Saturday, December 3, 2016

Why Do Catholics Confess Their Sins to a Priest?

No One Can Forgive Sins, but God!

Recently articles circulated the internet about Pope Francis granting permission for all priests to forgive the sin of abortion (here for example).  Predictably so, many non-Catholic Christians started their "only God can forgive sins" talk and started bashing (or mocking) Catholics and their sacrament of confession (Sacrament of Reconciliation).   Thankfully, many non-Catholics were merely inquisitive.

Fact is, Catholics do teach that God alone forgives sins.  This is obvious to those who actually have studied Catholicism and not merely listen to what anti-Catholic Protestants are spouting off,

What Do Catholics Believe About Priests Forgiving Sins?

The Catechism (i.e. teaching) of the Catholic Church says:

[Paragraph 1440] Sin is before all else an offense against God, a rupture of communion with him. At the same time it damages communion with the Church. For this reason conversion entails both God's forgiveness and reconciliation with the Church, which are expressed and accomplished liturgically by the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.
Only God forgives sin        [yes, these exact words are in the Catechism]
(1441) Only God forgives sins. [cf Matt 2:7] Since he is the Son of God, Jesus says of himself, "The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins" and exercises this divine power: "Your sins are forgiven." [Mk 2:5, 10; Lk 7:48] Further, by virtue of his divine authority he gives this power to men to exercise in his name. [cf Jn 20:21-23]
(1442) Christ has willed that in her prayer and life and action his whole Church should be the sign and instrument of the forgiveness and reconciliation that he acquired for us at the price of his blood. But he entrusted the exercise of the power of absolution to the apostolic ministry which he charged with the "ministry of reconciliation." [2 Cor 5:18] The apostle is sent out "on behalf of Christ" with "God making his appeal" through him and pleading: "Be reconciled to God." [2 Cor 5:20]
There are approximately fifteen (15) pages in the Catechism of the Catholic Church detailing the confession, penance, and indulgences.  I certainly will not quote or cover all things discussed therein.  Those who have an opened mind and are willing to honestly learn what the Church teaches will explore more for themselves.

Looking at these divinely-inspired passages quoted, or referred to, in the Catechism we read:

 Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.  All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5:17-20)
Notice there are two aspects of reconciliation being taught here:  the "ministry of," and the "message of."   Again, a whole other blog post could barely cover this.

What Do Catholics Believe About Priests Forgiving Sins?

In John 20:20-23 we read Jesus giving his Apostles the power to forgive sins (kind of like a sheriff sharing his authority with his deputies).  After his resurrection Jesus appeared to those closest to him and to the disciples we read:

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

Now, I am aware this brings about another question about Catholic teaching - the apostolic nature of the bishops and priests.   This is a conversation for another blog post.  But you may wish to explore it on your own.  Again, in order to find out what Catholics believe, go to reliable Catholic sources.  (This link is a good place to start.)  Yet, there is no doubt, if you believe the words in the Bible, Jesus gave his disciples the authority to forgive sins.  This is given to the Apostles (and their rightful successors), not all believers.

What Happens In Confession?

There is no set rule per se.  I've been to several different confessors and each is a little different.  It is certainly not some creepy experience like what is often portrayed in movies and television.

(This link is a typical example of what confession is like.)

What Makes Confession So Special to Catholics?

Going to confession the first time was kind of scary.  I still had some of those old Protestant ideas floating around in my head.  I took a four-page list of all the sins I could remember committing.  Father Leon was my first confessor.  He is a retired diocesan priest of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston who was assisting in a communal penance service that night.  My wife & I had met him briefly before and were very impressed with his gentle kindness.

He made me feel at ease and welcomed.  Mercy does that to a contrite person.

I prayed one of the standard Acts of Contrition:
O, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend you, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of your grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to never sin anymore. Amen.

He saw me pull out the list and start at the beginning.  He immediately and gently lifted his hands and said something like: "Whoa, I don't want you to read through all those.  Fold that up and just tell - from your heart - what you've done."

I started from the earliest things I could remember.  Some years had more sins than others.  I recalled the horrible things I once said about Mary, the Pope, and the Catholic Church.  Tears filled my eyes... and Father Leon's eyes got a bit teary too.  My heart was broken like never before.  I have cried at altars and pews in Protestant churches many times, but nothing like this.

No act of confessing my sins in my old Protestant settings could compare to this.

As I neared the end of my mental list I began - only slightly began - to feel a sense of peace.   I finished and looked at Father Leon, but all I could think of was looking at Jesus, the God-man who died for my sins; the man who died because of my sins, even if I was the only one in history to have ever sinned.  Yes, Father Leon was there, but so was God.  Whenever two or three are gathered in the name of the Lord, He is there.... remember?

Father Leon said something like:  "That was a good confession."  For my penance he told me to tear up that list and throw it away knowing that God has forgiven me.  That those sins were paid for in full.

Then... Father Leon said some of the most beautiful words a sinner can hear.  Something like:
“God, the Father of Mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God grant you pardon and peace. And I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
The sins I have prayed over so many times in privacy finally felt torn away from my heart.

Few things compare to this in beauty, peace, comfort, and joy.

Why Not Go Directly to God?

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said:

I would say two things. The first: naturally, if you kneel down and with true love for God pray that God forgives you, he forgives you. It has always been the teaching of the Church that [when] one, with true repentance — that is, not only in order to avoid punishment, difficulty, but for love of the good, for love of God — asks for forgiveness, he is pardoned by God. This is the first part. If I honestly know that I have done evil, and if love for goodness, a desire for goodness, is reborn within me, [and if there is] repentance for not having responded to this love, and I ask forgiveness of God, who is the Good, he gives it to me. But there is a second element: sin is not only a “personal,” individual thing between myself and God. Sin always has a social dimension, a horizontal one. With my personal sin, even if perhaps no one knows it, I have damaged the communion of the Church, I have sullied the communion of the Church, I have sullied humanity. And therefore this social, horizontal dimension of sin requires that it be absolved also at the level of the human community, of the community of the Church, almost physically. Thus this second dimension of sin, which is not only against God but concerns A Companion to the Individual Celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation 8 the community too, demands the sacrament, and the sacrament is the great gift in which through confession, we can free ourselves from this thing and we can really receive forgiveness in the sense of a full readmission to the community of the living Church, of the Body of Christ. And so, in this sense, the necessary absolution by the priest, the sacrament, is not an imposition — let us say — on the limits of God’s goodness, but, on the contrary, it is an expression of the goodness of God because it shows me also concretely, in the communion of the Church, I have received pardon and can start anew. Thus, I would say, hold on to these two dimensions: the vertical one, with God, and the horizontal one, with the community of the Church and humanity. The absolution of the priest, sacramental absolution, is necessary to really absolve me of this link with evil and to fully reintegrate me into the will of God, into the vision of God, into his Church and to give me sacramental, almost bodily, certitude: God forgives me, he receives me into the community of his children. I think that we must learn how to understand the Sacrament of Penance in this sense: as a possibility of finding again, almost physically, the goodness of the Lord, the certainty of reconciliation. (Pastoral Visit to the Rebibbia District Prison, December 18, 2011)

Yes, I still confess my sins to God in the privacy of my own home, but I also go to confession in front of a priest for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  Through this sacrament I am strengthened and encouraged, but most importantly, reconciled.

Through somewhat regular confession I have become stronger, yet more aware of my weakness and dependency on God and his Church.

What I once mocked, I now love.

Sources and Further Reading: