And I don’t think most people have a problem with that. We know we sin and that we need God’s grace. The problem people have with the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the part about confessing to a priest. It’s not a question about Sacraments; it’s a question about the Priesthood.
After Jesus rose from the dead, John 20:21-23 tells us he appeared to the disciples:
When it was evening on that day and the doors were locked... Jesus stood among them and he said, ‘peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you.’ Then he breathed on them the Holy Spirit and said, 'receive the Holy Spirit.' If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.
This is when Jesus gave the power to forgive sins to the disciples. Those disciples in turn passed it on to their disciples (through the laying of hands, or “ordination”), and so on, until this day.
Jesus gave the Apostles the power to forgive sins, but really it’s God who forgives our sins, not the priest. God forgives our sins THROUGH the priest. Bishops and priests act as God's instruments of reconciliation.
Why then, do we have to confess our sins to a priest? Why not just go directly to God?
Well, first of all, just because you’re confessing to a priest doesn’t mean you’re not confessing to God. Remember, a Sacrament is a visible sign. If you confessed quietly in your room, what would be the visible sign? Later on when we talk about matter
this will be clearer – the “matter” and the “form” are the visible sign. In the case of Reconciliation the matter are the sins confessed and the form are the words of absolution. The fact that we confess our sins out loud and that we hear a real voice saying, “I absolve you from your sins,” is the visible sign. That is the guarantee that the grace is in the Sacrament. The guarantee is in that we “see” that visible sign.
A comparison: Who believes that if you go quietly into your room and ask Jesus to come into your life that He will? Of course He will. If you’re honest about it. But do you think that this is exactly the same as receiving Him in the Eucharist? If you don’t, then what’s the difference? The difference is what we have been saying all along: that in the Sacrament there is a guarantee that He will be present and come into your life. Most Catholics don’t have a problem accepting that it’s “better” to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, than quietly in your room, but we have a problem with Reconciliation. So, the problem is with CONFESSION: Why do I have to tell this stranger all my sins?
You also have to remember that when we sin, we not only break our communion with God, but also with the Church (this is a whole other topic, but the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ and all of us are the Church. Everything we do either builds up or tears down the Body of Christ). When we sin, we break communion with each other, (certainly with the person we sinned against and we should reconcile with that person too) but in order to reconcile with the Church, we have to confess to the Church. It used to be that people would have to confess publicly to the whole church. Confessing privately to a priest is much easier (Plus it’s nice to talk to someone about those things we struggle with. Some people pay lots of money for therapy to get the same kind of help that Catholics can get in the confessional for free). And while we’re talking about therapy, it is therapeutic to actually talk our transgressions out loud – it helps face our mistakes and it helps us be honest and not miss any. And it's nice and good to hear that our sins are forgiven, and to be reconciled with the Church. But the most important thing is that we get the benefit of the grace of God that is guaranteed with the Sacrament and, our sins are forgiven. No therapist can do that!
Next time let’s look more specifically at the ritual of the Sacrament and the graces received with the Sacrament of Reconciliation— and remember to watch In Your Faith every Tuesday at 8pm ET/9pm PT.
*Read all posts on the Sacraments:
What is a Sacrament? part one, part two and part three
What is Baptism? part one, part two and part three
What is Reconciliation? part one, part two and part three