Years ago when I was occasionally talking about religion with friends who were not Catholics, they used to say. “It must be awful to have to tell your sins to a priest”. Of course going to confession may not be easy most times. On the other hand I am glad that there is the sacrament of reconciliation when you feel you need it.
Why does the Catholic Church have this sacrament?
Jesus established seven sacraments for His followers. Confession is one of the seven sacraments administered by the Catholic Church. In the case of confession the institution occurred on Easter Sunday when Christ first appeared to the apostles after his resurrection. Breathing on them he 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” (John 20; 22-23).
We understand from the Scripture that Jesus spoke clearly that He had authority to forgive sins and by virtue of His divine authority He gave this power to men to exercise in his name (Mathew 16; 19-20). Jesus established this sacrament, out of His great love, knowing that even after baptism we could still have to deal with the reality of sin. Thus a sinner who is repentant about his/her sins receives pardon and peace and is restored to the fullness of grace with God. Catholics believe that the sacraments are an outward sign of an inward grace. In this case the outward sign is the absolution and forgiveness of sins, that the priest grants to the penitent. The inward grace is the reconciliation of the penitent to God.
Reconciling of man to God is the purpose of confession. When we sin, we deprive ourselves of God’s grace. In the sacrament of confession, grace can be restored to our souls and we can once again resist sins.
What is sin?
The Church defines sin as a deliberate turning away from God and God’s goodness. Sin is before all else an offense against God. At the same time it damages communion with the Church. In some ways it is really hard to commit sin, because sin involves making a conscious decision to turn away from God. So most of the times the weakness makes us fall into temptations.
Since God is love and wills only what is ultimately good, He continues to call us to conversion. St Peter’s conversion after he had denied his Master three times bears witness to the expecting Father and his love and mercy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes this sacrament as the sacrament of conversion, the sacrament of penance, the sacrament of confession, the sacrament of forgiveness and the sacrament of reconciliation.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation
It is felt that this is also a sacrament of compassion. God has given freedom for all to love Him and His creation. When we sin, we misuse that freedom. But we can repent and turn back to God. Through His death Jesus rescued humanity to the Father. Jesus continues to dwell within the Church and continues to help us.
Absolution is part of the great mystery of salvation. It does not work like a magic, but it is amazing to realize how extraordinary God’s redeeming love for the humans really is. The God we encounter in the sacrament of reconciliation is the God of compassion. In the battle against sin God is on our side. It does not mean that God is pleased by sin. It means that, because of an overwhelming love for us, God reaches out even further to meet us when we need our creator most.
When it comes to sin, we can be sure that God is not vengeful or spiteful but merciful and forgiving. This is very clear from the behaviour of Jesus. How He dealt with sinners whom He encountered. Luke tells us the story of a sinful woman who sought out Jesus. When He was eating in the house of Simon, the Pharisee, this woman showed up. She was uninvited. Because she had a bad reputation, she was considered a terrible sinner, but Jesus welcomed her in. Simon was outraged that Jesus was associated with this kind of woman. But Jesus knew of her sorrow for her sins and her humble heart which desired healing. Jesus said to Simon “her many sins are forgiven, hence she was shown great love (Luke 7; 47).
For confession, a good examination of conscience is needed. We have to examine how we failed in the love of Jesus. Repentance is the recognition that we have strayed from the right path hurting Jesus and our neighbours. When we confess we are not telling God something he does not know already. We have to pour out the ugly sins to the priest who alone can provide us with the peace of absolution. Accepting a penance from the priest and completing it is a proof of our true sorrow. It is a way of expressing our sincere sorrow and to turn back to God.
Read more on Confession
There was a time when the number of communicants was very less when compared to the large attendance in the church for Mass. The Vatican II documents say that the faithful achieve a more perfect participation in the Mass when, with proper dispositions, they receive the Body of the Lord sacramentally in the Mass, in obedience to His words “take and eat” . The faithful are encouraged to receive Communion in the Mass to live joyfully and gratefully by the strength of this heavenly food. (Eucharistic Mysterium) As a result almost all participants receive communion, these days.
St Paul clarifies that “only after examining ourselves (that is after confession) we shall eat the bread and drink the cup. Whoever therefore eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord” (I Cor 11; 27).
Sometimes we put off this sacrament of reconciliation or avoid it altogether because we don’t have big sins or there may be some hesitation or nervousness on account of an impression that our faults and sins may get leaked. In this connection it is stated that the Church will never violate the seal of confession. According to the code of canon law 9831, The sacramental seal is inviolable and so is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.
In this connection I would like to mention that the Prime Minister of Ireland threatens that legislation would be enacted in the Parliament to make the Church reveal the confessional secrets if and when the Govt. wants. The Archbishop of Ireland has already told that no one can interfere with the rules of the Church in such matters and that the Church opposes all such threats.
Advocates of Confession
It may not be right to end this article without mentioning the two famous catholic priests who spent their lives declaring the importance of confession. St John Maria Vianney of France, the patron of the parish priests (1786-1859) was known for spending more than half of his day in the confessional. The faithful came from afar to the small city of Ars to pour out their hearts and ask for the Lord’s forgiveness for their sins. It is said that once devil told him “If there were three such priests as you, my kingdom in France would be ruined.”
Another famous person was Padre Pio of Italy (1887-1968). He had the stigmata on 29th September 1918 which remained for 50 years till his death. When daily he woke up at 4.00 am to say Mass, hundreds of people were already waiting for him for confession. His principal activity was hearing confession. He was famous for possession of knowledge about others’ thoughts and had the gift of bilocation, that one is presenting himself in two places at the same time.
Let us hope that more and more Catholics will receive the sacrament of reconciliation to renew themselves and to be nearer to God. Now I hope you all have a clear idea on why should we confess our sins to a priest in the sacrament of confession.
- – - written by K. C. Thomas