By this beautiful Sacrament God gives all sinful members of His Church, "a direct, human, and personal encounter with the mercy of God" as found in the Gospel.  (CCC: 1446) In this encounter "God, the Father of mercies" pardons His faithful for post-baptism sins that they confessed to the bishop or his priests. (CCC: 1448-1449). In the liturgical actions of this sacrament, especially in the formula of absolution, Jesus Christ reaches out to us in the depth of our soul and mind to lift us to our feet, and restores us to be more perfectly what we are: His saints, the reconciled children of God. He does so "to set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship Him without fear, holy and righteous in His sight all the days of our life" (Luke 1.73).
The essential elements of the sacrament of Reconciliation are two: the acts of the penitent who comes to repentance through the action of the Holy Spirit, and the absolution of the priest who in the name of Christ grants forgiveness and determines the ways of making satisfaction.
 Thomas Cardinal Collins, Cornerstones of Faith. Reconciliation, Eucharist and Stewardship (Toronto, Canada: Novalis, 2013), p. 14.
 Cf. the Canticle of Zechariah, adopted by the Liturgy of the Hours.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. When is it necessary for me to go Confession?
Generally speaking, besides the obligation of annual Confession (Code of Canon Law, c. 989), the Church encourages its faithful to make use of the sacrament frequently and regularly.
Specifically one should confess all his/her sins, and especially mortal sins which destroy the sanctifying grace in the soul. While Confession of venial sins is not always necessary, one must confess mortal sins.
Mortal sin is (1) a grave matter that turned one away from God in (2) full knowledge of the evil of the act, and with (3) full consent of the will. All three conditions must be met for a sin to be mortal. (CCC: 1855, 1857)
Venial sins do not destroy the sanctifying grace in the soul, but it diminishes and wounds it (CCC: 1855). Venial sin injuries one's relationship with God or with the neighbour or with oneself, in lesser matters of the moral law, or in grave matters acting without full knowledge or complete consent (CCC: 1862).
2. What if after receiving the Holy Eucharist I became aware of some sins that I failed to confess?
You must go to Confession at your earliest opportunity.
3. Can a priest reveal what has heard to others?
No. "It is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason." This is called "confessional seal". (Code of Canon Law: c. 983 § 1.)
4. What if I feel nervous about going to Confession? Or what if I haven't gone to Confession for many years?
True contrition turns one to God and the Church in the sacrament (CCC: 1453-1454). Simply go to the confessional prayerfully in the faith when you are ready, by telling a priest what sins you are sorry for with all your heart. "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear" (1 Jn 4.18). Recall, for example, the reassuring story of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of Luke (15:11-32) and the embrace of the loving father. If necessary, speak to your pastor, and he will be able to guide you in your preparation.
5. I have difficulty in memorizing the Act of Contrition by heart in the confessional …
Bring a copy of it with you to the confessional. Sometimes pastors have a copy ready. It is important that you understand the prayer. It is not meant to be a memory test. Express it in your own words when your memory of it fails. You can always ask a priest to help you.
6. Can someone be forgiven of the sin of abortion?
Yes. Pope John Paul II once addressed people in this situation:
"The Church is aware of the many factors that may have influenced your decision, and She does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong, but do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation." (Evangelium Vitae, 99.)
If you find yourself in this situation, please include it in your next sacramental Confession.
7. May I receive the sacrament if I'm divorced?
It is possible that you may receive the sacrament, but you may wish to consult your pastor first who would be able to speak to your particular situation. Generally speaking, one may receive the sacrament if they are civilly divorced but have not remarried or were validly married in the Church after receiving a declaration of nullity for their first marriage.
8. Can my sins be forgiven outside of the sacrament?
In the sacrament God in his unbound mercy reconciles a contrite person not only to Himself, but also to the Church, through the ministry of priests. In Baptism God washed away all your sins. For post-baptismal sins, the members of the Catholic Church are bound by the sacrament as "the only ordinary way for the faithful to reconcile themselves with God and the Church, unless physical or moral impossibility excuses from this kind of confession" (CCC: 1484).
First Reconciliation, Confession, and Penance
The parishes normally prepare our children and families for this Sacrament prior to their First Holy Communion. This is their first celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation: their first sacramental acts of Confession and of Penance. The Church's proclamation and celebration of God's loving mercy through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is the broad framework of the parish catechesis. Like adults children have a right to an ongoing catechesis in this Sacrament and to be encouraged to approach the Sacrament freely and regularly. Regular reception of the Sacrament is a beautiful way of co-operating with God the Father as the Holy Spirit graces us with what wholesome virtue we need in our continuing, lifelong conversion to Christ.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Must a child receive this Sacrament before he/she can receive First Holy Eucharist?
The Church teaches that it is “the place of parents, as well as the duty of pastors, to take care that children who have reached the use of reason are prepared properly and, after they have made sacramental Confession, are refreshed with this divine food as soon as possible” [Code of Canon Law, c. 914]. The same canon of the Code of Canon Law teaches that it is “for the pastor to exercise vigilance so that children who have not attained the use of reason or whom he judges are not sufficiently disposed do not approach Holy Communion”. In the Archdiocese of Toronto, it is normative that children and adults preparing to receive Holy Communion for the first time also participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation beforehand, as a means to prepare themselves most appropriately, and to inculcate a desire for Reconciliation throughout their life.
2. When should a child start going to Reconciliation (Confession)?
In consultation with the pastor, a child normally starts going to Confession as he/she prepares for First Holy Communion and after he/she has received instruction (catechesis) on this sacrament from the parish.
3. Is it the school's responsibility to prepare the children for this Sacrament?
No, the preparation for this Sacrament is the parish's responsibility. However, children often receive instruction in our Catholic schools.
4. How can we, the parents, help our children prepare for this Sacrament?
This is a very important question that requires constant turning to Christ's presence especially in the Sacraments. Like every child, every family is unique. Parents are privileged teachers of the faith in the family, and this profound privilege requires you to 'walk the talk'. Active participation at Mass on Sundays is always essential. In consultation with your parish, these ideas may help if you do them: being present at your children's parish preparation when appropriate; going to Confession regularly; praying for and with your children and bless them; loving the Church, the people of God, publicly and privately.
To learn more about Reconciliation, these resources may help:
Bishop Robert Barron: "Why do I have to confess to a priest?"
Fr. Dave Dwyer, CSP, BustedHalo.com: Penance (why we confess).
Catechism of the Catholic Church (1420-1498)
Code of Canon Law (cc. 959-997)