On the supernatural level, we confess our sins to a priest because Jesus gave to His Apostles the authority to forgive sins (Matthew 18:18; John 20:21-23). The apostle passed this authority on to their successors, the Bishops, who in turn extend this authority to the Priests. A priest cannot forgive something of which he is unaware, so the sin must be spoken to the priest. The normal human mode of communication is to speak and to hear, so the ordinary means of forgiveness is through confession of our sins and hearing the words of absolution.
We must remember that as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, when we sin we offend not only the person against whom we sinned, but also Our Lord and His Church (the Mystical Body). For this reason, we need to be reconciled with the person against whom we sinned, with God and with the Church. Hence, this reconciliation comes through the ministry of the priest.
On the natural level, we have an absolute psychological need to tell someone else what we have done. We also have a need to hear that we are still acceptable and accepted. Our Lord knew this and provided the means for this to occur. What a joy it is for us to know that when we leave the confessional our sins are gone, we are restored to the state of Grace and our relationship with God is reconciled. Lying on one’s bed and talking to God brings the hope that our sins are forgiven, but not the knowledge that they are in fact gone. This assurance happens only in the confessional.
Recall also that the priest can say nothing to anyone about what you confess. This is called the “seal of the confessional.” Some priests have been put to death because they would not expose the sins of a penitent. Even in a court of law the priest may not speak of what he knows from the confessional. So, you cannot only receive the graces and assurances that come from the Sacrament, but also the guarantee that your sins will not be heard of again–from either the priest or God.
In order to understand fully the importance and beauty of the Sacrament of Penance (confession), it is necessary to understand what is meant by forgiveness of sins. When God forgives our sins, He removes them from our souls and destroys the sins. This means that the sin no longer exists. After we have received absolution in this Sacrament, God looks down upon us and sees a soul without sin. When you walk out of the confessional, your sins are gone. This also means that on the day of judgment God will not bring up any sins we have confessed and for which we received sacramental absolution. With this in mind, we should be eager to stay very close to the confessional and make the confession of our sins a regular part of the spiritual life.
A distinction must be made between sins and the effects of sin. In this Sacrament the sins are forgiven, but the effects remain. The effects are the weaknesses that result from our sins, i.e., memories, inclinations toward the sin, attachments to some perceived good connected with the sin, etc. In order to overcome the effects of the sin we must pray and practice self-denial.
Three Forms of the Sacrament of Penance:
1) “Individual, integral confession and absolution remain the only ordinary way for the faithful to reconcile themselves with God and with the Church, unless physical or moral impossibility excuses from this kind of confession.”
2) “The Sacrament of Penance can also take place in the framework of a communal celebration in which we prepare ourselves together for confession and give thanks together for the forgiveness received. Here, the personal confession of sins and individual absolution are inserted into a liturgy…”
3) “In the case of grave necessity recourse may be had to a communal celebration of reconciliation and general absolution. Grave necessity of this sort can arise when there is imminent danger of death without sufficient time for the priest or priests to hear each penitent’s confession. Grave necessity can also exist when, given the number of penitents, there are not enough confessors to hear individual confessions properly in a reasonable time, so that the penitents, through no fault of their own, would be deprived of sacramental grace or Holy Communion for a long time. In this case, for the absolution to be valid the faithful must have the intention of individually confessing their sins in the time required.” (This means that if a person lives through the emergency, an individual confession of all mortal sins must be made as soon as is reasonably possible).
May God bless you and protect you always.
Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 1482, 1483 and 1484.
Text by Father Robert Altier