Having looked at contrition as the first of three acts of the penitent when going to confession, we now look at the second and central act of the penitent: confessing of sins to the priest. In looking at this act of confessing, we consider two important elements: the making of an “integral” or complete confession of sins, and the expectations within this act of confessing sins, particularly “what” type of sins must be confessed.
The very nature of the act of confessing sins is that one person is directly communicating their own sins to another. The sacrament requires that this confession be spoken directly to the priest who is present with the person and hears their words of confession (even if they are separated by a screen or barrier that prevents them from seeing one another). In the act of confessing the penitent both takes responsibility for their own sins and humbly submits themselves to God’s mercy in seeking to be forgiven. As it is the priest whom administers God’s mercy and forgiveness, the confession necessarily must be heard by the priest in whose presence they are to be audibly confessed. As this moment is meant as a personal encounter with Christ’s minister, this confession must take place in the very presence of the priest (thus, rendering all forms of telecommunication as illicit for confession – and therefore not possible to use for a valid reception of the sacrament).
The Church uses the terminology of an “integral confession” to describe a complete confession of sin in which every mortal sin that one has committed since their last confession is confessed (or at least one or more venial sins is confessed if there are no mortal sins needing to be confessed). In making an integral confession, the penitent is to have first thoroughly and honestly examined their conscience (which will be covered in the next installment) in order to confess all mortal sins that they remember committing since their last confession – aware that any sins not remembered and are honestly forgotten will also be forgiven, (even though these should be confessed at a later confession if one subsequently remembers them). On the other hand, to deliberately and knowingly not confess a mortal sin, while itself being a sin of dishonesty, makes the whole confession lacking – and thus renders the confession ineffective and invalid. If one were to make such a bad and non-complete confession, all of the mortal sins (both those withheld and those which were confessed) remain on their soul and must be confessed at the next confession.
When considering then what must be confessed it is primarily any and all mortal sins. A further point to be kept in mind in making a good confession is that we are to call to mind the number of times each sin was committed – as the more fully that we can take responsibility and accountability, the more we open ourselves to God’s grace to be both forgiven and aided against future sins. In short, the expression that we must confess all our sins “in kind and number” captures well the key to confessing one’s sins in the most effective manner: that one says both “what” sin/s they committed and how many times each kind of sin was committed – minding that with mortal sins it is far easier to be specific in recalling such serious sins and the number of times committed. If the confession of the “number” of times is not a task to which you are accustomed, realize that now is a good time to begin practicing such, and that it becomes easier over time. Remember too: the Holy Spirit is here to aid us; so we should ask the Holy Spirit to help us remember our sins and to trust in God’s mercy - as we will look at in the next installment on the examination of conscience.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the paragraphs 1455-1458 cover what must be confessed in receiving the sacrament of penance.