Be not afraid! Fear tends to keep many Catholics from regularly celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation. There is no reason to fear Jesus' healing power to forgive our sins through the priest. Jesus entrusted his disciples with the power to forgive sins, and so we know that our priests carry out this same ministry on behalf of Christ and His Church.
Why should I confess my sins to a priest?
Because the priest represents Jesus. And, because the priest represents the community, Christ's body, the Church.
As representative of Jesus, the priest stands in His place, offering the words of absolution to let us know, with certainty, that our sins have been forgiven by God. As a representative of the community, the priest expresses the forgiveness and reconciliation of the community. Our sins always have a deeper effect than we think. This means that we not only need forgiveness from God but also from the community on earth, if we expect to live free in perfect relationship to one another in heaven.
What do I say?
Here is a brief outline of how a person makes a good confession. After approaching the priest (usually in the confessional) say,
"Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned ... " or something close in equivalence, like "bless me, Father, for I have sinned." You or the priest may also begin with the sign of the cross before you say the above phrase.
"It has been [amount of time] since my last confession ..." Telling the priest how long it has been since your last confession helps him to understand the context of the sins you will be confessing. Recounting the exact number of days is not necessary, unless the last confession was less than a week ago. If it's been a few years, then the priest will understand the weight of the confession than if the last confession was only a week ago. Then again, if someone says it has been a few years since his last confession, and then proceeds to only mention small things, chances are the person has not done much thinking about his sins.
"And these are my sins." Then confess all your sins in number and kind. Start with the worst and move to the simplest. " God knows all of the sins already. Sins are boring. Grace, on the other hand, is exciting. It is wonderful to watch someone have a conversion and experience the healing forgiveness of God. It makes whatever agony the person was in worth the redemption.
"I did [x], [y number of] times since my last confession." Make sure to say the number and kind of the sins. This helps the priest to know clearly what the sin was and how often the person has been struggling with it. There is a significant difference of how to counsel someone who has struggled with a habitual sin versus someone who did something only once or just a few times. Knowing the frequency of occurrences helps the priest to know how serious the sin is and what kind of advice may help.
"For these and all my sins, I am truly sorry." Let the priest know you are finished. Often, the priest will wait through periods of silence if the penitent has not signaled he or she is finished, since some people need time to think about what they want to say next. If the priest jumps in too early while you are still trying to recall your sins, feel free to let him know you have more sins to say. People use different phrases to show they are done: "that's all, Father," or "I think that's everything" are fine phrases. The one used above in bold is the one most typically used.
The priest may offer some counsel or ask simple questions of clarification.
The priest will then give you a penance (more on this below).
Then you will be expected to make an Act of Contrition. The priest just needs to know you are sorry for your sins, and this is usually accomplished by some kind of statement by the penitent. In its simplest form it sounds like, "Have mercy on me, a sinner." The normal form is a longer kind of prayer:
"My God, I am sorry for my sins. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good I have sinned against you, whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with the help of your grace, to sin no more and to avoid all that leads me to sin. Amen."
There are many acts of contrition, so find one you like and memorize it for ease of mind every time you have to pray it at your next confession.
The priest will then pray the prayer of absolution over you, with his hand raised: "God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace. And, I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
When the priest has finished his prayer, you may make the sign of the cross over yourself and proceed along your way. Make sure to perform your penance as given by the priest.
The penance is our means of paying some of the restitution owed from the damage our sin caused in the world. God wipes away the guilt of our sin in confession, but the damage usually is still out there. Doing penances and prayers helps to heal the wounds of the sins we caused.
Prepare well for your next confession by spending a good amount of time examining your conscience.