Why Confess to a Priest Anyway?

Sara and Justin Kraft

Why Confess to a Priest Anyway?

Most of don’t like to admit when we are wrong. I know I don’t. But, asking for forgiveness is a fundamental element of any relationship. It is no different for our relationship with God. In fact, asking God’s forgiveness is so important that Catholics are required to go to Confession at least once per year (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1457). Today, we are going to explore this great sacrament and examine what makes it so important. 

Confession to a priest is one of the Catholic practices most commonly objected to both by non-Catholics and Catholics alike (albeit for different reasons). Many people have written excellent scriptural defenses of this practice and we won’t try to duplicate all of that work here. Rather, I prefer to examine what I believe to be the most personal objection for most Catholics and show how the sacrament of Confession speaks uniquely to our human needs. 

The First Objection: Where is that in the Bible?

Let’s briefly address this objection before we get to our main point. The sacrament of confession was instituted by Christ himself immediately following the resurrection. 

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. [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.” (John 20:19-23)

In this passage, Jesus confers on the apostles (His first Bishops and priests) the power to forgive sins. He imparts, by his very breath, His Spirit and sends them to fulfill His mission. Having been granted a new level of unity and authority, the apostles are now to substitute their judgment for his own and he will honor it. 

The practice of verbally confessing is also inherent in this passage. For how can the disciples forgive or retain that of which they have no knowledge? And how is one to come to this knowledge without hearing?

The Objection of the Heart

The real issue for most of us is that the sacrament of confession is difficult. Confession is an attack on our pride. It makes us come face to face with our shame. This process is uncomfortable. We don’t like doing it. 

Still, true healing only comes by going through it. This is because true union can only occur when we are accepted as we are. We can never be united when we hide and put on masks. The need to confess has been present since the first sin. 

When they heard the sound of the LORD God walking about in the garden at the breezy time of the day, the man and his wife hid themselves from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. The LORD God then called to the man and asked him: Where are you? He answered, “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid.” Then God asked: Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat? (Genesis 3: 8-11)

Why did God ask what they had done? He already knew. It was for Adam’s sake that God prompted the fallen man to confess to what he had done so that the veil that now existed could be broken down. 

Why Confess to a Priest?

You see it is very important that sin is verbalized and expressed. Only in articulating our sin do we provide our Beloved the opportunity to speak His acceptance of who we truly are. 

True acceptance is the deepest need of the human heart. Sin makes us question whether we are loveable. Whether we are worthy of acceptance. Jesus understood this and it is why He instituted the sacrament of Confession. 

In the sacrament, the priest acts in personae Christi - in the person of Christ - on behalf of Christ and His body the Church. In so doing, the priest loans his voice to Christ, who proclaims our acceptance and forgiveness. This proclamation is real and physical. We know it is not imaginary, for we can feel the sound waves reverberate in our ears. We have been heard, understood, and still accepted. 

This is why the sacrament’s alternative name “reconciliation” is such a beautiful description. The roots of the word are re or again, con or with, and cilia which is the Latin root referring to the eyelash. In other words, the sacrament of reconciliation brings us “eyelash to eyelash with God again.” I can think of no better description than this. 

Hearing the words of absolution and becoming eyelash to eyelash with God again makes our heart soar. I can always feel the difference between walking into the confessional and out. There is always a weight that has been lifted. Often, I feel like skipping or singing when I leave. 

Confession Does Not Always Have to be Hard

If you haven’t gone to confession in a while, it likely will be hard. However, confession does not always have to be hard. This is because at a natural level, the sacrament will build the virtue of humility. It is always more difficult to expose those things that we have hidden. Even though we despise them, they become like little buried treasures. Over time we seek to keep them hidden more and more. 

Regular confession prevents us from burying things so deep. This makes each confession easier than the last. Moreover, the priest will never divulge our sins. In fact, he is forbidden to do so under pain of excommunication. Finally, our sins are the same as everyone else’s. I once heard a priest say that he never remembers the confessions he hears because they are really all the same. Nothing you could do will ever surprise them. 

So, this Lent, I encourage you to take advantage of the healing offered by this great sacrament.