With Lent just starting, I thought it would be a good idea to prepare for this season of penance by talking about the Sacrament of Penance (aka confession). Catholics are required to go at least once a year, or whenever you are aware of having committed a mortal sin. Lent is an especially good time to go as we prepare for the climax of salvation history by spending forty days in prayer and penance as Jesus spent forty days in the desert.
So, without further ado…
Why do I have to go to Confession?
Because we’re human. That’s why.
Thanks to Adam and Eve, we have a tendency to choose ourselves over God- we have a tendency to sin. Sinning, especially mortal sin, separates us from God by destroying our ability to receive His graces. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. Mortal sin also separates us from the Church because we are no longer able to receive the Sacraments of the living -such as the Eucharist- when we are in this state. (For a full explanation of sin causing separation from the Church, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church)
The Sacrament of Penance (a Sacrament of the dead, in reference to the state of our soul) reunites us with both God and the Church. We are once more open to the grace of God and we can fully participate in the Sacraments. It is through this sacrament that we obtain forgiveness from God and the grace to not commit that sin again.
Okay, but why do I have to go to a priest? Can’t I confess to God?
There are several aspects to this question. First, let me clarify something using an example. My best friend has a brother. My brother is her brother’s friend. Our brothers do not have phones. We do. So when my brother wants to ask her brother something, my brother asks me who asks her who asks her brother. (Try saying that five times fast.) Or, in another example, think of Jesus Himself. There’s a gap between humans and God. Therefore, the only person who can mediate for us is someone who is fully human and fully God, because such a person can speak on behalf of both parties. That’s where Jesus comes in.
Now the priest, being consecrated to administer the sacraments instituted by Jesus, stands as a representative of Christ. He carries out the tasks which Jesus is no longer physically present to do Himself. For example, during the consecration of bread and wine into the Body and Blood, the priest literally stands in persona Christi. That means that it is not the priest who says the words, but Jesus who says the words through mouth of the priest, who is the mediator.
Just as with my friend and me being the mediators between our brothers or Jesus being the mediator between God and man, the priest is the mediator between us and God because he represents the same position as Christ. So basically, all this was to say that we don’t confess to the priest. We confess to God, and the priest mediates. He speaks on behalf of both parties and acts as the physical representative of the ultimate Mediator, who is Christ Himself.
So this is all well and good. Hopefully you see that it’s inaccurate to say that we confess to the priest. But the other aspect of the question remains to be answered: why can’t we go straight to God? Why do we need a mediator?
Well, first of all we need a mediator for the same reason that we need Christ. We are unworthy to go straight to God, especially since a need for confession necessarily implies that we’re not in a state of grace. Secondly, by offending God we also offend His Church. It naturally follows, then, that we should admit our sins to the Church, which is represented by the priest, and be reconciled through a Sacrament of the same Church.
But one of the most important reasons why we can’t just go straight to God is because we aren’t made responsible for our sins if we just think about them under our pillow. Saying them aloud in the presence of a witness (who, by the way, can never repeat anything said in the confessional unless he wants to be excommunicated) makes us fully aware of our errors and forces us to assume responsibility for them. Confronting your own sinfulness and need of assistance is necessary for forgiveness to be obtained. After all, how can you be forgiven if you can’t outright admit that you need forgiveness? God isn’t going to force it on you if you don’t ask for it. Besides this need to assume responsibility for our actions, having a mediator is also necessary because he will give a penance on God’s behalf. This penance is necessary for the complete forgiveness of the sin. It’s easy enough to say that you’re sorry, but it doesn’t mean anything unless you live it.
So I need a mediator. But it’s so dang scary!!
Well of course it is, and not just because you have to admit that you were actually wrong. It’s not, I would argue, even because you’re afraid the priest will remember. I’ve been told before that they don’t (and I’m inclined to believe it’s true because I regularly hang out with priests I’ve confessed to and they don’t ever look at me like “Oh yeah she’s the one who did that…”). It’s scary because, whether you’re aware of it or not, it’s a conversion. It’s not a conversion like converting to Catholicism. It’s a conversion of the soul from a state of sin to a state of grace. In this conversion, you realize that you were wrong. Really wrong. You realize that you have separated yourself from God and you need Him back. You resolve to amend your actions so that the separation doesn’t happen again. And then, with the words of absolution, your soul is literally resurrected. If that’s not a conversion, I don’t know what is.
When you think about it this way, you can see that, yes, some of the fear comes from our unwillingness to humble ourselves. But it also comes from the fear of a radical change. Don’t let that fear deter you. The priest is there to help (hence the role of a mediator)- he’s not going to bite. And God is there to be reconciled with you- He asks for a change because it’s a change for the better.
Edited by Nick John