Since God hears and answers our prayers, we can confess our sins directly to God; why go to a Catholic priest? What is so special about the Sacrament of Confession?
God always forgives us when we go directly to him, one-on-one, but Christ also provides special additional graces when we go to God for forgiveness in the context of a Sacrament of the Church. A sacrament is a divine direct intervention of Christ provided through the apostles who are called to be his representatives.
Everything we do creates ripples in the stream of life that reach much farther than we can see. Even our small deeds of kindness make a wide-spread difference. So too our sins. Therefore, God has provided a means for dealing with the ripple effects of sin.
It’s impossible for us to go directly to each and every person who deserves our remorseful apology. So, in God’s great mercy, he provides a way to accomplish it: The priest of the Church stands in for all those who have been affected by our sins.
Jesus is present in the priest, and when we go to Jesus in that form, absolution from our sins comes not only from Christ but from the whole Body of Christ that’s on earth, i.e., the Church – every member of the Body – which is represented by the priest’s presence in the confessional.
[The Sacrament of Penance] is a miracle of grace, no less for priest than for penitent. Nowhere and in no function, it seems to me, does the priest represent our Lord in His Divine character so literally as in this Holy Sacrament. It is indeed a wonder how two souls, entire strangers to each other, can at once be knit into holy bonds of friendship, so close, so sincere, so sacred. – Servant of God Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), founder of the Paulist Fathers
In our individualistic world, we’ve lost sight of our interconnectedness. We’ve forgotten what it means to believe in the communion of saints, despite professing it often as we recite the Creed of our Faith.
Throughout biblical times, people understood that they were part of a larger whole. In the Old Testament, when one person disobeyed God, the entire community was punished. We think that was unfair. Why should all suffer on account of one? Jesus answered that question when he, as one man, suffered for all. And we who belong to Christ are connected to everyone else who belongs to Christ. The fact is, we are all connected to each other.
God is a God of reconciliation. He provides it as a sacrament so that we can receive directly from Jesus the healing that reunites us to his Divinity and to each member of his earthly Body.
In the Sacrament of Confession, we acknowledge that we have divided ourselves from God and from others. In Confession, the priest sits in for Christ and for the whole Church and accepts our repentance and pronounces the absolution of our sins (which is psychologically beneficial to hear spoken with an actual voice instead of just the voice of God in our hearts, which sounds like our own inner voice).
Through this communal, person-to-person experience of confession and absolution of our sins, we are then reconciled with everyone. We might still have to apologize to specific individuals to make amends with them, but in this sacrament, Christ wipes away the division that was caused by our sins.
Even when the people we’ve hurt are still mad at us and won’t forgive us, the power of the Sacrament of Confession through a priest who represents the whole Church gives us the effect in our spirit of being reconciled with that person.
Remember, when we go to a priest, it’s not the priest who actually provides the forgiveness. It’s the Father who forgives sins. It’s Jesus who delivers the forgiveness. And it’s the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us and empowers us to go and sin no more.
In the confessional, the priest is (as stated above) the presence of Jesus and the whole Body of Christ (the Church). The absolution that he pronounces is as an action of his Holy Spirit, and this is more than just the removal of guilt; the sacrament – because it is a sacrament – provides us with the gift of a special grace from the Holy Spirit, which gives us supernatural power to replace the sinful vice with the holy virtue that will help us avoid that vice in the future.
Pope John Paul II said in 2002: “The Sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the most effective instruments of personal growth. Here the Good Shepherd, through the presence and voice of the priest, approaches each man and woman, entering into a personal dialogue which involves listening, counsel, comfort and forgiveness…. All who receive sacramental absolution ought to be able to feel the warmth of this personal attention. They should experience the intensity of the fatherly embrace offered to the prodigal son: ‘His father … embraced him and kissed him’ (Luke 15:20). [Through the voice of the priest] they should be able to hear that warm and friendly voice that spoke to the tax collector Zacchaeus, calling him by name to new life (cf. Luke 19:5).”
UPDATE February 19, 2014:
Pope Francis spoke on this topic during his general audience at St. Peter’s Square. He said, “The Christian community is the place in which the presence of the [Holy] Spirit is felt, which renews hearts in God’s love and brings all brothers together as one, in Jesus Christ”. He continued, “For this reason, it is not enough to ask for the Lord’s forgiveness in our own minds and hearts, but rather it is also necessary to humbly and trustfully confess our sins to a minister of the Church”.
Pope Francis also explained that the priest represents God (i.e., serving as God’s instrument) and also the community as a whole. He added that anyone who confesses only to God should remember that our sins are also committed against our brothers and sisters and against the whole Church, and thus it is necessary to ask forgiveness from them too, through the priest.
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© 2011 by Terry A. Modica
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