Confessing to a priest versus confessing via prayer

I apologise if this is a stupid question but what is the difference between confessing your sins to a priest in church and confessing them on your own at home via prayer?

It’s not a stupid question, it’s a good question however, the way you phrased it isn’t quite accurate. For Catholics, it’s both and not either or.

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Mortal sins are not absolved.

But I thought mortal sins could not be absolved no matter what.

Where did you hear that? That’s not Catholic teaching.

Well that’s a different animal

Well if you commit a mortal sin you are willfully condemning yourself to hell. At least that’s what I thought

We do both.
Confession is a sacrament which if valid you can be sure you are forgiven.

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It’s a an expression

That’s why we go to confession

Yes, forgiveness through perfect contrition, however absolution is sought from the Church. “St. Bonaventure (IV, Dist. xvii) also admits the distinction between contrition and attrition; he asserts the power of contrition to take away all sin, even without the priest’s absolution, confession being necessary only when possible.” – Catholic Encyclopedia

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What is perfect contrition?

Confessing sins to another is a Scriptural command. James 5:16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power to prevail.

The Church accommodates that command in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Part of honest self examination is accountability to our community which we also offend by our sins and having the counsel of a Priest makes sure that we are not being our own judge.

Catechism

Contrition

1451 Among the penitent’s acts contrition occupies first place. Contrition is "sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again."50

1452 When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called “perfect” (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.51

1453 The contrition called “imperfect” (or “attrition”) is also a gift of God, a prompting of the Holy Spirit. It is born of the consideration of sin’s ugliness or the fear of eternal damnation and the other penalties threatening the sinner (contrition of fear). Such a stirring of conscience can initiate an interior process which, under the prompting of grace, will be brought to completion by sacramental absolution. By itself however, imperfect contrition cannot obtain the forgiveness of grave sins, but it disposes one to obtain forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance.52

1454 The reception of this sacrament ought to be prepared for by an examination of conscience made in the light of the Word of God. The passages best suited to this can be found in the Ten Commandments, the moral catechesis of the Gospels and the apostolic Letters, such as the Sermon on the Mount and the apostolic teachings.53

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In Confession, God pours out grace that is otherwise unable to be obtained through mere personal prayer. This is why many go to confession if they have just committed a venial sin. The “normal” use of confession is to be rid of mortal sins which separate us from God. The Unforgivable Sin is to reject God’s forgiveness. It is unforgivable because we do not ask for forgiveness. And God will not give us what we do not want.

But it is always a good idea to go to confession whether you commit a mortal or venial sin. You get grace either way. And I don’t know about you, but I could use all the grace I can get.

Perfect contrition is sincere sorrow for one’s sins, a lack of attachment to the sin, and a firm purpose at the time to never sin again. At least that’s my understanding.

The Sacraments are visible signs for us so that we can know God has acted. All the Sacraments are visible signs of spiritual realities. They do what they signify. Because of our finite and fallen way of knowing,and all our human weakness, spiritual realities are difficult or impossible to know whether or not they have really happened.
So that the spiritual reality of His Grace is made real to us Jesus has attached them to visible signs We know because He commanded us to do them. He told us to Baptize, forgive sins, He said what we bind on earth is bound in heaven. Through His Church these things are done. These things that are done by the Church are what we call the Sacraments and are visible signs that do what Jesus said they do. When the visible sign has happened we can know that what Jesus said they do has also happened. So, the Sacraments are signs that do what they signify.
A good example is the ritual of Baptism. Jesus made the ritual of Baptism a visible sign of His Grace. Baptism is a sign that we are immersed into His death and resurrection. Because the sign of that spiritual reality is visible through the ritual we can know with great certainty that it has really happened.
Same with Confession. The Priest and the ritual make visible and tangible the reality that God has really done His part in forgiving the sins we confess. All that is left is up to us in receiving the Grace.

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Vico posted the section from the Catechism. In a nutshell, perfect contrition means being sorry for our sins solely out of love for God whom we have offended. Imperfect contrition means being sorry for our sins in part because we fear going to hell.

For the average Catholic, it suffices to know that we should simply avail ourselves of Confession on a regular basis.

And, yes, our mortal sins are forgiven in Confession. Isn’t that awesome?! There is nothing we can do that God will not forgive. The only sin God does not forgive is that which we do not go to Him and ask to be forgiven of (i.e. impenitence).

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