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Choosing a Good Confessor

by Father John A. Hardon, S.J.

One of the most remarkable developments in Catholic doctrine has been the practice of frequent Confession. Of course, the Sacrament of Penance must be received when a person has committed mortal sin, and Holy Communion should not be received until after going to Confession and receiving priestly absolution, but the Church also encourages the faithful to receive the Sacrament of Penance often, and not only after committing grave sin.

But this can pose a problem. Not everyone is convinced that frequent Confession is even desirable. And the practice in some places of general absolution has only aggravated the situation. That is why the faithful today need some guidance in their choice of a confessor.

Essential Qualities of a Good Confessor

Our situation today is not unique. At various times in the Church’s history, the faithful have had to be selective in choosing their confessors. Saint Teresa of Avila prayed for years that the Lord might send her a wise and prudent confessor. Saint Vincent de Paul provided his priests with copies of the formula of absolution to distribute among the faithful, so they might give it to their confessors. Why? Because so many priests in his day did not even know the words of absolution! Saint Francis de Sales advised people to change from a confessor who causes the penitent “too much fear.”

He Accepts Church Teaching

The first necessary quality to look for in a confessor is that he accepts the Church’s teaching on sin. He does not minimize the gravity of premarital or extramarital relations. He does not condone contraception or homosexuality. He is not an advocate of the so-called fundamental option theory as though the only mortal sin were the total and willful rejection of God, instead of what it is: the deliberate choice of something known to be gravely forbidden by God.

Moreover, a good confessor must sincerely believe in what is called the integrity of confession. In other words, he must be sincerely convinced that Christ instituted the Sacrament of Penance in which the penitent is required to confess. Confess what? Whatever mortal sins have been committed, including their number and such circumstances as affect the nature of grave offenses against the Divine Majesty.

Desirable Qualities

Over the centuries, the Church has exhorted her confessors to the practice of certain virtues as ministers of God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Penance.

  • They are to be prudent. This covers a multitude of qualities, like asking the right questions, avoiding unnecessary details, and not reducing the Sacrament to a counseling session by a psychologist.
  • They are to be practical. In other words, confessors are to deal with the specific sins and failings, which the penitent relates.
  • They are to be strong believers in their priestly powers. The Sacrament of Penance confers grace on the penitent just because sins are confessed and the absolution is conferred. Every confession gives supernatural light and strength to the person who received this Sacrament of Peace. The confessor should be convinced of this fact of faith.
  • They are to be kind. Sinners are human beings, with all the weakness of human nature. They should be treated with Christ-like charity and merciful understanding.
  • They are to be objective. Sin is sin, and an injustice to an all-loving God. In his kindness, the confessor may not forget who he is, God’s representative. He must be wise in treating the penitent as a person who needs guidance in the spiritual life but also firmness in coping with what may be long-standing habits of indifference to the will of God.


Lord Jesus, help me to find a confessor according to your Divine Heart. I wish to see your gracious mercy in the priest to whom I reveal my soul. Grant my confessor the gift of discernment. May he lead me by Your wisdom and teach me by Your truth. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica. Used with permission.