Why do I have to confess my sins to a priest in the Catholic Church?

Confession iPhone AppWith the recent buzz around the new Confession iPhone App by LittleiApps, I thought it might be a timely discussion about the often asked question, “Why do I need to confess my sins to a priest?” Confession: A Roman Catholic App is a great way to prepare for the Sacrament of Penance and the creators have been doing a great job capitalizing on the misconceptions to evangelize about the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

If you read through the thoughts below, you will find the following reasons for confessing sins to a priest:

1. We need to be reconciled with the Church as well we God.

2. Confessing our sins out loud helps us take responsibility for our sins.

Confession to a Priest

Although clarification for the motives of this question are required to provide a sufficient answer, I find that element that is most overlooked is the need to seek reconciliation not only with God, but with the Church.

When we sin, we don’t just break a law, we break our communion, our unity with God. But we also break our communion with the Church. The priest is not only representing Christ in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, he also represents Christ’s Body, the Church. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is the process by which we restore communion between ourselves, God, and the Church, not God alone.

A Brief History of the Sacrament of Reconciliation

The history of this Sacrament sheds some light. Today, the Sacrament of Reconciliation (watch video) is generally regarded as a private act between the penitent and the priest. This arose out of a practice in Celtic monasteries that spread throughout the Church when annual Confession became a requirement by the Church (Fourth Lateran Council, 1215).

In the early Church, people who had committed public mortal sins and sought reconciliation, had to go through a public process of reconciliation. They were known as Penitents (the Order of Penitents) and like the catechumens, they were asked to abstain from receiving the Eucharist. At the end of their time of Penance, they were absolved of their sin and welcomed back into communion with the Church. They could then participate in the Sacrament of the Eucharist and enact that communion. (Watch video about the Order of Penitents, the Catechumenate, and the history of Lent.)

I thought only God could forgive sins?

First, I want to affirm that only God can forgive sins (CCC, 1441-1442). But Christ also wished that this power would be mediated through the Apostles. On the night of his resurrection, he said to them, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” Bishops and priests who are the successors of the Apostles are now entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation (CCC, 1461).

The priest doesn’t actually forgive sins, but he prays the prayer of absolution that expresses God’s forgiveness:

“…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.”

Can’t I just confess my sins to God in private?

When seeking forgiveness, the act of confession is less important than a contrite heart. It is, in fact, possible to gain forgiveness even of mortal sins if out of love of God above all else, you feel perfect contrition (CCC, 1452). This is quite rare and you must still intend to go to sacramental confession.

So what is so special about confessing our sins out loud to a priest? Doesn’t God already know we feel sorry? Yes, he does. But by confessing our sins out loud, we take “responsibility for them, and thereby open [ourselves] again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible” (CCC, 1455)

We have many opportunities to confess our sins. We can do it in private prayer, of course. We also make an act of contrition at the beginning of Mass. However, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is essential for those who have committed a mortal sin. It is also an excellent way to cleanse the soul of venial sins.

Sins are thoughts, words, or actions that defy God’s will. They damage our communion with God and the Church. When we commit a mortal sin, we have ex-communicated ourselves from the bond we have with God and the Church. We are not literally excommunicated in a formal sense, but we are out of communion. To restore the damaged bond of union, we must be contrite (sorry and determined not to sin again) and we must also seek to restore the communion through a sacramental act.

What if the priest tells people what I’ve done?

A priest can make no use of the knowledge of sin that they have gained in sacramental confession (yes, even if there was a murder). In fact, this is known as the “sacramental seal,” because “what the penitent has made known to a priest remains “sealed” by the sacrament (CCC, 1467). A priest who breaks the seal would be excommunicated from the Church and only the Pope could restore them to their role as priests.

If they hear a confession from a murderer or some other great crime, wouldn’t a contrite person seeking reconciliation also seek to confess their crime? A truly contrite heart (perfect or imperfect) would lead a person to give themselves up to the authorities.

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Jared Dees is the creator of The Religion Teacher and has worked in catechetical ministry for over ten years. He is the Digital Publishing Specialist at Ave Maria Press and the author of 31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator.

Comments

  1. Jared,
    Good post on the foundations of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
    One thing that is important to clarify about the history of the Sacrament is that Christ established it. The only thing that has changed about it is the order of it – in the early Church the confession of the ones sins was private but the penance was public (as you stated). Absolution was not given until the sinner/penitent performed his designated penance and only then coming back after a designated time to receive absolution/forgiveness. Today, the confession of sin is the same but the penance is to be completed after the absolution/forgiveness of ones sin(s)is given and it is not public.

    Also, when I teach about this Sacrament, I speak about how it is the priest who has been given the particular ministry of reconciliation and forgiveness of sin. No, it is not the bishop/priest who forgives sins, but it is the bishop or priest, God’s chosen ministers, who is given the grace through his ordination to act in “Persona Christi” (the person of Christ). When he prays the words of absolution he is acting in “Persona Christi”. Only bishops and priests have the faculty to pray the words of absolution which absolves and forgives one’s sins. Thus, it is Christ through the priest who forgives sins.

