Q: Why do Catholics confess their sins to a priest?
By Fr. Shane Campbell
Each year, we offer classes to prepare those in confirmation and RCIA. We teach them about many different aspects of our faith and focus on the sacraments. As part of their preparation we cover the sacrament of reconciliation (commonly called confession) and, when we do, we always get the same question, “Why do we have to go to a priest for confession and why can’t we go directly to God, isn’t God the one who forgives us? I am sure you have also heard this question or maybe even asked it yourself. It is a fair question to ask.
Of course, God is the only one who can and does forgive us our sins, but God in His plan for us from the beginning, chose to show His love, including His forgiving love, through the Church. Here is a familiar parable, remember the healing of the paralytic by Jesus and the reaction of the crowd? First, Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then He told the paralytic to rise and walk. The reaction of the leaders to the first statement was: “He has blasphemed. Only God can forgive sins.” (Mk 2:5)
The emphasis of this parable is the fact that Jesus forgave sins as the
Son of Man, as one sent by God
. This power to forgive sins Jesus
passed on to the Apostles (
remember, we are an Apostolic Church). These words are from John’s Gospel (John 20:21ff.): “Peace be with you, Jesus said again, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ Then He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven them. If you hold them bound, they are held bound.’ ”
But how can one know what sins to forgive or what sins to retain unless these are made known; that means unless they are confessed? Jesus intended this power to be exercised not only by the apostles, but also by their successors for the good of sinners.
So the first reason why Catholics confess their sins to a priest is that God has chosen to express His forgiving love this way. As humans, God knows that one of our needs is to be certain, to be re-assured. God wants us to know with faith assurance that when we are sincerely repentant, when we are truly sorry, that He has forgiven our sins. Again and again, Jesus showed His love through outward, external signs.
Also, the Church teaches that the priest ministers
in persona Christi,
in the person of Christ. Yes, a glorious mystery in itself. The words said by the priest, “I absolve you from all your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” are those faith-signs of the certainty of God’s forgiveness.
There is also a tremendous human feeling of being made free. In our letting go, God’s healing grace renews us and by the humbling experience of admitting our sins to another, we are responding to God’s call. A humble and contrite heart God will not spurn. Once you personally experience that feeling of being set free in the sacrament of reconciliation, you know what a wonderful gift God has once again provided us.
How many times throughout our lives do we wish for a chance to do it all over again, to do it right, to have a clean slate? We, as Catholics, have great opportunities to grow in our faith, strengthen our personal relationship with God, to strive for that clean slate, to ask the Holy Spirit to help us and guide us in preparation for reconciliation.
Watch your parish bulletins for times when reconciliation is offered in your parish this Advent season. If you have not been to confession in a long time, don’t worry, helpful aids are available at the parish and on the Diocesan website:
Fr. Campbell is pastor of the Church of St. Joseph in Mandan.
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