Sign up ×
Christianity Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for committed Christians, experts in Christianity and those interested in learning more. It's 100% free, no registration required.

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 said 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?

share|improve this question
@DavidStratton: I asked this because a comment thread on this answer got my curiosity going... – Caleb Sep 30 '12 at 20:19
When is a confession considered sacramental and when is it ordinary? First time I see this framed this way. There is no ordinary confession i.e. you are either going to confession or not. Other chats with a priest outside the confessional can be termed for instance spiritual direction but not [...] confession. Perhaps question needs some editing. – FMS Aug 22 '14 at 4:50
@FMShyanguya This question accurately reflects my (lack of) understanding of the issue. That's what makes it a question. What you suggest sounds like an answer, not an edit. – Caleb Aug 22 '14 at 6:13
You are right, thank you for clarifying. I may answer. Let me put some thought into it. – FMS Aug 22 '14 at 6:18

4 Answers 4

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.

share|improve this answer
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
That "you were given absolution for your sins" and a few other points you list pertaining to the matter of confession (sins, contrition, seeking satisfaction, etc.) are the essentials for a valid confession. – Geremia Jul 4 '14 at 3:56

As Gregory says [Isidore, Etym. vi, ch. 19], "a sacrament consists in a solemn act, whereby something is so done that we understand it to signify the holiness which it confers." (source).

In order for a sacrament to be valid, all the following are necessary:

  • proper matter (e.g., unleavened bread for the Eucharist, water for baptism, etc.)
  • proper form (e.g., "This is my body/blood, etc." for the Eucharist, "I baptize thee in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen." for baptism, etc.)
  • proper intention to do what the Church does in conferring the sacraments.

The proper matter for confession are "the acts of the penitent, the matter of which acts are the sins over which he grieves, which he confesses, and for which he satisfies." (source).

The proper form for confession is, at the bare minimum, "I absolve thee." (source).

The confession is automatically invalid if it lacks either or both of these.

share|improve this answer
The confession can be invalidated under other circumstances; for example a confession heard by a diocesan priest outside the bounds of his diocese is not valid without prior permission of his ordinary and that of the other diocese - at least, that's how I read Canon 969. – Matt Gutting Jul 4 '14 at 3:10
@MattGutting: That pertains to licity, not validity. A suspended or excommunicated priest can give a valid (but illicit) confession, even if the penitent is not in immediate danger of death or there is not another grave reason (e.g., the ordinary being a heretic or refusing to grant the priest faculties for an illegitimate reason, etc.), but, in the absence of these exceptions, he certainly commits at least a sin of disobedience in doing so. (cf. this.) – Geremia Jul 4 '14 at 5:26

As far as I know, what makes a confession sacramental, so that the seal of the confessional applies to it, is that the penitent asks the priest for absolution. Even if the priest refuses absolution, he is still prohibited from revealing what he heard in that confession. Purple stoles, lines, and green and red lights are often involved, but I don't think the lack of any of them would make the confession not sacramental.

EDIT: A more authoritative answer, from Section 503 of "Moral Theology" by Fr. Heribert Jone (a book that was recommended to me by a traditional Catholic piest, and which I therefore consider reliable): "Sacramental confession consists in the telling of our sins to a duly authorized priest with the intention of being absolved by him."

Fr. Jone adds, in smaller print: "That confession also is sacramental which remains incomplete or which is sacrilegious. No sacramental confession is made when one knowingly tells one's sins to a priest who, he knows, has no jurisdiction. Likewise, if one confesses to a priest who has jurisdiction, but does so merely for mockery or to seek counsel or consolation."

Note that, in my original answer, "asks the priest for absolution" was apparently too restrictive; it suffices that the penitent has the intention of being absolved.

share|improve this answer
Useful. Could be enhanced with references. – FMS Aug 22 '14 at 5:39
Nice succinct and clear answer. – FMS Sep 1 '14 at 0:58

The poser of the question's understanding is that there are sacramental and non-sacramental confessions.

This post aims to answer by starting with the definition of the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Penance and proceeding with an explanation of the process of Going to Confession. I believe with that, a clear understanding will emerge.

Penny Catechism, 112 & Excerpts for the Penny Catechism, 281-300

Q 112. By what means are sins forgiven?
A. Sins are forgiven principally by the Sacraments of Baptism and Penance.

Q 281. What is the Sacrament of Reconciliation (or Penance)?
A. Reconciliation (Penance) is a Sacrament whereby the sins, whether mortal or venial, which we have committed after Baptism are forgiven.

Q 283.When did our Lord institute the Sacrament of Penance?
A. Our Lord instituted the Sacrament of Penance when he breathed on his Apostles and gave them power to forgive sins, saying: 'Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven.' John 20:23

Q 284. How does the priest forgive sins?
A. The priest forgives sins by the power of God, when he pronounces the words of absolution.

Q 295. What is confession?
A. Confession is to accuse ourselves of our sins to a priest approved by the Bishop.

This is a good place to define what a Sacrament (there are seven) is:

Penny Catechism, 249. What is a Sacrament?
A. A Sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace, ordained by Jesus Christ, by which grace is given to our souls.

Wondering why a penitent would want to confess their sins to a priest outside the sacrament of Reconciliation [there is no such process in the Church], from above, Confession is a penitent accusing themselves of their sins to a priest approved by the Bishop in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Going to Confession

Elements of a good confession
To make a good confession, one should:
1. Pray first, asking God to help us.
2. Make a sincere examination of conscience to see how we have sinned since our last confession.
3. Confess our sins simply, with humility and honesty.
4. Make our act of contrition with heartfelt sorrow and a "firm purpose of amendment", being determined that we will avoid the occasions of sin.
5. Devoutly carry out the penance prescribed and pray in thanksgiving for God's overflowing love and mercy. - Source: A Simple Prayer Book | Catholic Truth Society.

Please see Catechism of the catholic Church, Article 4, The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.

On the "sacramental seal" please see CCC 1467

1467 Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents' lives.[cf. CIC, can. 1388 § 1; CCEO, can. 1456.] This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the "sacramental seal", because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains "sealed" by the sacrament.


On priests and surplices and stoles, those belong to another question and answer.

share|improve this answer
This is all perfectly good content, but I think you missed the main point of my question. This post is hung up on the Catholic definition on "confession" as a sacrament, but it doesn't touch on the ordinary English definition, what the status of a revelation made during an ordinary social chat with a priest would be or what the initiation procedure is that officially makes instantiates the protected official act of confession. – Caleb Aug 22 '14 at 8:48
@Caleb: Having said This question accurately reflects my (lack of) understanding of the issue I perceive your comment as 'forcing' to sort of incorporate your (lack of) understanding into Catholic teaching. The answer stated, Wondering why a penitent would want to confess their sins to a priest outside the sacrament of Reconciliation [there is no such process in the Church], [...]. A grasp of the answer should be able to solve your (lack of) understanding of the issue. There isn't anything else I believe I can add to this, so I am sorry if I haven't answered you. – FMS Aug 22 '14 at 18:27

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.