    • Thanks, William. I totally agree that understanding the concept of in persona Christi is essential to a proper understanding of this sacrament and all sacraments administered by a priest.

  2. This is a good point, “by confessing our sins out loud, we take ‘responsibility for them…’” I think that’s very important. Owning the sin is an essential step in having real contrition for them…and that’s a must as well.

    I like to think of the Sacrament of Reconciliation as an encounter with Jesus. When people met Jesus in person, they experienced healing and a whole lot more. We could confess our sins in private, but in confession we’re meeting Jesus, touching Jesus like the woman with a hemorrhage from Mark’s gospel. There’s much more going on than merely the forgiveness of sins (as if that wasn’t enough) in terms of sacramental grace and the healing the comes from it. It’s a whole different thing to receive a sacrament than to merely confess your sins in private.

    Thanks for the informative post!

    • I like this connection. Marc, you really point to the sacramental character of the Church. Sacramentality is a thing of beauty in the Church’s theology.

  3. Cindy says:

    At our parish and in most parishes where I have been a member, the celebration of God’s Mercy is given so much umph by the repentant and reconciled assembly of believers. I have found that when kids and their families participate in this liturgical act they “get” the part about being reconciled to the Church…not to mention to their families. When Jesus met people in person there was a living, witnessing community of believers nearby. It isn’t about just having the families together in the pews as they wait for individual confession. Rather, the experience of examining ourselves together with our families, is a model for family nighttime prayer. Lord, teach us to pray.

    • Great points, Cindy. In fact, Lisa Hendey, from http://www.catholicmom.com, mentioned that she uses the Confession App in prayers at the end of her day. An examination of conscience can be a powerful way to examine one’s day or your entire family’s day. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. In class I remind by kids that everyone who received healing, or bread, or fish, or forgiveness had a physical encounter with Jesus; or after the Ascension, with an apostle or other authorized agent.

    After all, we and Jesus have bodies; for the whole person to confess and be forgiven, body and soul, requires more than just a spiritual encounter.

  5. Confession is one of those things that if we didn’t have it, we’d have to invent it. We not only need absolution, but we need the de-isolation–the feeling that we’re the only one’s who do this, experience this–that comes through sacramental reconciliation. Great post brother!

  6. Everyone has great insight on this wonderful and often unused sacrament. I try to get a priest to do monthly confessions before Mass for my 7th and 8th graders. We talk a lot about examining our conscience, that sin hurts God, indulgences (and practice them) and temperol punishment, and the need for confession at least every 1-3 months so we don’t RATIONALIZE SIN! All humans do a wonderful job of rationalizing sin as we grow older. I just ask the kids how they have rationalized it since between 2nd grade and 7th and 8th. Again, great insight from all!

  7. HANNAH W. WANGUI says:

    WHAT I KNOW IS THE MOMENT THE PRIEST IS ORDAINED HE PRESENT JESUS CHRIST,SO IS NOT THAT WE CONFESS OUR SINS TO THE PRIEST, WE CONFESS TO THE JESUS CHRIST.

  8. Preston says:

    When there is no scripture, the Bible, to back your logic or reasoning, you can say whatever you would like. (John 15:5 (NKJ) “…For without Me you can do nothing.”) Let us recognize that only God can forgive. It is not humanly possible. If we “get it” at all, it will be by God’s very nature being imputed to us. And right here is the secret to real forgiveness. It is divine.
    Luke 5:20-21 (NIV) When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

    I would be interested to hear what scripture you think you are referencing. The Bible is the only truth.

    • Thanks for commenting Preston. I’ll to my best to give a brief response.

      First, I would say that God is the only source of truth and the Bible is a primary avenue in which that truth is revealed to the human race. I would not say that the Bible is the only truth.

      Though I quoted this, I didn’t site it: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:23)

  9. question: I understand confession from what the Church has taught and what the Bible instructs, but…… How do we truly know if our sins are mortal or not?????? Of course we can know if our mind is clear,but how do we know we consent fully..and not out of anger, fear, mental illness, habit, etc.. How do we know we are 100% committing a sin? Ive heard people say if you think you may have confess it..but if we have to think and ponder then we never knew completely to start with if our consent was there fully. Thanks!

    • Hi Shawn,

      Excellent question, and one that teachers and catechists will surely get at some point in their lives. There are three components to a mortal sin:

      1) it is a grave, serious matter
      2) we know that it is wrong
      3) we deliberately consent to the sin

      So you question deals with #2 and #3, how do we know if something is wrong? The best advice I can give is to speak with a priest about the things you are concerned about. They are generally very good about talking you through a confession during the sacrament. It isn’t just a matter of listing your sins that you have pre-prepared.

      Also, contrition is a grace given by God. So, prayer is also a great source of preparation for the sacrament. God will place the guilt and commitment to change in your heart. We shouldn’t expect ourselves to do this on our own.

      Finally, regarding mental illness and habit, you make a great point. Some theologians have argued that habits or addiction can remove our deliberate consent in a mortal sin. Likewise, mental illness is a case where deliberate consent might not condemn a person. But the damages of sin still occur and the healing power of the Sacrament of Reconciliation should not be overlooked. Hope that helps.

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