No matter what you call it, this sacrament is one of the most misunderstood as well as one of the most freeing. (For the basics about what a sacrament is, check out The Raft on the Tiber, where Mark is beginning an indepth discussion ... I am looking forward to his posts.)
Here are the very basics:
More than anything confession calls for a good, honest examination of conscience. The priest who taught our RCIA class told us that we shouldn't make "laundry lists" of sins but truly see what in our lives is truly keeping us away from God, acting as a separation from him.
6 STEPS FOR A GOOD CONFESSION
- Examine your conscience - what sins have you committed since your last good confession.
- Be sincerely sorry for your sins.
- Confess your sins to the priest.
- Make certain that you confess all your mortal sins and the number of them.
- After your confession, do the penance the priest gives to you.
- Pray daily for the strength to avoid the occasion of sin, especially for those sins you were just absolved from.
If you want a guide to examination of conscience Fathers Know Best has probably the most thorough I've ever seen. Catholic Online has a good one that also includes an overall guide to confession which I recommend reading over if you are nervous or it has been a while.
I will often spend the week before confession asking God to show me what I do unawares that grieves him most. Then I spend the rest of the week ducking because those prayers are always answered right away. If I have slid into a lack of humility, suddenly I find myself "showing off" or something similar and then being embarrassed. If my bad temper has been growing unbeknownst to me, I suddenly am biting everyone's heads off in the most public and (again) embarrassing way possible. You get the picture.
In short, He shows me without hesitation what I need to repent of, to confess, and to receive extra grace for aid in my struggles.
The examination of conscience is one of the most decisive moments in a person's life. It places each individual before the truth of his or her own life. Thus, we discover the distance that separates our deeds from the ideal that we had set for ourselves.Another thing that I try to remember is to pray for the priest hearing my confession. I usually do this when I am in line waiting my turn. I pray for my own openness in truly hearing what I need to, for his openness in letting the Holy Spirit flow through and enlightening me. I can't tell you how many times the priest has taken a very unexpected turn of advice that has opened my eyes.John Paul II, Go in Peace
... The use of too many words frequently denotes a desire, whether conscious or not, to flee from direct and full sincerity. So as not to fall into this we need to make a good examination of conscience.It is a big struggle to confess my sins fairly baldly and just let it lie. If the priest has any questions, he'll ask them. Otherwise, God (and all the angels and saints, as someone once reminded me) already has watched me "in the act" so I just have to let it go. In other words, no excuses. Confess and live with it.
Concise: Confession with few words, just the words that are needed to say humbly what we have done or have failed to do, without any unnecessary elaboration or adornment.
Concrete: Confession without digression, without generalities. The penitent will suitably indicate his situation, and also the time that has elapsed since his last Confession and the difficulties he finds in leading a Christian life (Paul VI). He declares his sins and the surrounding circumstances that have a bearing on his faults so that the confessor can judge, absolve and heal.
Clear: A Confession where we make ourselves understood, declaring the precise nature of the fault, manifesting our wretchedness with the necessary modesty and delicacy.
Complete: Integral Confession, without leaving anything out through a false sense of shame so as not to appear bad in the confessor's eyes.
The priest instructing us also mentioned that people sometimes worry because they are confessing "the same old sins over and over." As he said, "We don't want to go around finding new ways to sin, do we?" We all have inclinations to various sins that we most likely will battle against for our entire time in this earthly "boot camp." Some we will overcome. Others we will not. We must measure our progress in terms of getting back up repeatedly to continue the battle.
Those confessionals scattered about the world where men declare their sins don't speak of the severity of God. Rather do they speak of his mercy. And all those who approach the confessional, sometimes after many years weighed down with mortal sins, in the moment of getting rid of this intolerable burden, find at last a longed-for relief. they find joy and tranquility of conscience which, outside Confession, they will never be able to find anywhere.There is nothing like the feeling of lightness and relief from a truly good confession.John Paul II, quoted in In Conversation with God: Advent and Christmastide
I encourage you to take advantage of this gift which the Church offers to us so freely. Lent is still here. Go before Easter.
Heather mentions something that I completely forgot to include, but which I think of often to give myself that extra boost to get to confession.
Confession also has enormous healing powers. So even if I am free of mortal sins, I often find Confession very powerful and valuable. Sometimes, you just need an extra boost of grace to keep flying true!I remember going to confession for a specific purpose and then being dumbfounded when the priest informed me that it wasn't a sin at all. "What?" I said. "You're kidding!" He assured me he wasn't and then, when I couldn't think of anything else, asked me what I struggled with the most so that I could receive the grace to battle against it more effectively. Quite often when I just can't stand to deal with a particular sin any more I remember that I can get a strengthening dose of grace as well as absolution from confession. And I hustle to church.
Also, because Confession brings us into a state of grace, it makes our souls more receptive of the graces we receive from all the other Sacraments. Without Confession, the other Sacraments are limited in their power, and even harmful--all because of sin that we can't or won't have cleansed by Confession.