‘Tis the season of the Advent penance service. As the liturgy leads us to St John the Baptist, we hear his call to repentance. Hopefully, our hearts are moved to respond by preparing to make a good Confession, that we may celebrate the birth of our Savior with clean heart and soul.
Traditionally, the Church breaks down the reception of the Sacrament of Penance into five elements, to which I add a sixth. They are:
1. Examination of conscience
2. Sorrow for sins
3. Firm purpose of amendment
4. Confession of sins
5. Do penance
6. Express gratitude to our Lord
Let’s briefly review each of these.
1. Examination of conscience
It would be good to begin with prayer. Perhaps praying one or two of the Penitential Psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143).
We must take the time to make an honest appraisal of our thoughts, words and deeds. Ideally, we should do this much more often than just prior to our periodic Confession. You’ll find a reasonably comprehensive tool for examining your conscience, designed to surface actual sins committed, at the conclusion of this post (due to its length).
2. Sorrow for sins
Our contrition for our sins can serve as an indicator of the depth of our personal relationship with our Lord. Though this word is not used in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the tradition of the Church identifies authentic sorrow for sins with the word “compunction,” which comes from the Latin compungere, meaning “to prick,” as in “a pricking of the conscience.” We should reflect on how our sins have hurt God and hurt others until true sorrow touches the deepest core of our heart. This depth of remorse for the offensiveness to God of our wrongdoing is often accompanied by tears. As one of the Desert Fathers said:
The watchful monk works night and day to pray continually. But if his heart is broken and lets tears flow, that calls God down from heaven to have mercy.
3. Firm purpose of amendment
This oft-overlooked element is crucial. This is where we make a commitment to repent. To turn around and go the other way (metanoia). Conversion. Ongoing conversion. Jesus calls us to conversion. His call should be an integral part of your meditation when praying the 3rd Luminous Mystery. CCC n. 1431 teaches:
Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace.
Pope John Paul I offered some words of hope especially for those who have committed mortal sins:
…the Lord loves humility so much that, sometimes, he permits serious sins. Why? In order that those who committed these sins may, after repenting remain humble. One does not feel inclined to think oneself half a saint, half an angel, when one knows that one has committed serious faults.
Perhaps a prayer like this would also help our purpose of amendment.
4. Confession of sins
The most relevant instruction I can offer here is to refer you to the ever practical instructions for Confession of Fr Zuhlsdorf, which I reprint here for your convenience:
1) examine our consciences regularly and thoroughly;
2) wait our turn in line patiently; [I add: in silence, praying]
3) come at the time confessions are scheduled, not a few minutes before they are to end;
4) speak distinctly but never so loudly that we might be overheard;
5) state our sins clearly and briefly without rambling;
6) confess all mortal sins in number and kind;
7) listen carefully to the advice the priest gives;
8) confess our own sins and not someone else’s;
9) carefully listen to and remember the penance and be sure to understand it;
10) use a regular formula for confession so that it is familiar and comfortable;
11) never be afraid to say something “embarrassing”… just say it;
12) never worry that the priest thinks we are jerks…. he is usually impressed by our courage;
13) never fear that the priest will not keep our confession secret… he is bound by the Seal;
14) never confess “tendencies” or “struggles”… just sins;
15) never leave the confessional before the priest has finished giving absolution;
16) memorize an Act of Contrition;
17) answer the priest’s questions briefly if he asks for a clarification;
18) ask questions if we can’t understand what he means when he tells us something;
19) keep in mind that sometimes priests can have bad days just like we do;
20) remember that priests must go to confession too … they know what we are going through.
Keep in mind this thought that Fr Cantalamessa once shared with the Pope and his household:
Every time I approach the sacrament of reconciliation I have a concrete experience of being justified by grace, “ex opere operato,” as we say in theology. I go out to the temple and say to God: “O God, have mercy on me a sinner” and, like the publican, I return home “justified” (Luke 18:14), forgiven, with a brilliant soul, as at the moment I came out of the baptismal font.
5. Do penance
It always blows my mind to think that we have just admitted to acts that, unrepented of, might separate us from God for all eternity, causing us to forever endure unimaginable pain and suffering, and the praying of a few Hail Mary’s is all we’re given to do in order to show our sincerity. The least we can do is perform our penance in a true spirit of penitence. Not a mindless, mechanical recitation, but one born of the compunction that should still be fresh in our heart:
Blessed Abbot Marmion says that compunction is “an habitual feeling of regret for having offended the divine goodness.” He also says that, “While making us conscious of our offences, compunction gives us also a keen realization of the divine pardon. It is thus a source of peace and confidence — a source likewise of joy, humble but profound.”
