With 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.