Often called our “second baptism”, the sacrament of Penance cleanses us of our sin and restores us to new life in Christ. It is a great sacrament of healing, one which ought to be approached often and with great confidence and trust, and is truly a fountain of mercy and grace flowing from the heart of Christ himself through the Church. But many times, the question is asked: “Why must we confess our sins to a priest?” This is a great question frequently asked by non-Catholics and even many Catholics. Let’s explore these reasons more closely.
First, it is Christ himself that established the sacrament of Penance and the confession of sin to one who shares the apostolic ministry entrusted to the apostles and their successors. He gave the apostles and their successors the power of the Holy Spirit to forgive or retain sins on the evening of his resurrection (see John 20: 19-23). Thus, we confess our sins to a priest first and foremost because it is the will of Christ. But it goes much deeper than that. As with any sacrament, the priest is ministering in persona Christi which means “in the person of Christ”. That simply but powerfully means that Christ is really present and working through the priest. Thus, it is Christ who baptizes, Christ who confirms, and Christ who hears our sins and forgives them. We are not just telling our sins to a mere man, but to Christ himself who is truly present and working through the priest.
The second reason has to do with the nature of sin and the healing that is needed to bring about true penance or reconciliation. First, when we sin and deliberately choose to disobey God and turn against his goodness, it wounds or in the case of mortal sin severs our relationship with God. It is we who break the relationship, not God. God, like with Adam after the first sin, always searches for us and calls us back to himself. This is what we call the divine dimension of sin. Sin always affects our relationship with God and either diminishes or destroys the life of grace within us. Through confessing our sins to the priest, we are confessing our sins to Christ himself who restores us to our relationship to the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit. We come to the foot of the Cross and lay our sins before the Lamb of God who washes them away through the blood that flowed from his side. That is what really happens when one goes to confession.
Secondly, when it comes to sin, there is no such thing as a “private sin.” Yes, sin can be done privately in that no other person knows about it (but God does), but even a sin that is done in private still hurts and effects others. Every time we sin, even if it is alone, it affects our ability to love, to be in relationship, and to live in communion with others. This is certainly true when we commit a sin that directly affects or hurts another, but even sins committed in private, and even our sinful thoughts hurt others indirectly as well. Sin by its nature isolates and wraps us in ourselves. Thus, every sin has social consequences, harming and even destroying our relationship with others. Even more powerfully, as a member of the mystical Body of Christ the Church, sin wounds our communion with the Church and in the case of mortal sins severs our relationship with the Church. This is called the human dimension of sin. By confessing our sins to the priest, we are also confessing to the leader and representative of the community and the Church, and therefore our relationship with others and the Church is also reconciled. Therefore, by confessing our sins to a priest, both the divine and human dimensions of sin are reconciled and our communion with God and the Church is fully restored.
The third reason we confess our sins to a priest has a lot to do with our human nature. God in his wisdom knows that the confession of our sins brings about a deeper and more complete healing of ourselves. The more we become isolated the more sin is allowed to fester and become worse. Sin loves to operate in the dark. When we keep sin inside ourselves it becomes like a cancer eating at our souls and our humanity. The best way to defeat sin, like cancer, is to get it out and to bring it into the light of Christ. The reality is that unless sin is brought into the light and brought out of ourselves, true healing is very difficult.
This is the beauty of the sacrament of Penance. It brings about in us a true healing. When we confess our sins to another, we are required to look the sin squarely in the eye, take ownership and responsibility for it, and admit it to another. We literally empty ourselves of sin so we may be filled with the grace of Christ. The Catechism powerfully brings out this aspect of the confession of sins:
The confession (or disclosure) of sins, even from a simply human point of view, frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others. Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible. (1455)
This is the most powerful aspect of the sacrament of Penance. Remember that all the sacraments are visible tangible signs that make present to us in a natural way what God is doing supernaturally. God is communicating his grace to us in a way that we can really know and experience his love for us. Penance is an extraordinarily human and tangible experience of God’s mercy and forgiveness. If we were to only ask God for forgiveness, we would simply have to trust that he has forgiven us. But through confessing our sins in the sacrament of Penance, we have in a real and fully human way given our sins to Christ, and then we in turn experience and know Christ’s forgiveness in a real, human, and tangible way through the ministry of the priest. At the end of confession, the priest lays his hand upon us calling down the power of the Holy Spirit, and we hear and know the reality and power of Christ’s mercy and forgiveness through the prayer of the Church:
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and the 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 give 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.
Therefore, by confessing our sins to a priest, not only are we participating in the sacrament of Penance that Christ established and is working through, but it also fully heals us from the consequences of sin, brings about a more real and complete healing of our human nature, and we also come to know and experience in a real and powerful way God’s love and mercy that pours forth from the heart of Christ. May we, through this season of Lent, come to a new and deeper appreciation and practice of this powerful sacrament of Christ’s healing, grace, and forgiveness.