To answer frequent questions and clarify Church teaching, in 2014 Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., composed a catechetical instruction on the seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church, including three installments on the Sacrament of Penance published by The Monitor and on the diocesan website. The following are excerpts from that series; the full text can be viewed at

1. The outward “sign” of the Sacrament of Penance has multiple parts: contrition or sorrow for sins; confession of sins to the priest; absolution of sins by the priest; performing the penance given by the priest to atone for sins confessed. For the record, priests, bishops and even the Pope have to go to Confession, too.

2. Forgiveness is not something we can give ourselves. One asks forgiveness, one asks it of another person, and in Confession, we ask forgiveness from Jesus. Forgiveness is not a result of our efforts but is a gift … of the Holy Spirit who showers us with mercy and grace that pours forth unceasingly from the open heart of Christ crucified and risen.

3. The Second Vatican Council and Catechism of the Catholic Church refer to the Sacrament of Penance as a “Sacrament of healing (CCC, 1421)” along with the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick (formerly called Extreme Unction).  The 1983 Code of Canon Law states:

In the Sacrament of Penance, the faithful, confessing their sins to a legitimate minister, being sorry for them, and at the same time proposing to reform, obtain from God forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism through the absolution imparted by the same minister; and they likewise are reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by sinning (canon 959).

4. In the Gospel of St. John, when Jesus appears to the disciples after his Resurrection, the sacred author recalls, he greeted them saying:

“As the Father has sent me so I send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained (John 20: 21-24).”

Jesus again extends a special authority to the apostles who share in his divine mission: to forgive or retain sins.”

5. It is important to note that God did not create evil and sin. Likewise, it is important to note that God did not create the effects of sin and evil within the world. The prophet Isaiah proclaimed: “It is your crimes that separate you from God, it is your sins that make him hide his face from you … for our offenses before you are many, our sins bear witness against us” (Isaiah 59: 2; 12).

Despite sin, good continued and continues to exist … But alongside of good, because of “original sin,” now evil continued and continues to exist. And human beings, using the gifts of intellect and free will, could now and can choose that option.

6. The Gospels present Jesus frequently showing mercy through the forgiveness of sin. The ultimate act of forgiveness was his death on the Cross, which the prophets predicted and Jesus himself foretold. “Behold the wood of the Cross,” we chant on Good Friday, “on which has hung our salvation.” It was necessary that he die, the sinless One for the sinner, in order that humanity could gain access to salvation.

7. What is sin?

The notion of sin … basically describes any deliberate (willful) choice to act contrary to the will of God as it has been manifested to us … Sin involves willfully choosing and doing something evil or wrong. In the Old Testament, such a deliberate or willful choice expresses rebellion against God. In the New Testament, sin describes choices and actions that reveal contempt for God and his revealed will and a deliberate refusal to accept and follow his will.

8. How does one make a good, “integral” Confession?

First, we must admit and acknowledge our sinfulness. In our quiet moments, we need to identify how we have turned away from God in the things that we have said and done or failed to do since our last Confession …

Next, we should pray and ask God to enlighten our conscience so that our Confession is honest and true.  Our prayer should lead us to an “examination of conscience.” Using the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20: 2 - 17; Deuteronomy 5: 6 - 21) as a guide, we should consider our experience of living or failing to live those commandments …

And, next, the “moment of truth:” make your Confession to the priest!  If you need or want to write your sins down, feel free to do so and bring your note with you. If you have doubts about anything, simply mention your doubts to the priest. He will advise you. Tell him when you made your last Confession. If it has been a long, long time since your last Confession, do not be afraid or embarrassed. Simply tell that to the priest. He will help you make a good Confession. He is not there to judge or condemn you. He is there to be a minister of God’s forgiveness, mercy and your reconciliation with God.

Following your Confession, the priest may give you some advice or suggestions to help you. He will ask you to make a good “act of contrition” after giving you a penance – prayer or good works – to perform as a sign of that contrition after you finish your Confession ... The priest will then give you absolution from your sins.

Next step, “go in peace and sin no more.”


Bishop answers FAQ about Confession

Any catechesis about a Sacrament would be incomplete without explaining the requirements of Church law related to it. There is ample Church legislation about the Sacrament of Penance or Confession, but I will confine my study here to those things that the ordinary parishioner needs to know.

Who can receive the Sacrament of Penance? Any baptized Catholic who has “attained the age of discretion” not only can but must receive the Sacrament of Penance and confess serious sins at least once a year (canon 989).

How often should a baptized Catholic go to Confession? A baptized Catholic should confess serious sins to a priest as soon as possible after committing them but, minimally, once a year. …Less serious sins should be confessed regularly.

Who is able to hear Confession? Only a validly ordained priest (or bishop) is able to hear a Confession as a “minister of the Sacrament (canon 965).”  He obtains the power to do so by his ordination, but he must obtain the “faculty” or permission from the bishop of the diocese before exercising it.

Is it necessary to confess sins to a priest? The simple answer is “yes.” Although it is God who “forgives sins,” Jesus gave this power specifically to the apostles and their successors, bishops and priests … The ordained Catholic priest is the minister of this Sacrament.

What is meant by “general Confession and absolution?” There are actually three Sacramental rites of Penance. Two of these rites, whether individual or in a group, require the individual confession of sins by the individual penitent confessing sins to a priest. The third rite involves general confession by a group and absolution by a priest [for rare circumstances].

Where should Confession be made? The proper place to hear Sacramental Confession is a designated confessional or reconciliation room in a Catholic Church, a Catholic chapel or oratory (canon 964.1). Confessions may be heard elsewhere but not without a “just cause” or reason (canon 964.3).

What should the baptized Catholic confess? Any and all sins ... that a Catholic person commits after Baptism. The penitent should mention the kind of sin and number of times committed. Prior to going to Confession, the penitent should examine his/her conscience to discern what sins have been committed or what obligations he/she might have omitted.

How are sins forgiven or absolved? The penitent confesses to the priest the kind and number of sins committed since his/her last Confession, expresses contrition for those sins, is assigned a penance and receives absolution from the priest.

What is meant by “contrition” and firm purpose or intention of amendment? Contrition is that feeling and expression of remorse or regret for sins committed. That contrition means little if the person does not make or intend to avoid such sins again — a firm purpose or intention of amendment.