The Accidentally Incomplete Confession

“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?”confession 3

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!”

confession 4

10 thoughts on “The Accidentally Incomplete Confession

  1. Lauren says:

    Hello Father! Thank you for sharing this helpful information on confession! I returned to this sacrament after almost 2 decades of being away (and having gone only a few times in my whole life). Truly, I allowed fear, anxiety, and my inability to accept my own failures/sins….keep me away from (what I am discovering to be) a beautiful and helpful sacrament. Overcoming the barriers that have kept me away all these years has become my offering for Lent. I’ve been twice so far, and each time I have noticed something new in the way of progress or grace. My anxiety leading up to going is lessening too, and I feel that God is changing my heart. I am looking back on those 18 years when I was away from confession, and I am remembering some significant sins. Trying to examine my conscious over such a long time was a daunting task. I didn’t hide anything intentionally, but there was so much to say in that 1st and 2nd confession, I felt I had to at least start somewhere without being in there for half the day. My question is, how far back should we go to confess sins in our past? Or, is it more about the seriousness of the sin? I know I need to make restitution for one sin from 15 years ago I that I have not confessed. Or, am I already forgiven from the absolution already received? I am seeing (and plan to keep seeing) the same confessor which I think is good because in someways it feels like a continuation each time. It’s also helpful because he knows about my struggles with this sacrament and how I’m trying to overcome them, which makes me feel more comfortable. And, he has been very understanding and helpful too! (Hey! You priests aren’t half bad after all!!) I’m planning to go to confession again next weekend, so I’m not sure if I should bring up my sins from years ago……or just keep my confession more recent. Thank you for any thoughts on this.
    Many blessings to you,

    • Hello Lauren, and thank you for that powerful testimony about your confessions experience. I hope that many people who are in the same situation as you will read your post and return to the peace of the Lord’s healing grace.

      As for older sins, once a sin is forgiven you never have to mention it again. At the end of the absolution prayer, the priest says, “I absolve you of all your sins…” That means everything was forgiven. If you honestly forgot something and want to bring it to the Lord, you may simply say a prayer afterwards and tell the Lord you forgot to mention it. Whenever I go to confession I always add at the end, “for these and any sins which I don’t now remember or that I don’t realize I’ve committed, I am truly sorry.” This way I’ve covered my bases. If something is really bothering you that you never verbalized in confession, feel free to bring it up in your next confession so that you know it was said and you can feel forgiven. But it is never necessary to rehearse every sine you’ve committed all over again. Once you are forgiven, it is forgotten. You only need to confess any sins committed since your last confession.

      I’m so glad to hear of the peace you have found in the Lord. Isn’t it wonderful?

      • Lauren says:

        Yes! I am learning that it is wonderful! And it’s helpful, too, since I noticed that after confession, it’s easier to make better choices to avoid sin. (I was surprised by this actually). That desire to stay in a state of grace does seem to fade over time, so I can see how going more often would help us from falling into sin as much or as often. And then there’s the progress I’ve noticed too! All this affirmation makes me want to keep persevering with this sacrament. I’m getting there.

        After reading your response to my question, there is one thing from the past that I want to bring up in my next confession, mostly because it’s really bothering me….and I could use some advice on making amends with it even after all these years. After that, I won’t look back since all is forgiven! I also like your suggestion about asking forgiveness for sins we aren’t aware of or don’t remember. I’m going to start saying that too!
        Thanks again! Lauren

      • You’re welcome Lauren! You’ve come a long way!!!

  2. Anna says:

    Father. I have a question. I went to confession few days ago and when I was confessing my sin I told the priest I committed the sin because I didn’t that action was bad but I knew it was bad all along. I didn’t conceal my sin but I still have lied to the priest. Is my confession invalid?

    • Hello Anna, and thank you for your question.

      I’m a little puzzled. Did you say you confessed a sin that you didn’t actually commit? I must admit that’s a new one to me. Your confessions was still valid, but I’m curious as to why you would confess a sin you didn’t in fact commit. You may want to pray about that and ask God to guide you so that you can maximize your appreciation of the grace you received in the sacrament.

      God bless you!

  3. Priscilla says:

    Dear Father I have a question about Confession and sin. I am not really good at going to confession and when ever I go I am always so nervous and vary anxious. When I confess I will say of my sins and then I remember 1 more sin in confession but I will deliberately not say it and my heart hurts sometimes Because I didn’t confess this one more sin. And sometimes I struggle. Between sins sometimes like there be times I have thoughts of bad thoughts and sometimes my head will tell me about mortal sin and during mass when its time to go receive The body of Jesus I will have fear to go up there to receive him because of the fear might defameing him. Like Today I went to confession I told my 4 sins when he said that my sins are forgiven he told me was that all and I yes then he said my sins are forgiven but then I still remember 1 more sin and still didnt confess it so I dont know I might have lied and delbertlay not said 1 of my sins that I remember and I felt bad about it Also when mass was over we got up to receive Jesus body I went and received him did I defamed his body?

    • Thanks Priscilla, for your good question. It is obvious you want to make a good confession and have a clear conscience before the Lord. My advice to to muster up the strength and mention the next time you go whatever it is you are holding back. You’ll feel much better when you do! Remember that the priest HAS HEARD IT ALL BEFORE!!! Nothing you say is going to shock him. Just confess it and you’ll feel so much better!

      As for not receiving Communion, that would depend on the nature of the sin you’re holding back. If it is a venial sin you may receive Communion without offending Jesus. If it is grave or even mortal sin, then you should refrain from receiving until you confess it.

      Do not be afraid! The Lord says it in the scriptures about 360 times – once for every day of the year. The priest is there to heal you not to judge you. Go and confess whatever it is that you’re holding back. You’ll be very glad you did!

  4. Thanks for the compliment and especially the prayers!!! There are so many great Catholic books today. I would check out anything by Matthew Kelly. You can find his books on Amazon and on several of the sites in our parish website:

  5. Liz says:

    Thank you for another good informative article on confession. I always have to write everything down before I enter the confessional or my mind goes blank then my heart pounds out of control and I break in to a cold sweat and remember none of my sins or prayers. I do like the line about any sins I don’t now remember or realize I have committed. You talked about a “good spiritual reading book” Like what? I am finally starting to realize how merciful and forgiving God really is and how He loves us in spite of our sins. You are still in my prayers Father Carrozza

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