Before my conversion to Catholicism, I had a HUGE problem with (what I thought was) the Sacrament of Reconciliation — better known as Confession.
I cringe when I recall how short sighted my views used to be, but much like every other aspect of Catholicism, when I began to actually study and learn about the doctrine and beliefs of the Church, I realized how truly misguided I was. (You’re probably going to hear this mea culpa from me a lot in future writings so go ahead and be ready for it.)
For this column, however, the focus is on Confession — one of the most misunderstood Sacraments from a non-Catholic standpoint. The problem arises in the fact that we must confess our sins to a Priest. This is viewed as being juxtaposed to the Christian faith, because the crucifixion opened the door that we may all approach God without an intermediary. I (wrongly) assumed that Confession prevented Catholics from going directly to God.
What I’ve learned, from personal realization, is that God is most definitely present during reconciliation. There are few other times I’ve ever felt so directly connected to Him. In the physical sense, yes — I was confessing my sins to a Priest, but it was God receiving my confession, and it was God who absolved me of my sins. That’s important to understand, because Catholics do not believe that anyone other than God has the power to forgive sins.
I had no idea what was going to happen to me when I sat down with Father for my first confession. As it turned out, it was the most liberating moment of my life. I was able to lay out years of guilt and sin in a way I had never done before, and somewhere in that extended monologue, I began to realize that it wasn’t just the two of us behind the doors of the confessional. God was present as well. God was listening to me. And with each word I spoke, any burden I had carried in with me simply melted away as if it never existed. There was no judgment, no tongue-lashing, no lecture, and no anguish. Instead, there was love and compassion. When I walked out, I felt like a brand new person with a new lease on life. For the first time in my life I had no doubt that my sins were wiped clean — forgiven by God.
Now, does the Sacrament of Reconciliation mean we should go to confession for every single mistake? Of course not! If that were the case, we’d never leave the Church. Forgiveness for venial (minor) sins comes through prayer and worship and reception of the Holy Eucharist. Mortal sins, however, are a more grave matter and must be confessed in order to receive forgiveness and absolution. A mortal sin is when we knowingly and willingly do wrong (for example, breaking one of the Ten Commandments). Although we should always strive to avoid mortal sin, Jesus knew that should we fail we shouldn’t be sidelined by it, so he gave us this Sacrament to begin anew.
But let me repeat what I said earlier. We Catholics do not believe anyone other than God has the power to forgive sins. However, we do believe that Priests — who by virtue of Holy Orders — are the only ones who can administer the Sacrament.
Listen to this from the Gospel of John. It is one of the last endowments Christ bestowed on his apostles before ascending into heaven:
(Jesus) said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.
Pretty straight forward, wouldn’t you say?
Before that moment, Jesus himself was the only man who had the power to forgive sins. His apostles took that transfer of responsibility very seriously and, in turn, bequeathed it to all future generations of Priests under the original authority of Peter, our first Pope.
In imparting to his apostles his own power to forgive sins the Lord also gives them the authority to reconcile sinners with the Church. This ecclesial dimension of their task is expressed most notably in Christ’s solemn words to Simon Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”45 “The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of the apostles united to its head – The Catechism of the Catholic Church