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Making a Good Confession
Genus, Species and Number
There are many ways to look at making a good confession - we can examine preparation, good examinations of conscience, the work done to ensure we are going not out of mere habitude, presumption, scrupulosity, and developing genuine contrition. I am not going to focus on any of those things in this post - rather I’d like to simply focus on the format for confession and give a couple reasons why this is also important.
When you go for confession, especially when you are in a rather long line, we can forget that the priests time, as well as those in line is limited. We can also deform confession into a counselling session. Sometimes this happens because we are carrying some very real, and heavy burdens. If you need spiritual advice, consider making an appointment instead. If the matter isn’t about sin, ask for a Spiritual Director or temporary direction. Please even consider a therapist or counsellor if the problems are not merely spiritual. These heavy burdens are important - they need to be addressed. However, that is not the nature of confession - and we run the risk of abusing the Sacrament when we use it for these reasons. The last thing a priest wants to do is coldly tell a person who is in tears that they should make an appointment and we do not have time for them. That somewhat heartless reaction can certainly do damage. Yet the fact remains that The Sacrament of Confession is not principally counselling - its object is not therapy or advice - its object is the absolution of sins.
In many places there is a shortage of priests, and a long line of penitential persons, we must be conscious of the needs of others, and consider it a gift to the lineup of people to keep our confessions short. I’d like to give you some advice that can help you seek out your needs that are extra-sacramental, along with making a confession that is respectful of time.
Only Confess: Genus, species and number.
Genus is the category of sin - it could be really one of two things: (1) the 10 commandments or (2) the seven deadly sins. Genus simply means the vague/general category of sin. For example “Gluttony; Pride; Lust, etc”
Species We need to be specific in a confession, lest we think by saying something vaguely we get away with not taking concrete responsibility for our sin. If we confess lust, but have committed a specific type of lust we should confess it. We need not go into too much detail. So one could simply say, “masturbation” or “theft of 100 dollars” or “hitting my brother.” It’s important to be specific, but not to necessarily paint a picture. Too much detail fails to realize that you are confessing to take responsibility, not give a complete accounting of something for the priest. The Priest shouldn’t be interested in the details too much - unless it helps him understand your confession better.
Number is the amount of times you committed the sin. Again, when we are speaking of mortal sin, accounting for how many times you killed Christ in your heart is a serious matter. Some might think this is too scrupulous, but it’s a requirement in the Catechism. Each sin requires its own atonement, and acknowledgement. Now it’s very common that our memory fails us. So we can certainly do our best to summarize or generalize this answer - we just need to do our best. But be courageous and take responsibility.
When confessing your sins, be sure to avoid confessing the sins of others. Sometimes our desire to be validated detracts from our own awareness of our sin. Sometimes this actually causes us to sin, as we confess. For instance, if I begin to confess about my anger toward a person, and I begin to explain to the priest all the evils that they did to me, and how much I hate them for it, I’ve just entered into that sin of wrath. Simply say: Sin of Wrath (Genus); unforgiveness/resentments (species); daily (number). We do not need to know more details than that. You did not need to give context to the priest. This could be a natural desire to avoid being unfairly judged by the priest. You might think he needs to know all the details. Be assured - we do not. We get it - you struggle with sin like everyone else, like us priests.
Pray for those in line for confession - this will help you remain conscious of the fact that you are sharing this time as a community with the priest.
Pray for the priest - we sometimes make mistakes in the confession - and when we realize we’ve made mistakes we cannot do anything about it because of the seal of confession. We cannot apologize because we’d be bringing up your confession. Pray for us, as sometimes we feel used in the confession. People want us to drop everything and hear their confession at all hours, including 3 AM in the morning. Their panic, nervousness, anxiety cause them to only see their own sin. Pray for the priest that he may be patient, prudent with the ministry of mercy given to him, but also have healthy boundaries that protect himself from burnout, abuse, and abuse of the sacrament itself.
Pray that your confession gives glory to God. You are there to meet with him. Go to confession not simply to remove bad feelings of guilt, but go there to give God a chance to be Who He is: merciful and kind.