstood and even maligned in some quarters. But like the father of the Prodigal Son, God is waiting for us in the confessional to be reconciled to Him.
How do I know the priest won't tell others about my sins?
The "seal of confession" is the term used for the absolute secrecy of sins confessed in the Sacrament. A priest cannot tell anyone - not a fellow priest, not his bishop, not the police, not even the pope - the sins he hears in confession. To do so would result in his automatic excommunication and removal from the priestly life. History has seen countless priests suffer imprisonment and even death to keep the seal of confession unbroken. Every priest understands this sacred duty and considers it integral to his ministry.
I had a bad experience at Confession in the past - why should I go back now?
One of the mysteries of the Catholic Faith is that God so consistently uses fallen men and women to do His will. Just look at the first Pope: St. Peter denied our Lord three times during the crucial moment of history, yet Jesus still placed him at the head of the apostles. Throughout history, we see God depend upon flawed people to accomplish His work. This is true in our own lives as well: the people who surround us - our spouses, our children, our friends and co-workers - every one of them is flawed, yet they are also God's means for helping us through this life.
Our spiritual life is no different. Priests are flawed men and sometimes they do not always fulfill their vocation as they should. But even when they fall, by ignoring others' needs or getting impatient during Confession, God still uses them to send us grace. What is amazing is how often they not only fulfill, but exceed, their calling! It is a very, very rare thing for a priest to be anything other than compassionate and loving in the Confessional, but even if that does not happen, know that our loving God is still working through the priest to help us draw closer to our Lord.
How often should I go to Confession?
Every Catholic is obligated to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least yearly. If you are aware of serious sin in your life, you should go to this Sacrament before receiving the Eucharist. But remember that Confession is more than just receiving forgiveness, it is also about receiving the graces needed to overcome your sins and imperfections. Thus, many spiritual directors recommend going to Confession on a regular basis, such as monthly.
I'm divorced - can I still go to Confession?
Yes! In fact, Confession is a wonderful opportunity to be healed of any hurts that might have occurred in the divorce process. No one is outside God's mercy, and He wants every one of us to receive that mercy.
I was involved in an abortion - can I be forgiven in Confession?
Yes! Abortion has a traumatic effect on all it impacts - the mother, the father and those involved in the abortion. If you have had an abortion, or been involved in procuring one, know that Christ is waiting to forgive you in the Sacrament of Confession. Lift the burden on your soul and find healing in this great Sacrament.