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In the Catholic tradition, confession to a priest is treated with special protection as a sacred rite. The priest is charged with maintaining the confidential nature of the confession, something they take very seriously. However, not everything ever said to a priest is send as part of an official confession.

When is a confession considered sacramental and when is it ordinary? Is there some kind of instantiation procedure to switch to a confession if chatting with a priest? Is it possible to use the language of confessing a sin in the hearing of a priest and not have it be sacramental? Does place matter?

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@DavidStratton: I asked this because a comment thread on this answer got my curiosity going... –  Caleb Sep 30 '12 at 20:19
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You know you're in confession if:

  • you started your conversation saying bless me father for I have sinned.
  • the priest dons his purple stole
  • you can't see the priest you're talking to
  • you stood in line to talk to a priest
  • you were given absolution for your sins
  • you end your conversation by making an act of contrition.
  • you don't go in to details, but merely count the number of times you screwed up.
  • when you knelt down a light changed from green to red.

The most relaxed (and personally awful) confession I ever did was in the middle of a conversation. The priest merely whipped out his stole, told me that if I wanted more grace I should kneel and I told him all the awful things I was probably going to tell him anyway.

Let me know if you want a more canon law answer, rather than an anecdotal one. I don't think there's any mistaking when you're in confession, the most telling part is the absolution, but if you don't get absolution for whatever reason, I doubt you didn't know you went to confession.

The normal for of confession, according to the handbook of prayers (which is not a liturgical text, but a guide for the laity) is that confession begins with "bless me father... And it's been x number of days since my last confession" then you rattle off your calumnities and the priest gives you a little advice and asks if you're really sorry (you say yes, I don't want to know what happens if you say no, always say yes). Then the priest (acting in persona Christi) absolves you of your sins and you say an Act of Contrition (O my God I am heartily sorry, etc...) and the priest gives you some penance (usually a number of prayers to be prayed in earnest nowadays, although in the past, the punishement fit the crime) the most penance I've ever had was flowers and a date night. Then you leave feeling refreshed in body and soul. (Unless you did something dumb or self righteous in the confessional, then you feel worse than you can possibly imagine. But it's not so bad, you remind yourself, same absolution same succor of Heaven.

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Flowers and a date night as a punishment? Wow...that's some "punishment"... :P –  El'endia Starman Oct 1 '12 at 3:10
    
Is that a "if any of the following are true" list or a "if all of the following are true" list? –  Caleb Oct 1 '12 at 5:59
    
Any and all, except the detail part, you're free to go in to detail,but it's really not necessary, especially for communal penance services. (When there are a lot of people in line) –  Peter Turner Oct 1 '12 at 11:18
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