By Joseph Tuttle, Benedictine College
Many people assert that one does not need to confess their sins to a priest in order to receive forgiveness. This belief that one does not need to confess their sins to a priest only holds true if the person has not committed a mortal sin. “Yet every sacrament confers grace to empower us to grow in holiness and love for God and one another” (Zia 41). Therefore, confessing even venial sins can help us to attain true freedom from sin. St. John Paul II said “…Above all it should be emphasized that the grace proper to the sacramental celebration has a great remedial power and helps to remove the very roots of sin” (Zia 41). “Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit” (CCC 1458).
It should always be remembered that in the sacrament of confession, God is the one who forgives sins. “He chooses to do it through his priests” (Zia 42). Fulton Sheen gives us a few reasons why we should go to confession, and confess our sins to a priest. First Sheen says that “the priest is a mediator of divine grace” (Zia 42). The priest in the confessional acts “in persona Christi,” which translates to “in the person of Christ.” This means that Christ is acting through the priest to forgive sins. The second reason Sheen gives us is that we must express perfect sorrow for our sins. This is known as contrition. The penitent must be truly sorry for their sins. “Among the penitent’s acts contrition occupies first place. Contrition is sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again” (CCC 1451). A third reason is that when we confess our sins to a priest, it helps us to grow in the virtue of humility: “Because sin is pride, it demands humiliation, and there is no greater humiliation than unburdening one’s soul to a fellow man” (Zia 44). Satan fell by the sin of pride, how much more susceptible are we to it? Therefore let us ask God to grant us the humility to make a good confession. A fourth reason for confessing our sins to a priest is that when we sin, we offend not only God, but also our neighbor. Therefore we must ask forgiveness from both. “Since the priest represents the vertical dimension of God’s mercy and the horizontal dimension of humanity, he is capable of speaking for both” (Zia 45). The Catechism of the Catholic Church says “Sin damages or even breaks fraternal communion. The sacrament of Penance repairs or restores it. In this sense it does not simply heal the one restored to ecclesial communion, but has also a revitalizing effect on the life of the Church which suffered from the sin of one of her members” (CCC 1469). The fifth reason that Sheen gives us is that when we confess our sins to a priest, it greatly improves our psychological health. Fulton Sheen wrote “Our Divine Lord said that repression of sins was dangerous; if we covered them up, they would cause an irritation with eternal consequences. So He asked His Apostles to go around the world preventing repression by hearing confessions and forgiving sins” (Zia 45). The final reason Fulton Sheen gives us is that Christ himself commanded his apostles to forgive sins. Jesus Christ instituted the sacrament of confession after his Resurrection, when speaking to the Apostles: “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he said 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’ ” (RSV John 20:21-23).
People may not wish to go to confession because they see many obstacles in their way. One of these obstacles can be that the priest may not seem holy, why then would you confess yours sins to a sinner? It does not matter whether an ordained priest is in a state of grace or not, through his priestly office, which is where he receives the power to forgive sins, he is still able to forgive sins. “Since Christ entrusted to his apostles the ministry of reconciliation, bishops who are their successors, and priests, the bishops’ collaborators, continue to exercise this ministry. Indeed bishops and priests, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, have the power to forgive all sins ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’” (CCC 1461). A second obstacle some may encounter is that they are ashamed of confessing something they have done, particularly sins of sexuality. “Yet such matters are often pernicious to our spiritual and emotional well-being. It is only in confessing them that healing can begin” (Zia 48). A third reason may be that a person is too busy when there are confession times. Fulton Sheen says, “the time one has for anything depends on how much he values it” (Zia 49). How much do we value our spiritual life? How much do we value our relationship with God? The penitent must constantly ask themselves these questions, to determine whether or not they authentically live out their faith.
One should “Be not afraid!” as Pope St. John Paul II would say to go to confession to a priest. Even if the priest is not a saint, they still are a priest, and by virtue of their priesthood, they have been given the power to act in persona Christi, to forgive sins, by Jesus Christ Himself.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000
Zia, Mark J., The Enduring Faith and Timeless Truths of Fulton Sheen. Cincinnati, Ohio: Servant Books, 2015.
Edited By: Ariel Hobbs