In confession, we are reconciled not just with God, but also with the whole community
By Father Cal Christiansen
Q: In Acts 3:19, Peter says, “Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away.” If my sins are forgiven directly by God, why does the church teach that I have to go to confession and confess my sins to a priest?
A: This is a great question and one that I have been asked quite a bit. With Catholics making up just over 11 percent or so of the total population of Washington state, our beliefs about confession can seem to go against the grain of what many of our Protestant and “unaffiliated” spiritual brothers and sisters out there believe. So, why go to confession?
Before we tackle this question, I want to share my first experience of going to confession — and it wasn’t in the Catholic Church.
I was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church (becoming Catholic in high school). Some people are surprised to learn that the Book of Common Prayer contains a rite for the celebration of confession.
When I was in elementary school, I did something really bad and my parents sent me to our pastor for confession, something I had never done before. I remember two things from this experience: the gravity of what I had done, and the sense that I had been forgiven, not only by God, but also by the church community, which was represented by the pastor.
Receiving real forgiveness
I think that this is an important starting point for understanding why for us Catholics, regular and frequent confession is so important and crucial for our spiritual lives. When we go before a priest, an official minister and representative of the church and of God, we are brought face to face with the reality that what we have done has adversely affected our relationship with God and others.
Some years ago, Pope Benedict XVI made a pastoral visit to a prison in Italy and was asked by an inmate why he should go to confession. The pope responded, “Sin doesn’t disturb only the relationship between an individual and God, it harms the community of the church and wider society. The sacrament of reconciliation is the great gift by which, through confession, I can free myself from this and can receive real forgiveness, including in the sense of a full readmission into the community of the living church.”
When we go to confession, we are forgiven not only by God, but also by the community, both of which are represented by the priest.
Another important reason to go to confession is that Jesus gave the authority to forgive sins directly to his disciples to continue his ministry of reconciliation. We know that Jesus’ ministry was based on reconciling the human race with God through the forgiveness of sins — as Jesus said in Matthew 9:6, “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”
Jesus passed on to his disciples this authority to forgive sins: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18) We believe this authority was passed on to the first disciples, and on to their disciples, and on to our own day. The authority of the priest to forgive sins thus comes from Jesus himself.
Growing in self-knowledge
A third and very important reason to go to confession is that, through regular examination of conscience as part of the practice of frequent confession, we grow in self-knowledge by reflecting on our behavior and its consequences. We thereby grow in humility, the essential foundation of our life in Christ.
While it is true that, strictly speaking, only mortal sins must be brought to sacramental confession, the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that “confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church.” (CCC 1458)
Confession is an absolutely amazing sacrament of God’s love and mercy for us that he has entrusted to the church. If it’s been a while since your last confession, I cannot encourage you enough to go, because in it you will find the true peace and forgiveness that we all desire in our hearts.
God’s blessings be with you today and always!
NORTHWEST CATHOLIC - March 2014