In every sacrament, the value of preparation to receive that which the Lord Jesus offers to us cannot be underestimated. Regarding the sacrament of penance, fitting preparation to make a good confession takes the form of an “examination of conscience,” wherein one looks honestly at what they have done since their last confession to identify the actual sins committed so as to make a complete or integral confession, leading to right reception of the grace of forgiveness. Thus, it is important to consider what such an examination of conscience looks like and how it can be accomplished.
In an earlier installment, the practice of examining ourselves at the end of every day was encouraged. While this daily examination is a legitimate way to regularly confess directly to God, a further benefit that it yields is a greater awareness of the patterns of sin in our lives – helping us to identify weak points for which we ought to ask God’s help. Likewise, a daily examination aids us in calling to mind our sins ahead of going to confession – as it helps us remember our sins more easily. That said, even if we do not make a regular daily examination, we are to always take time before going to confession to make a full examination of conscience (“before” meaning on the same day or immediately upon arrival at the church, but prior to getting in the line for confession). Know that this action of examining ourselves is meant to be a prayer: thus, we should begin by kneeling/sitting in the church, making the Sign of the Cross and then proceeding to ask in our own words for the Holy Spirit to help us to know our sins and to make a good and sincere confession. In this same moment, we should also ask God to give us contrition for our sins, that we might have true sorrow for our sins and the want to turn away from future temptations to sin.
Having opened with prayer, we next carry out the very process of examining ourselves – which means that we ask ourselves a series of questions pertaining to whether or not we committed particular sins/kinds of sin. These questions may be based on the Ten Commandments and the Precepts of the Church, on the Seven Capital Sins, the Beatitudes, or other sources that show us the way of virtue and true life. In the interest of honesty with ourselves, it is important and necessary that these questions invite us to go deeply enough into our life experiences that we do not allow for blind spots or for the ignoring of real experiences. As we go through questions, we should be keeping a mental record of what we identify as actual sins committed along with the number of times we committed each sin (some people choose to write them on a paper – but in doing so it is also important to keep the list private and to destroy it immediately after confession). Having completed this examination, one is encouraged to continue to pray as they approach the confessional, continuing to ask the Holy Spirit to aid them in making a good confession.
Truly there are many very good “examination of conscience” resources available – so many that it would be difficult to go through them here. If you need help to examine yourself, most parishes have small pamphlets available (often near the place where confession is offered) which contain questions to ask yourself – along with other helpful information on going to confession. It is worth repeating here: the questions one uses should have enough detail and depth to allow one to be honest and not allow for blind spots.
Such good and intentional preparation of examining our conscience, while it may take practice, truly opens us to both the awareness of real sins and the desire to be forgiven. Never fear to embark upon this process, as it leads to great fruit in our reception of absolution.