Our approach to God is sacramental. Confessing to a priest is sacramental as well. At Mass, for instance, we don’t just pray privately or mentally. We pray with others, we hear Scripture proclaimed, we sing, we stand and sit and kneel and process, and we eat bread and drink wine. God is mediated through actions, words, gestures, and people.
Consider Jesus Christ. God came to us as a human being! God’s Word was mediated to us through the sacrament of Jesus Christ.
Likewise, we confess our sins to a priest so that our failures can be voiced and God’s healing words of forgiveness can be spoken as well.
I haven’t been to confession in years. What do I do? What do I say?
The first thing to realize is that God is prompting your heart toward contrition or sorrow for sin. This is a great grace! Consider then the ways that God has blessed your life as well as the various sins you have commited since your last confession. This is called an examination of conscience.
Once you have prayed an examen approach the priest in the confessional. You can either kneel behind a screen to ensure anonymity or you can sit facing the priest. It is your choice.
Begin with the sign of the cross and say, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” Then, let the priest know when it was you last confessed your sins.
Now is the time for the actual confession. Confess any grave or serious sins and any sins that you can remember. Any sins that you do not remember are swallowed up in the infinite mercy of God.
Let the priest know when you are finished by saying, “I am sorry for these and all the sins of my past” or something similar.
The priest will assign a penance. This is traditionally either a prayer, giving of alms, or some act of charity. The priest will then invite you to pray an Act of Contrition. Once completed, the priest will offer the prayer of absolution and offer a word of peace.
Once you leave the confessional you can make a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s rich mercy and consider how you will fulfill your act of penance.
I am ashamed of my sins. What will the priest think of me?
The priest hearing confessions represents the Church community. Through this sacrament he exercises the beautiful ministry of reconciling sinners with the Church and with God.
The priest assumes that the penitent is contrite and eager to do better. Therefore, like Christ, the priest does not think ill of the penitent but welcomes him or her with joy because the priest knows that God is at work in the penitent.
Remember too, the priest also goes to confession because he too is guilty of sin. The priest, as a sinner too, does not judge the penitent, but welcomes him or her with joy.