According to Ms. Ryan in First Confession, what did it mean to make a bad confession?
In the early stages of the story, Mrs. Ryan tells the narrator a tale of a man who made a "bad confession." In the story, the man arrives at a priest's bedside late at night, asking for the chance to confess; the priest uncomfortably asks him to return in the morning, but the man explains that "last time he went to confession, there was one sin he kept back, being ashamed to mention it, and now it was always on his mind." The priest is said to have gotten up and dressed immediately, now aware that the man had made a "bad confession." This is then defined as a mortal sin. In other words, Mrs. Ryan is suggesting that a bad confession is one which is incomplete, and therefore a lie by omission in a sacred process. Had the gentleman fully confessed, it would not have been tarnished; however, in lying while allegedly confessing, he essentially spits in the face of the priest, the doctrine, and God himself, according to most Catholics. The woman obviously considers this omission a greater sin than any he might have needed to confess in the first place, simply because he refused to spout it and it preyed upon his mind.
As Jackie receives instruction from the old woman Ryan in preparation for his first confession and communion, it is clear that she is trying to impress upon him the need for full disclosure. She relates to him the story of a man who returns to a priest to whom he has given a partial confession, eager to clear his conscience, only to be smote before he can get the words out. Her implication is that God is vengeful and will mete out the severest punishment to transgressors who compound their sin by withholding the full truth. Her story emphasizes the idea that withholding the entire recitation of one's sins will not only weigh heavily on the mind of the sinner, but also that the priest will be unable to act as an intermediary on behalf of those who come too late to try to atone. She tells Jackie that the priest "knew it was a bad case" and that the man was " committing a mortal sin." The detail that the sinner's handprints were burned into the frame of the priest's bed is intended to remind Jackie that nothing is more powerful than God and that even the church's priests will be unable to save the most abject sinners.