“Ask a Priest: Is Mentioning One Sin Enough for a Valid Confession?”

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Q: My 21-year-old daughter and friend recently went to confession. The priest told them they only needed to confess one sin that was really troubling them. They both left wondering if this was a valid confession. One of the girls hadn’t gone to confession in a couple of years and knew she needed to go. Thank you. -K.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Valid confessions require that penitents tell all the mortal sins they can remember from their previous confession, plus any from the past that they might have forgotten to mention.

Moreover, the Catechism in No. 1458 says, “Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit.”

If what you described is accurate, then the directive given in the confessional seems, at best, extremely ill-advised.

If a penitent didn’t have the chance to confess mortal sins, then the person should go to another confessor and explain what happened and proceed to confess anything serious that wasn’t mentioned the first time. A penitent who only had venial sins to confess wouldn’t need to worry, since the absolution would have removed all venial sins, including those not mentioned.

But permit me a word of caution: Since we never know firsthand what transpires in the confessional, it is good to be prudent about what we pass on, so as not to put anyone in a bad light. It is possible that things can be misunderstood. Some priests might counsel frequent penitents to just focus on one or two venial sins that they commit repeatedly. (This assumes that there are no mortal sins to be confessed.) The idea is that the focus on one or two categories of sin might help a penitent zero in on an aspect of his life that needs special effort.

At any rate, it is good to hear that your daughter and her friend are trying to take advantage of the sacrament. It is a treasure that can help them become saints.

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