I don’t want to make people self-conscious about their habits with confession (the Lord knows that being self-conscious can be a cross in itself), but I have come to believe that with a little guidance and some sound principles, people can be helped to get more out of confession. With that in mind, I have found that the most fruitful confessions takes about 5 minutes.

When confession goes longer than that, there are two equally problematic things which may happen. On the part of the penitent, people may feel the need to over-explain situations and details because they think this will help the confessor to understand. Having heard around 1,000 confessions, I can tell you that this never helps me to understand your situation. In fact, it often tends to blur the details, especially after an hour or more of hearing confessions. As much as the details and the descriptions of the people may be clear in your mind, the reality is that the limits of language often prevent a confessor from fully understanding your situation. Consider this, in a majority of the situations, I have neither met the people you are describing nor can I even picture the environment in which these events are taking place.

Then, if we are truly honest with ourselves, we will realize that our perceptions are always biased and colored by our limitations. With this in mind, confession is not a way of getting sound advice on a particular situation. Often, providing good counsel is not about telling people what to do, but rather gently helping them to see patterns of disordered thinking which are preventing them from discovering God’s will. Confession can help you make decisions not because the priest will tell you what to do, but because the forgiveness and grace offered in the sacrament will help free up your thinking. If you require more guidance, that can often be done in an hour-long session.

The second problematic thing that can happen is that the priest decides to try and teach everything there is to know about the spiritual life. I have certainly been guilty of this, and I apologize for it. Unfortunately, unless you are a priest, you just have to sit through it.

With that in mind, the 5 minute confession really is the sweet spot. 2-3 minutes for penitent and 2-3 minutes for the confessor. For the penitent, it requires that one prepare well for the confession. The truly holy souls are experts in knowing how they fall and the interior processes that lead to their sins and failures. Often, as we grow in holiness, our growth involves a process whereby we learn to see how we fall, and in a paradoxical way, this opens us more to receive Christ’s love.

For the priest, it means that we must focus solely on the next step that needs to be taken. For many, the first step that needs to be taken is developing and sticking to a daily prayer life. Where many folks fail to grow in this area is that their prayer life stagnates. They have never developed other ways of relating to the Lord other than vocal prayers. Often, such penitents must be given a suitable and accessible way to begin a practice of mental prayer or meditation. Then, when they are practicing mental prayer and meditation, the good confessor must be familiar with developments that take place in the spiritual life and be able to provide short and insightful guidance. A good confessor should have a working knowledge of things such as the healing of memories and other psycho-spiritual processes which accompany growth.

In conclusion, go to confession. Go often, and try and keep your side of the confession to 2-3 minutes. I will work on my side of the equation.