Hey, Father! Why can’t we confess our sins straight to God?
According to section 1447 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Church did not establish the private practice of penance until the 7th century. Given that this practice was adapted from Irish missionaries inspired by Eastern monastic tradition, couldn’t and shouldn’t the Church consider adopting a private confession (between God and man) and incorporate that into a group service as is commonly done around Easter and Christmas instead of confessing to God through a priest? In my opinion, more Catholics would receive this sacrament more often.
– Pat in Granite City
What you propose has never been part of the Church’s tradition or her understanding of the power of the Sacrament of Penance, which is also sometimes called Confession or Reconciliation. Jesus established this Sacrament of forgiveness when he said to the Apostles, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23). Nowhere in the Gospels does Christ Jesus tell us it is enough to confess our sins directly to God; neither is such a notion found in the other writings of the New Testament. It simply is not a Biblical idea.
Rather, Jesus entrusted his authority to forgive sins to his Church, to his Apostles, who in turn entrusted this authority to their successors, the bishops, and also to the priests of the Church who act in the person of Christ. If these ministers of the Church are to determine which sins to forgive, they must know what the sins are. This is why the Sacrament of Penance requires the confession of sins to a priest. This Biblical foundation of the Sacrament cannot be forgotten, nor can it be diminished.
It is true that the Church only began to implement an individual confession of sins to a priest around the 7th century, what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the “private” confession of sins. This happened late in the history of the Church because it took some time for the Church to come to a deeper understanding of the power of the Sacrament entrusted to her. Prior to this time, the Church understood that the only sins that could be forgiven through this Sacrament after Baptism were those of adultery, apostasy, and murder, and that these could only be forgiven once. When these sins were confessed, they confessed publicly before the gathered assembly of the faithful after which the bishop or priest absolved the penitent and imposed a heavy penance that could take years to fulfill. The Irish monks helped the Church arrive at a deeper understanding of the mercy of God active through this Sacrament.
It would be impossible for the Church to do away with the ministry of priests and bishops in the Sacrament of Penance because they are part of the will of the Lord for his Church, and the Church cannot contradict the intentions of her Founder. That the Holy Spirit was given by the Lord Jesus to the Apostles for the forgiveness of sins is recalled in the first half of the formula of absolution: “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.”
It is my hope and prayer that more people avail themselves of the grace of confession if they understood it to be part of the ongoing mission of Jesus in His Church. If you or someone you know is afraid to go to confession, it is important to remember that when one enters the confessional, the priest will walk and help you through it. So as scripture reminds us, do not be afraid, because what lies on the other side after confession is forgiveness of our sins, a clean slate, and your relationship with God restored.
Fr. Daren Zehnle is pastor at St. Augustine in Ashland and is the director for the Office of Divine Worship and the Catechumenate for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.