This weekend you made your first confession. Your dad and I couldn’t be more happy for you. As I watched you and your friends kneel and pray in the front of the church I realized how grateful I am that we’re raising you in the Catholic faith and you’ll grow up experiencing the grace of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
This was not the case for your dad and me. We didn’t experience this sacrament until after you were born. And oh, the hurdles we had to overcome before our hearts and minds were even open to the idea of confessing our sins to God in the presence of a priest.
You see Claire, we were like most Protestants who believed going to confession was unnecessary because we could go directly to God to confess our sins and receive forgiveness. We didn’t understand why Catholics practiced this “man made” tradition and we certainly didn’t believe another human being had the right to absolve someone of their sins. In our eyes confession wasn’t Biblical and I even told a few of my Catholic friends so. No one ever corrected me by sharing the Biblical basis for confession.
This is why I am writing Claire. There may come a day in your life when you question whether or not going to confession is an important or necessary part of your faith journey. I can almost guarantee you that someday a well-meaning non-Catholic will try to tell you that you don’t need to confess your sins to a priest and they may even try to convince you it’s not Biblical. I want to make sure that when that day comes you know the Biblical reasons for this beautiful sacrament because if you’re not careful, what you don’t know could lead you away from this gift of grace.
One of the most common arguments against confessing your sins to a priest is that we can go directly to God to confess our sins. This is true Claire, we can go directly to God and we should on a daily basis. However, the Bible makes it clear there are times when we should confess our sins to another person. James 5:16 tells us, Therefore confess your sins to each other so that you may be healed.
This begs the question, to whom do we confess our sins? Should you go to your friends, your parents, a deacon, a youth pastor? Is it enough when you’re 16 to simply confess your sins to a friend in youth group, afterall, they are an “other”? Do I confess my sins to a group publicly or privately? These are important questions because if it doesn’t matter who then I could go to just about anyone and then I’d have to ask what exactly is the point?
Of course we can confess our struggles and sins to one another and pray for one another. This can be a good thing but the Bible makes it clear that when we commit a sin that leads to death that our prayers for one another are not the answer.
I John 5:16-17 — If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.
Claire, this is the difference between venial sin (disobedience to God involving light moral matter that does not lead to death) and mortal sin (the deliberate, conscious, free transgression of a moral law in a serious matter that leads to death/separation from the life of God — i.e. adultery, armed robbery, murder, lying under oath).
This difference between what the Church calls venial and mortal sins is something I never learned when I was growing up. I was taught all sin is equal in the eyes of God. But clearly the Bible does not teach this. Instead it says that all wrongdoing is sin but some sins lead to a spiritual death and some do not. So, if someone ever tries to tell you that there’s no spiritual difference between some sins you may want to point out that the Bible says something very different.
Because we know God’s grace is huge and no sin is too big for forgiveness we have to conclude that these mortal require something more than the prayers of our brothers and sisters. While the passage in First John does not tell us what they require, the Church has taught throughout the ages that these mortal sins should be confessed to a priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. [And not just these sins but venial sins that keep us from loving God and others or lesser sins that have become habits in our lives.]
It’s likely that if someone is challenging your Catholic faith they’ll ask if that means we believe God can’t forgive those sins if that person comes to Him with a repentant heart? By no means Claire, God is bound to the promise of His grace in His Sacraments but He’s not bound by His Sacraments. God is bound by no one. The reason we confess mortal sin in confession with a priest is because these sins are serious, intentional choices against the life and love of God. They are sins that lead to spiritual death. We need that life in us restored (which happens with a contrite heart and through the power of the Holy Spirit and authority bestowed on the priest by Jesus — John 20:19-223 ). And, if we are making conscious choices and committing such serious sins it’s safe to say we also need the spiritual direction and guidance of one who’ll counsel us and lead us in the way of holiness.
Now it’s important to note that even if our sin is not mortal we benefit from confessing our sins and selfish ways and receiving the grace and forgiveness of this sacrament so that we can overcome our flesh. Not to mention the fact that confession is humbling and keeps your pride in check.
