Sometimes people will simply ask me, “father why do I have to confess my sins to a priest? There are priests who have done bad things and we hear about this in the news. I’ve decided I can just confess to God.” So let’s follow this logic. One decides to only receive assistance and services from a field that is free from any taint. One stops going to receive cancer treatment or advice from a doctor because he or she is also sick with some cancer. So one stops seeing doctors. Some teachers do bad things, so one must also stop attending classes and learning. Some grocery store clerks steal, so one stops going to grocery stores. In an attempt to do this, and to logically follow, one will eventually go to live in a cave made my one’s own hands. Eventually however, that person will realize he or she is also not perfect, and will realize something: a savior is needed. One needs to hear one is forgiven, and reconciled with God and His Kingdom, which is the Church.
We hear this great account of our Lord appearing to the Apostles in the upper room (cf. John 20:19-30). He breathes on them, just as God breathes life into mankind in the book of Genesis (2:6). He shares his very life with them in this powerful way. Directly connected with this is the power to forgive sins. Jesus sends them as His ambassadors to the world just as He has been sent by the Father. In other words, to convert the world through preaching and the power to forgive sins. One of the charges leveled against our Lord is “only God can forgive sins!”, which is true. Only God can forgive sins. Our Lord is truly God, and He can and does forgive sins. He gives this power to the 12 apostles—the Greek word for Apostle, apostolein, means “to be sent”. Thus He sends out these men to continue His presence and ministry in the world. Yes, only God can forgive sins. Another thing is important here: the one who establishes the terms for forgiveness is the party who has been offended. The party who is offended when a person sins is God. God has established the terms as such: the Apostles are given the power to retain or forgive sins. This is a great power—when our Lord forgives sins in the Gospel, there is a physical healing involved to show what has happened in the soul when He forgives sins.
When our Lord had gathered with the Apostles in the upper room for the Last Supper He tells them something very interesting:”Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:12-13). We can see this happening in the early Church. In the first reading we hear of how the shadow of St Peter brings healing and cures. Many people were converted to the Faith. The Gospel is being spread to the ends of the earth. It is Christ working greater things through these very weak sinful men. Even so to this day.
Our Lord works great wonders through these Apostles, and their successors, and one of these powers is the forgiveness of sins. In the Gospel of Matthew the people ask how a man can forgive sins. Our Lord forgives the sins of the paralytic and as proof of what he did, he commands the paralytic to walk home, which the paralytic does. Then “When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.” (Matthew 9:8). Such authority to forgive sins has been given to the bishops and priests through our Lord’s breathing on the Apostles in the upper room and sending them out as He has been sent by the Father. Our Lord breathes the life of God into them for this purpose-they have the power to forgive sins. In confessing our sins, we must humbly admit our sins and be assured of forgiveness. We are physical creatures after all! Saint Paul mentions that
“Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18). Saint James instructs the sick to call for the priest to anoint and forgive sins through their prayer. Just as the priest is called to anoint the sick person, so the priest also forgives sins “if we confess our sins to one another” through the sacrament of confession. (Cf. James 5:14-16)
The idea of confession of sins to a priest is even seen in the Old Testament:
-Leviticus 5:5-6 says that a man guilty of sin “shall confess the sin he has committed…and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin.” The priest not only forgives the sin but makes atonement for the sin by removing its temporal punishment
-Numbers 5:7 the Lord tells Moses that if anyone in Israel commits sin, “he shall confess his sin which he has committed, and he shall make full restitution for his wrong.”
-Nehemiah 9:2-3 the Israelites “stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers” orally in the Temple
-Baruch 1:13-14 the people who “have sinned against the Lord our God” are instructed to “make your confession in the house of the Lord”
-Sirach: “Do not be ashamed to confess your sins, and do not try to stop the current of a river” (Sirach 4:26)
In order for sins to be forgiven, there must be a priest who offers atonement for the sin. The one, true, high priest is Jesus Christ. He has given this authority and power to forgive sins to the men who are ordained bishops and priests through the laying on of hands. Thus when a priest hears confessions and absolves sinners, it is Jesus Christ who is working through the instrument of the priest. A priest offers sacrifice, which means a victim must be sacrificed. In the ancient liturgy on the Day of Atonement the priest would lay his hands on the animal, symbolically placing the sins of the people upon the animal, which would then be sent away into the desert, symbolically bringing the sins of the people with it. On the cross, Jesus is priest and victim. No longer is a symbolic animal offered—the priest Himself offers His very person as the victim. He truly takes our sins upon Himself. He is the true paschal lamb who spares us from eternal death. Thus when a priest hears a confession, that sin is forgiven through the hands and the voice of the priest, but it is ultimately Christ who forgives, since the Sacrament of Holy Orders conforms the man’s soul to be alter christus. It is in confession that we have access to the blood of the lamb for the forgiveness of sins.
The Church has been given the power to forgive and retain sin. Connected with sin is what is called “temporal punishment”. In confessing our sin we are forgiven but there is still something we must pay—either in this life or in purgatory. A child breaks a window, and he asks for forgiveness. He is forgiven but he must help to repair the window. An indulgence is where mom and dad forgive and then offer to repair the window, paying for it as well. An indulgence is where the Church forgives not only the sin but the punishment due to sin. One must do a certain work usually a prayer or work of mercy, detest sin, go to confession, receive the Holy Eucharist. So it is not simply “paying one’s way into heaven.” It is showing by a little act, and movement toward conversion a desire for this forgiveness and a need of God’s mercy. The Church as merciful mother then applies the merits of Christ’s passion along with all the saints to this person’s soul.
There is an important principal to always keep in mind: the sacrament takes place regardless of how sinful or holy the priest is. Certainly a holy devout priest helps dispose us to be more open to conversion, but a priest who is validly ordained a priest still brings about the effects of the sacrament. A priest is not immune from judgment and can also go to hell, and a priest needs to find another priest to go to confession—he cannot absolve himself. Saint John Chrysostom says it very bluntly: “A priest though he may have ordered well his own life, yet, if he have not exercised proper vigilance over others, is sent to hell with the evil doers.” We are free to choose any catholic priest to hear our confession. Confession brings a great peace of soul that cannot be given any other way. I challenge and encourage you: come often to confession.
“But to ensure more rapid progress day by day in the path of virtue, We will that the pious practice of frequent confession, which was introduced into the Church by the inspiration of the Holy spirit, should be earnestly advocated. By it genuine self-knowledge is increased, Christian humility grows, bad habits are corrected, spiritual neglect and tepidity are resisted, the conscience is purified, the will strengthened, a salutary self-control is attained, and grace is increased in virtue of the Sacrament itself.” (Mystici Corporis Christi, Pius XII, 88).
When we struggle with our Faith and this aspect, pray to St Thomas. Saint Gregory the Great reminds us “The Divine mercy ordained that a doubting disciple should, by feeling in his Master the wounds of the flesh heal in us the wounds of unbelief. The unbelief of Thomas is more profitable to our faith, than the belief of the other disciples; for, the touch by which he is brought to believe, confirming our minds in belief, beyond all question.”