Do most parishes do the “traditional” in-a-box confession that you see in the movies? Or are they usually face-to-face now?
Every single confession I have ever attended, at every parish or college campus or random penance service I have ever been to, offers everyone both options. Usually, the priest will be seated behind a screen with a kneeler in front of it, so you can use that if you’re a screen person, but there will also be an empty chair behind the screen, in full view of the priest, which you are also invited to use if you’re a face-to-face person. My parish has it arranged a bit more complicated, so there are actually two separate rooms, one for screen folks and one for face-to-face folks, both with access to the same priest, but either way you’ll get the option.
I’m a screen guy myself, but I did face-to-face when I was in grade school. I think most people still go to the screen (because screens are traditional, and most regular confession-goers are faithful Catholics, and faithful Catholics tend to be more traditionalist), but there’s no stigma whatsoever associated with either choice.
And, I do think people would know what you mean by “boxed confession,” or “traditional” confession, but, the term I always see is “screen.”
So, you’ve chosen your confession mode. Now it’s time to start things up.
Is this the right format, generally?
- Is it more proper to start with “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” or “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit?”
Actually, in recent years, I’ve noticed that most times, it’s the priests who start the confession, as soon as your knees hit the kneeler, with “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This is very sporting of them, I think, because it “breaks the ice” a bit. Either way, the way I learned it, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” should be the first words out of your mouth.
- “It has been four years since my last confession.” (Do I explain the long delay?)
You don’t need to explain anything unless its either directly related to a sin or the priest directly asks you. Some priests are quite probing, but most are not. They are not counselors; they are ministers of the sacrament of forgiveness. And they are mostly aware of that.
- “Since then I have committed X sin approximately 10 times, and Y sin four times.” (Do I elaborate on these sins, or is just naming them enough?)
This is one of those things about confession that isn’t really clearly defined, and what’s right for one person is not right for another. Heck, what’s right for one sin isn’t right for another. I’ve been known to say, “I did X numerous times,” without even giving a number. Generally, I try to give a little bit of context – not just “I committed the sin of wrath,” but, “Last week at a family event I got into a fight with my sister about the salt shaker and lost control of my anger.” You may want to give even more context if appropriate. It never hurts, though it can be embarrassing. As a rule, I say quite a bit more about more serious sins (for instance, you will definitely want to elaborate if you’re confessing, “I committed the sin of murder”), but this is not always true – it is rarely appropriate to say more about the Most Common Mortal Sin (masturbation) than “Father, I committed acts of impurity with myself N times,” because dwelling on that particular sin only feeds it.
So, pray about your confession, and then do what feels right. The priest is used to a wide variety of different kinds of confession. He will guide you. Every priest has his own “style,” but for the most part you need to say elaborate only as much as you think you ought to elaborate.
- Then, do I have to do a structured “act of contrition,” or can I use my own words? If I can use my own words, what points do I need to hit? Just sorrow/regret?
Almost (but not quite) all the confessionals I’ve been in have had one or more forms of the act of contrition posted on the wall or the kneeler or whatever, so if you go in there and don’t have anything memorized it’s okay. All that is formally required is some kind of prayer of sorrow, which could conceivably even be improvised. All the same, I stick to the Irish Catholic formulation I grew up with, or, if not that, then whatever happens to be taped to the confessional wall.
- After the priest blesses me, do I say anything in particular?
I usually go for a “Thank you, Father,” as I stand up, and he wishes me a nice weekend. So… no, nothing is required in particular.
Last word of advice, in case something goes badly: don’t let one bad experience or bad priest scare you off entirely! Awful experiences do happen, but your soul still craves the forgiveness that reconciliation offers, so man up and get back in there next time, no matter what happens.
I hope that all helps. You can also find a LOT of good guides to confession by googling “confession guide.”