Someday you may ask why confess to a priest? Why not any man or woman who calls themself a pastor? What’s so special about priests? Or, someone may challenge you like I challenged my Catholic friends by saying, Priests don’t have any special authority to forgive sins, they’re just men, they aren’t God.
As Catholics we can answer these questions by looking to the Bible.
Why do we confess our sins to a priest, Claire?
The answer: Because they’ve been given the authority to forgive sins.
On the evening of that first day of the week when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
There are many important things to learn from this passage:
1) Jesus sends his disciples out on the same mission that the Father gave him. What was his mission? Reconciling the world to God through the forgiveness of sins. So Jesus gives the ministry of reconciliation to his disciples. Who in the Catholic Church has the role of administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation? Priests.
2) Jesus gives the disciples the power of the Holy Spirit and the authority to forgive sins. He breathes His life upon them in the Holy Spirit. The same life that is imparted to the repentant man or woman who confesses their mortal sin in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Notice that Jesus isn’t telling them that if they have a personal beef with someone and they don’t forgive this person for offending them then this person is not forgiven. That would be un-Biblical and wouldn’t make sense in the context of this passage. In this passage Jesus is giving his disciples His authority to absolve someone of their sins.
As Catholics we believe the authority given to the disciples is passed on to priests through apostolic succession. Just as the Father sent Jesus and Jesus sent the disciples so too, the disciples sent others with the authority and ministry of reconciliation. The key here is being sent with authority.
This issue of authority is an important part of our Catholic faith Claire. A man doesn’t just wake up one day and decide to open a parish in a Catholic diocese. He doesn’t decide he’s going to be a priest and then all the sudden he has authority to forgive sins and celebrate Mass etc. He must be sent out by the Bishop just like in Biblical times when there was a laying on of hands and a sending forth with authority. In some cases there were men claiming to be of the church but they were not teaching sound doctrine and the people were warned against listening to those who’d not been sent with authority.
St. Paul talks about being given this ministry of reconcilation as well: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-18, 20)
3) The forgiveness of sins administered through the disciples must have been very important and necessary because it was one of the first things Jesus did when He appeared to the disciples as a group after His resurrection.
Of course some like to argue that we don’t need to go through another human or “mediator.” Some non-Catholics will quote from the book of Hebrews to support this claim. But just remind them Claire that anytime they pray for someone else they are “mediating” between that person’s need and Jesus. And besides, Jesus clearly gave the disciples his authority to forgive and retain sins which means He is telling them to act as a go-between on His behalf. Kind of hard to argue with Jesus on that point.
It might also help if you remind them that as Catholics we see the priest as Christ’s representative. We know the authority and forgiveness first and foremost comes from the Father through Christ.
Our Heavenly Father knows our human needs. He gave us the gift of hearing these words of forgiveness from a priest. As Fr. Malley is quick to remind us, God made us a “sensing” people and He expresses His grace to us through our senses and not just through a mystical, abstract and hidden faith. You will quickly learn what a gift it is to hear the words “I forgive you in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit” from one who has been given the authority to forgive from Christ. There is a peace that comes with this that can’t be explained. That’s probably why Jesus says “Peace be with you” two times to His disciples in that passage in John. Forgiveness and reconciliation brings peace to the heart.
Claire, it’s my heart’s desire that you grow up knowing what you believe as a Catholic and why. And as someone who grew up thinking that much of Catholicism was un-Biblical it’s especially important to me that you know the Biblical basis for our Catholic beliefs.
So now, should you ever run into a well-meaning non-Catholic who attempts to tell you that confessing your sins to a priest is un-Biblical and unnecessary, you can explain that it’s not only Biblical but it’s an incredible gift and blessing from God. Of course they may not like or agree with the Catholic interpretation of Scripture. But that’s ok, you can just ask them why their interpretation of Scripture is right and the Catholic one is wrong. Which is a good question for them to consider.
In the meantime, I pray you never take for granted this gift of grace God has given you. Avail yourelf of His mercy and love in this sacrament so that you can grow to be more loving like Jesus and live in peace.