Now that we’ve considered the three principal things that a sinner has to do in the Sacrament of Penance (see the last few morceaux I’ve written, on contrition, confession, and making amends), it’s time we get into the “How To Confess” part.
First, let’s deal with the words. The great news is that there are absolutely no mandatory words for the penitent! Many people still comfortably use a memorized formula, like “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, it has been (number) of weeks/months/years since my last confession” before listing their sins. Many others just use their own words to introduce themselves and their confession, which is okay too.
At the end of the confession, the same thing applies. The penitent should express sorrow for sin by making a statement or reciting a prayer which reflects this contrition, but any words will do. It can be a memorized formula, or it can be phrased “in your own words.” If you don’t know an “act of contrition” by heart and just hate being spontaneous – believe me, I understand completely! – just ask the priest to pray one with you: he’ll lead you through a short one, no problem. If you’re here at the Cathedral, we have printed copies of an “act of contrition” available to you in the reconciliation room and on the pamphlet rack in the back of the church.
Speaking as a confessor, remember that the way you go about confessing your sins clues me in as to how best to help you. For instance, if I can tell by your “automatic” words and rote style of confessing that your confession is just a regular part of your monthly spiritual “routine,” I’ll easily be able to cooperate in what I say, to help you stay in touch with your sinfulness. If you come in and bluntly say “Father, I don’t know what else to say but to blurt out the horrible thing I’ve done wrong,” well, even a pretty dense priest like me knows that this is not going to be a “humdrum” ol’ confession. In the end, when you confess in a personal way, the way that’s right for you, the whole experience of the Sacrament will be a better one for you.