“I’m afraid when I go to confession that I may not remember everything I want to say. What do I do if I later remember something I should have said?”
I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that said! I also wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve said that myself! It does happen once in a while that we go to confession and later remember something we forgot to say. Does that make our confession invalid? Or do I have to go back and do it all over? The answer is, “no” to the first and “not necessarily” to the second. It’s kind of hard for a sincere confession to be invalid. Only if you deliberately held back a serious sin with some intention to sneak it past the priest could it be invalid. It doesn’t seem likely that someone would forget to mention something serious that is really plaguing him. Most likely, anything we forgot to bring up was of venial nature. But it does happen. So what do we do? Well, one thing I always do in confession to make sure I’ve covered everything is to say to the priest, “for these sins and any which I don’t now remember or realize I have committed I am truly sorry.” That gives me a sense of peace. But remember, the priest says “I absolve you of all your sins…” so unless there was a conscious effort to avoid mentioning a certain sin or something we deliberately did not confess, all our sins are forgiven.
Now for the real test: what happens about sins we don’t realize we’ve committed? Maybe we know something is sinful but we didn’t realize we had actually done it, or maybe we never knew something was sinful, or maybe we’re totally unaware that we have that sinful habit? Well, one thing I always try to remember is that, in our imperfect state, we are sometimes totally ignorant of our own sinfulness, and that may not be our fault. Of course we want to overcome all our sins, but what about the ones we don’t see? God is very much aware that in our fallen state, one of our shortcomings is not always being able to see all of our weaknesses. That’s why I always add in my confession the line I mentioned above: “…and for any sins I don’t realize…” Part of our growth in holiness is coming into awareness of our weaknesses. We should not expect to be aware all the time of everything that is wrong in our lives, and God is patient with us while we learn what sin is in our lives and how to overcome it.
So how, then, do we figure out what our sins are, especially if we don’t think we have too many? First of all, an examination of conscience and a good spiritual reading book will help point out things that we may not realize are happening in our lives or do not realize are sinful. Other clues can come from other people. Listen, for example, to the criticisms that people will sometimes offer about you, even if they are not always offered in the most charitable manner. Not every criticism of us is valid, and sometimes we will get conflicting opinions. For example, early in my priesthood one parishioner told me I didn’t seem to care about anyone over 18 years old, and another told me I had no interest at all in working with young people. Obviously they can’t both be right! Just because one person says something doesn’t mean it’s true about you. But listen for repeated comments. If you frequently hear someone say, for example, “he’s so critical” or “she has no patience at all”, chances are you may be guilty of being critical or impatient. Another thing I like to do is imagine I’m having a conversation with Jesus. I imagine he is in a chair in front of me and we are speaking face-to-face, and I ask him , “Lord, what are the things about me of which you are pleased, and what areas in my life do you want me to work on improving?” Sometimes the answer comes almost immediately to me. But I also believe, and have found, that God never leave such a question unanswered, and in his own merciful way he has a way of showing me the areas in my life where he really wants me to grow and change. If we practice these skills, I’m certain we will grow in our awareness not only of the sin in our lives but also of our growth in holiness.
Remember that one confession is not going to automatically bring us to perfection; rather, every confession is a further step of growth in holiness. The more frequently and honestly we confess the holier we’ll be bound to grow. Just like learning to play a musical instrument, frequent practice and frequent lessons help us grow to be a virtuoso, so the same thing happens with holiness. While all of our sins are in fact forgiven every time we sincerely confess them, even if we don’t recall everything that was sinful whether it’s because we forgot or were not aware of it – provided we have not deliberately left out something – we do need to grow in our knowledge of exactly what is sinful and of precisely what sins we are guilty. God is patient with the understanding that we’re not always aware of all the weaknesses in our lives and if we make an honest effort to overcome them as he shows them to us, we will grow in holiness. So do not be afraid if you have not made a perfect confession. A perfect confession is not one where we remember every single detail that must be confessed but rather one in which we can truly say we are sorry from the bottom of our hearts for any sin we have committed, no matter how small. If we can do that, then just like the thief on the cross, when we stand before Jesus in judgment we will hear him say to us: “this day you shall be with me in Paradise!”