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Why Confess Sins to a Priest?

13 Jun

ConfessionalI think that the best way to answer this question is by beginning with Baptism. Through the Sacrament of Baptism, a person is cleansed of original sin and receives the “grace of a new birth in God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Spirit” (St. Irenaeus, 2nd century bishop). Through this regeneration in water and the Spirit, a person becomes a Christian, born again as a son or daughter of God (Jn. 3:3-6; Rom. 8:14-17).

After becoming a child of God, one may freely damage or break off his relationship with God through sin. While venial sin damages our relationship with God, mortal sin actually severs the relationship through the loss of God’s supernatural life of grace within us (cf. 1 Jn. 5:16-17; Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1854-64).

When a person chooses to kill that life of grace through mortal sin, God, who is full of mercy, seeks to reconcile His prodigal son or daughter to Himself (cf. Lk. 15:11-32). God alone can forgive sins, yet He empowered the Apostles and their successors–bishops and priests–to carry out His ministry of reconciliation (cf. 2 Cor. 5:18-21). In fact, Christ instituted the Sacrament of Reconciliation as His first gift to the Church on Easter Sunday. As St. John writes:

[Jesus said,] “As the Father has sent Me [with all authority, Mt. 28:18], even so I send you.” And with this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn. 20:21-23; cf. Lk. 10:16; Mt. 16:19, 28:18-20).

The Church’s power to bind and loose (Mt. 16:19, 18:18) provides further scriptural evidence for this sacrament. As the Church has taught for 2,000 years, the priest exercises his ministry in persona Christi (that is, in the person of Christ). This means that in confessing one’s sins to a priest, one truly confesses one’s sins to Christ Himself and receives pardon from God. Because the priest acts in persona Christi, he is the spiritual head or “father” of the community (cf. 1 Cor. 4:14-15). Thus, Confession reconciles us with Christ and His Body, the Church, whom we have wounded by sin.

Sin is never a private matter, since it always disrupts the order of creation and the whole community (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1-6). Through Christ, the priest forgives the sinner in the name of the whole community, the Body of Christ. “Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God” (Catechism, no. 1445). In his New Testament Epistle, St. James exhorts us, “[C]onfess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (Jas. 5:16).

The Sacrament of Confession is one of healing. It makes us aware of our sinfulness and our dependence on God; therefore everyone is encouraged to receive the sacrament frequently in order to grow closer to Lord and to one another.

So sin is not a solitary matter, nor does any Christian have a “God-and-me-alone” relationship with the Father (1 Cor. 12:12-26). Confessing our sins within the Body of Christ allows us to reconcile with God and strengthen the Church, providing a witness so that all may turn and repent (2 Pet. 3:9).