Last week I mentioned that there are actually benefits to braving the confessional.
Even the secular world recognizes how healing it can be to confess one’s sins to another person. One of the steps of every Twelve-Step program, no matter what type, is to make an inventory of all the wrongs (sins) one has done. The next step is to tell another human being what those wrongs were; the following step is to seek to somehow make amends for those wrongs.
Now those who came up with the Twelve Steps were Christians. They understood the importance of St. James’ instruction to “confess your sins to one another” and the role that doing so plays in our being forgiven and healed (see Jas 5:15-16).
There’s something about admitting our sins to another human being that requires more of us than acknowledging them to God. After all, He already knows about them; it’s not like He’s going to be surprised or that it will change His opinion of us. But another human being might. Thus making ourselves vulnerable in this way shows true repentance. It shows that we care more about what God thinks than what other people think.
It also has to do with living in truth. Isn’t that a major point of The Scarlet Letter? The minister rationalizes that he can help people more if he hides his guilt. But receiving the adulation of the community who believe him to be particularly holy means he’s living a double life. His failure to own up to his sin and share the punishment meted out to Hester, his “partner in crime,” eats away at him.
St. John points out how central living in truth is to following Christ: “Every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (Jn 3:20). Just as a doctor cannot heal us if we hide our ailments from him, neither can God cleanse and heal us if we deny and hide our sins. We need to come into the Light: “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, ... the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. ... If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 7-9).
Still, some might wonder why Catholics are supposed to confess to a priest; why not confess to someone of their own choosing? First of all, it’s not like you can’t confess to someone else. Usually, we should also admit our wrongs to those whom we have offended, and ask their forgiveness.
One chief reason we confess to a priest is that God is invisible and His voice usually doesn’t sound in our ears. It is helpful to us to go to someone who represents Him (the priest is called an alter Christus—another Christ), someone whom we can see and hear, someone who, after listening to our sins and our repentance, audibly gives us that glorious message that our sins our forgiven!
Another big reason is that whenever we sin, we do not merely offend God, we do not only hurt ourselves, we also hurt the Body of Christ. The Church is that Body, and when we sin we hurt all her members. So the priest is there also as a representative of the members, to whom we also owe an apology and the making of amends.
Priests are also trained to give spiritual counsel, and often have very good and helpful advice. Christ promised to send his Spirit upon them and work through them. Even when I don't agree with a priest's personal perspective, I always find some beneficial kernel of truth in every confession.
The main reason Catholics confess to a priest is obedience. The sacrament originates from Jesus’ giving the apostles the authority to forgive sins: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20:23).
Jesus also gave His apostles the authority to make some of the rules (just as He had with Moses): “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19, 18:18). So if the Church says that for the forgiveness of mortal sin, the ordinary means of receiving God’s forgiveness is through the confessional, then we should obey. Considering that in the early centuries, Christians had to confess their sins publicly, we’ve got it relatively easy now.
The point is that if one is really sorry for one’s sins, for having turned one’s back on God, then one should be willing to do whatever He might want. If God wanted us to apologize by composing an original sonnet and reciting it in the mall during lunch hour, who are we to argue?
Though the Church requires confession only for mortal (serious) sins, she still highly recommends availing oneself of its graces for venial sins as well. Many saints and spiritual writers advise frequent confession, because it’s so helpful and such a wonderful means of growing spiritually. Some saints valued it so highly that even when they had nothing to confess, they would go, repenting again for past sins—not from a fear that they hadn't already been forgiven, but out of love, sorrow, and a desire for the graces flowing from the sacrament.
While it’s very difficult to confess one’s sins, it is so worth it. We tend to think of it as something unpleasant or to be avoided. But just like eating vegetables or getting exercise, so with the sacrament of confession: the more you do it, the easier it gets and the more benefits you enjoy. And just as those other good things that require self-discipline lead to being healthy and feeling good, partaking in Reconciliation leads to great joy.