6. Express gratitude to our Lord
This last element seems so logical. After our cleansing from sin, we should take the time to express our gratitude for this miraculous healing of soul, as Jesus taught in Luke 17:12-19:
And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
And as they went they were cleansed.
Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan.
Then said Jesus, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
An Examination of Conscience
I am the Lord your God. You shall not have false gods before me.
· Do I deny or persist in doubt about the existence of God?
· Do I seek to love the Lord with my whole heart?
· Do I frequently give God time in heartfelt prayer?
· Do I take time to read God’s word in Sacred Scripture?
· Do I seek to surrender myself to God’s word as taught by the Church?
· In what areas of my life am I guilty of self-righteousness? (viewing myself as better than others in the sight of God because some aspect(s) of my life seems to me to be well-ordered or aligned with what I think God wants)
· Do I have false gods in my life? (idolatry) (people, pleasure, power, money, security, image, etc.)
· Have I been involved with superstitious practices, magic or sorcery by which one attempts to tame or serve occult powers? (Satanism, horoscopes, palm-reading, ouija board, psychics or mediums, fortune-tellers, tarot cards, witchcraft, seances, reincarnation, clairvoyance, spiritism, omens, charms)
· Have I been seriously involved in New Age philosophies or Eastern religions?
· Have I supported or participated in a schismatic group?
· Have I joined the Masons or any other cult or secret society outlawed by the Church?
· Have I openly dissented from the Church’s teachings? (incredulity, heresy, schism)
· Have I committed apostasy? (leaving the Catholic Church because I no longer believe her teachings)
· Have I received Holy Communion or any other Sacraments unworthily (in a state of mortal sin)?
· Have I deliberately lied in confession?
· Have I knowingly withheld a mortal sin in Confession?
· Have I failed to perform the penance given to me by the priest in my last Confession?
· Have I participated in a “General Absolution” service, with the purposeful intention of avoiding a personal confession to a priest?
· Am I guilty of the sin of despair? (lack of any hope for my personal salvation)
· Have I sinned against the Holy Spirit by stubbornly refusing to accept God’s love, mercy and forgiveness?
· Am I guilty of the sin of presumption? (presuming upon God’s mercy without an appropriate effort at ongoing conversion)
· Is my relationship with God “too friendly”? (not enough reverence for God, or not taking seriously how greatly he hates sin)
· Am I guilty of performing pious acts or works of mercy so that people can see them and think more of me?
· Am I guilty of letting other people know how much money I’ve contributed so they will think more of me?
· Have I kept the required fasts and abstinences?
· Do I regularly do penance and make reparation for my sins especially on Fridays? (Canon 1249-1253)
· Have I committed the sin of indifference by neglecting or refusing to reflect on God’s love? (CCC, n. 2094)
· Have I committed the sin of ingratitude by failing or refusing to acknowledge and return God’s love? (CCC, n. 2094)
· Have I committed the sin of lukewarmness by hesitating or neglecting to respond to God’s love? (CCC, n. 2094) (Rev 3:16)
· Am I guilty of the sin of acedia (spiritual sloth) by refusing the joy that comes from God and being repelled by his divine goodness?
· Do I have a firm desire to work at eliminating sin from my life? (ongoing conversion and amendment)
· Have I failed to make an effort to learn more about my faith?
· Am I guilty of praying mindlessly and mechanically, just reciting words quickly without contemplating the Lord?
· Have I knowingly put myself in danger of losing or weakening my faith by something I’ve read or watched?
· Have I neglected to share my faith in God with others because of fear or embarrassment?
· Am I guilty of the sin of tempting God by putting his goodness and power to a test? (CCC, n. 2119)
· Am I guilty of the sin of sacrilege through profaning or treating unworthily the Sacraments (especially the Holy Eucharist) or other liturgical actions, as well as persons, things or places consecrated to God? (CCC, n. 2120)
· Am I guilty of the sin of simony because I was involved in the buying or selling of spiritual things? (CCC, n. 2121)
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
· Have I used any of God’s names lightly, carelessly or frivolously?
