Bless Me Father, for I Have Sinned
“Bless Me Father, for I Have Sinned” - Why We Confess Our Sins to a Priest
Many outside the Church ask Catholics why we confess our sins to priests. Many inside the Church don't actually understand exactly why we do. Let's clear the air a bit and talk about where this practice originated, why it is important, and why anyone seeking Salvation should do it.
St. John tells us in the Gospel that the Lord commissioned His Apostles to preach the Gospel and to forgive sins in His name:
“Jesus came and stood among them and said to them 'Peace be with you.' When he had said this he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 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.” Gospel of St. John 20: 19-23 (See also the Gospel of St. Matthew 18:18)
St. James tells us that it was and is part of the ministry of the Church to forgive sins and to anoint the sick among us:
“Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is any among you sick? Let him call for the presbyters of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Letter of St. James 5: 13-16
Sacred Scripture establishes a foundation that the forgiveness of sins is part of the continuing ministry of the Church. Christ established the apostolic ministry to carry on His salvific work, in His name and with the power of the Holy Spirit, until He comes again at the close of the Age. The work of the Church, to preach the Gospel and the forgiveness of sins, continues the work of Christ.
The Old Testament is full of many stories of the ritualized acts of confession, penance and reconciliation among the ancient Hebrew people – our ancestors in faith. It is through this background, so familiar to the earliest Christians, that the Lord speaks to His disciples on the subject. As Scott Hahn so aptly says in his book Lord, Have Mercy, “Jesus didn't merely conclude the Old Covenant. He fulfilled it. He invested the trappings of the Old Covenant with greater capacities. In a mysterious way, the Old Covenant is concluded by – and included in – the New Covenant.” When we understand confession and forgiveness in this light, we begin to understand that Christ has established a new ritual of Confession through His Apostles and then on through the ministry of their successors, the bishops and priests. Christ established this ritual as THE Ritual for the Church to continue His ministry in forgiving the sins of man.
Wisdom from the Saints and the Church
St. Jerome, 4th century Doctor of the Church and the man who first translated the Scriptures from the Hebrew and Greek, said this about confessing one's sins to a priest “If the sick person is too ashamed to show his wound to the doctor, the medicine cannot heal what it doesn't know.” Wise words. We may think of Christ's healing words of forgiveness as recorded in Scripture, but we can only hear them from a priest in the sacrament of Confession - “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
There is another wisdom behind confessing our sins in the manner established by Christ and His Church. By confessing our sins to a priest, we benefit spiritually from his experience repeatedly administering the sacrament - he can offer us help to avoid sin in the future and to develop our Christian conscience in an ever more effective manner.
Reconciling the World
Christianity is not a speculative faith. It establishes the Truth which is Christ, He who said “I am the Way, Truth and Life.” The fullness of revelation dwells in the Church which Christ has established on earth, the Church against which all the forces of Hell will not prevail. We confess Jesus as Lord and Savior and we live our lives in obedience to His teachings and as He established them in His Church on earth.
From the earliest age, until this very day, the Church has continued to carry on the “ministry of reconciliation” which is Christ's ministry and which brings healing and forgiveness to a broken and suffering world. Christ commissioned the ministers of the Church to carry on in His name, with the power of the Holy Spirit. To this day, and on every day, the priest in this world, acting on behalf of Christ, forgives the sins of man and sets him once again on the road to Salvation.
Pardon and Peace by Fr. Francis Randolph
The Church Teaches
The Catechism tells us “Only God forgives sins. Since he is the Son of God, Jesus says of himself, 'The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins' and exercises this divine power: 'Your sins are forgiven.' Further, by virtue of his divine authority he gives this power to men to exercise in his name.” CCC 1441.
Saint Frances de Sales wrote of the sacrament of Confession, “In confession you not only receive absolution from the . . . sins you confess, but also great strength to avoid them in the future, light to see them clearly, and abundant grace to repair whatever damage you have incurred. You will also practice the virtues of humility, obedience, simplicity, and charity. In the single act of confession you will exercise more virtues than in any other act whatsoever.”
We confess our sins to a priest because it is the practice set forth in both Tradition and in Scripture. Christ Himself established it and sent forth His successors to carry His command into the world.
Go In Peace by Fr. Mitch Pacwa