· Have I told any jokes that made fun of God?
· Have I been angry with God?
· Have I spoken any words of hatred or defiance toward God? (blasphemy)
· Have I wished that God would bring evil upon another person?
· Have I used any of God’s names when cursing others?
· Have I abused the names of the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Saints?
· Have I insulted a sacred person or abused a sacred object?
· Did I break any vows that I’ve made to the Lord?
· Have I used the Lord’s name in swearing an oath that I had no intention of keeping?
· Have I committed the sin of perjury by lying or making a false promise under an oath sworn to God?
· Have I used vulgar or profane language (especially in the presence of children)?
· Am I embarrassed to refer to the Lord in conversation?
Remember to keep holy the Lord’s Day.
· Have I missed Mass on a Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation deliberately or without a legitimate reason?
· Have I carelessly arrived late for Mass or left before it ended?
· Do I concentrate and participate at Mass by praying and singing, and listening to the readings and homily?
· Was I irreverent, silly or carelessly distracting to others during Mass?
· Do I acknowledge the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and receive Holy Communion with reverence and gratitude?
· Have I broken the required one-hour fast from any food and drink (except water and medicine) before receiving Holy Communion?
· Has my behavior in the church before and after Mass reflected reverence for the presence of Jesus in the tabernacle?
· Did I cause others to miss Mass on a Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation?
· Have I tried to observe Sunday as a day of rest and reflection, of family time or of doing works of mercy and charity?
· Did I do needless work/shopping on Sunday, especially the type of routine work/shopping that could have been done another day?
· Did I selfishly cause someone else to have to work on Sunday?
· Have I fulfilled my Easter Duty? (to worthily receive Holy Communion during the Easter season) (Canon 920)
· Have I fulfilled my yearly Confession duty? (to confess my grave sins at least once a year) (Canon 989)
Honor your father and your mother.
· Do I obey and honor my parents?
· Have I spoken disrespectfully to or about my father or mother?
· Have I neglected my duties as a family member?
· Do I strive to be an example of holiness to the members of my family?
· Do I view and treat my children as God’s children first, who he has entrusted to my care?
· Have I participated in our family prayer with a good attitude and proper behavior?
· Am I significantly involved in the education of my children?
· Have I proactively and aggressively tried to pass our Catholic faith on to my children, especially preparing them for the Sacraments?
· Have I tried to coerce any of my children to choose (or to avoid) a specific vocation?
· Have I been impatient or unloving with members of my family?
· Have I been a cause of disorder or lack of peace in our family?
· Have I brought or allowed inappropriate or disordered media into our home? (TV, movies, books, magazines, websites, video games, etc.)
· As a parent, have I neglected to exercise proper authority over my children?
· When I corrected or disciplined my children, was I loving? Appropriately merciful?
· Have I failed to show appropriate affection and encouragement to the other members of my family?
· Have I done my chores and fulfilled my household responsibilities?
· Have I taken time for substantive communication with the members of my family?
· Has my self-centeredness caused me to be rude, sullen or sulky in my home?
· Do I spend time with (or care for) my aged, sick or lonely relatives?
· Have I failed to carry out the last will of a deceased parent?
· Have I neglected any of the duties of my state in life?
· Do I obey all legitimate authority?
· Do I neglect to exercise my right to vote?
· Do I advocate perverse forms of family structure proffered by the prevailing culture?
You shall not kill.
· Have I harbored anger, hatred or resentment in my heart?
· Am I guilty of judging others?
· Have I abused alcoholic beverages, tobacco or drugs?
· Am I guilty of the sin of gluttony? Purposely under-eating?
· Do I care for my health adequately?
· Have I physically harmed anyone?
· Have I made a serious attempt at suicide, or encouraged someone else to do so?
· Have I verbally abused anyone?
· Do I readily extend mercy and forgive others?
· Have I asked for forgiveness when I should have?
· Have I been patient in the face of sufferings, sorrows and disappointments? Have I united my sufferings to the sufferings of Jesus, and offered them up?
· Am I guilty of malice, treachery, haughtiness, rivalry, discord, quarrels, angry words, insolence, spitefulness, antagonism, tantrums, the “silent treatment,” rebelliousness, selfishness, pride, pettiness, insults, bossiness or being inconsiderate?
· Have I been receptive to lovingly-delivered and properly-ordered correction?
· Do I regularly neglect to express my gratitude to others?
· Did I give scandal to anyone by my attitudes or behavior, thereby leading them into sin?
· Have I had an abortion, or encouraged or helped someone else to have an abortion?
· Have I voted for a non-Pro-Life candidate, when a Pro-Life candidate was also running?
· Have I encouraged or condoned sterilization?
· Have I mutilated myself through any form of sterilization to avoid having children?
· Have I engaged in artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization?
· Have I participated in or approved of euthanasia?
· Have I participated in or supported human cloning?
· Have I advocated or supported an unjust war?
· Do I drive in a safe and courteous manner?
· Have I taken revenge on someone, or taken pleasure in imagining it?
· Have I willfully engaged in an unjust lawsuit?
· Am I guilty of bigotry? (hatred of persons of other races)
· Have I prayed for my enemies and persecutors? (Mt 5:44)
· Have I done anything to pollute or otherwise damage our natural environment?
You shall not commit adultery.
· Have I disrespected members of the opposite sex by thinking of them as mere objects for my pleasure?
· Have I been chaste in thought, word and action?
· Have I dressed immodestly?
· Have I allowed my mind to dwell on impure thoughts?
· Have I caused impure thoughts through reading or pictures? (magazines, television, movies, internet)
· Have I engaged in masturbation?
· Have I been faithful to my marriage vows in thought and action?
· Have I engaged in any sexual activity outside of marriage?
· Have I used any method of contraception or artificial birth control?
· Has each sexual act in my marriage been open to the transmission of new human life?
· Have I engaged in any homosexual activity?
· Have I given impure or pornographic material to someone else?
You shall not steal.
· Do I waste time? (work, school, home, etc.)
· Have I stolen anything?
· Have I failed to return and/or make restitution for anything that I had stolen?
· Have I knowingly accepted or purchased stolen property?
· Have I purposely damaged someone else’s property?
· Have I cheated anyone out of what is justly theirs? (friends, neighbors, workplace, creditors, insurance companies, etc.) (especially by breaking a contract or business agreement)
· Have I cheated? (tests, games, taxes, expense accounts, etc.)
· Have I accepted bribes, or otherwise sold my influence?
· Have I engaged in blackmail, fraud, embezzlement, price-fixing, tax evasion, criminal forgery, or copyright violation?
· Have I been a poor steward of any of the resources with which the Lord has blessed me?
· Do I pay my debts promptly?
· Have I incurred debt that I know is beyond my means?
· Do I regularly support my parish financially?
· Have I given to the poor? (relative to my income)
· Do I gamble excessively?
· Do I pay a fair wage to my employees, and provide good and safe working conditions?
· Have I been guilty of laziness or excessive idleness?
· Have I neglected or abused any animals?
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
· Have I lied?
· Have I gossiped?
· Have I been negative, uncharitable, or too critical of others in my words or thoughts?
· Do I complain too much?
· Do I talk excessively?
· When I have a different opinion, must I always express it?
· Am I boastful or self-aggrandizing in conversation?
· Have I been sincere in my dealings with others?
· Am I guilty of unfairness or persecution?
· Do I keep secret what should be confidential?
· Am I guilty of morbid curiosity?
· Have I injured the reputation of others by speaking about them negatively? Made restitution? Asked their forgiveness?
You shall not desire your neighbor’s wife.
· Have I said or done anything which made a mockery of my wedding vows?
· Have I failed to defend the sanctity of Matrimony in my conversations when it is attacked, ridiculed or belittled?
· Have I weakened my marriage commitment through my obsession with another person?
· Have I behaved in an inappropriate way with members of the opposite sex? (flirting, touching, etc.)
· Have I consented to impure thoughts?
· Am I living in an adulterous situation?
· Have I been obedient to the laws of the Church regarding marriage, or re-marriage to someone who has previously been married?
· Am I guilty of polygamy or polyandry? (having more than one wife or husband)
You shall not desire your neighbor’s goods.
·Am I envious of what other people have? (possessions, successes, families, etc.)
· Am I greedy, miserly, or niggardly?
· Have I placed too high a priority on material possessions?
· Am I consumed by my personal ambitions, to the detriment of my family life and personal spiritual growth?
· Do I try to project a false image of myself through ostentation?
· Do I trust that God will care for all of my material needs?
· Do I live Gospel simplicity and detachment?