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From the BishopsBishop’s pastoral letter on confession

It is not easy to go to Confession. If it is not hard enough to admit to ourselves that we have sinned against God and neighbor, then we have to tell our sins to a Priest, say we are sorry, and humbly ask for forgiveness! It is little consolation that the telling is done in private and that the Priest confessor may not ever tell another what we confessed.

Why then do we confess our sins to a Priest? Why not just tell God and ask forgiveness from God directly? The answer to these questions is rooted in Jesus’ understanding of human nature and of sin.

Jesus understood human nature

Jesus knew, given our human nature, that to heal the wound of sin it is necessary to voice our faults to another and to hear another’s voice tell us we are forgiven. And so on Easter night Jesus appeared to the Apostles, "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’" (John 20:22-23; see also Matthew 16:19; 18:18). Jesus shared his own authority over sin and forgiveness with the Apostles (and with their successors, the Bishops, and with the Priests who collaborate in the ministry of the Church).

Jesus understood the nature of sin

Even the most secret sin offends God and all the members of the Church. We learn how Jesus and the members of the Church are related from St. Paul, who, while on his way to persecute Christians in Damascus, heard Jesus ask him: "Why do you persecute me?" (see Acts 9:1-5). When we sin we must apologize, ask forgiveness, and be reconciled, not only to God, but also to the members of the Church. The Priest hearing confessions represents the Church community, exercising the "ministry of reconciliation" written about by St. Paul (2 Corinthians 5:18).

In the voice of the Priest in the confessional we hear the voice of Jesus: forgiving us, healing us, and restoring us. The Priest acts in the name of Jesus when he says to the penitent: "I absolve you from your sins." Our human nature is such that we want to hear those words; we need to hear those words.

Through the voice of the Priest in the confessional we hear the voices of the other members of the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, accepting our apology, forgiving us, and restoring us to fellowship. So, instead of having to confess our sins standing in front of the congregation in church on a Sunday morning, we can confess to and be reconciled by the Priest Confessor.

Human benefits from Confession

There are humanly speaking numerous other benefits from confessing our sins to a Priest; it first of all responds to the need, after doing something bad, to unburden ourselves to someone (it is an added benefit when that "someone" will not, because he may not, tell anyone else). It is a relief to "fess up" to another, even if punishment follows. It is an even greater relief that our consciences are no longer burdened by sin. Who has not felt the lightness of heart that follows being absolved from sin in Confession?

Also, the penance imposed on us by the Priest in Confession responds to the human need to do something to make up for an offense we have committed. Consider the example of St. Peter. Three times Jesus asked Peter "Do you love me?" And three times Jesus told him to take care of his disciples, providing Peter with an opportunity to make up for the three times he denied knowing Jesus (see John 21:15-17). The penance imposed by the Priest is often not too challenging, like saying three Hail Marys. Whether the penance imposed is easy or hard, it serves as a reminder of the need to satisfy justice after we have sinned, and as an encouragement to do yet more penance for our sins than merely what the Priest imposed in Confession.

Spiritual benefits from Confession

Spiritually speaking, there are likewise numerous benefits. First of all, we are reconciled as friends of Jesus, like St. Peter after his denial of Christ. We are reconciled too as friends of the members of his Mystical Body, the Church.

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We receive in the Sacrament of Confession the gift of Sanctifying Grace, which is a share in the very life of God. We need the gift of Grace to be able to rise up out of our sins and try again, making progress in our imitation of Christ.

It is possible that the Priest in the confessional will give us a word of spiritual counsel and encouragement about changing the way we live so that we might not repeat the same sins, or at least not as seriously or frequently.

The examination of conscience we do in preparation for Confession deepens our humility, which is knowledge of the full truth about ourselves, our life’s direction, and our strengths and weaknesses. The more we examine our conscience, the exercise not only becomes easier, but we also grow all the more in humility. We also grow in humility by actually confessing our sins.

Lastly, but most importantly, we will certainly receive in Confession a reminder of the unconditional, unbounded love of God for each person, even those guilty of sin.

More in From the Bishops

St. Catherine of Siena expressed God’s love in a prayer she composed, reflecting on why God would create human beings, knowing beforehand that they will commit sin. She prayed:

"Even though you saw that we would offend you, your charity would not let you set your eyes on that sight. No, you took your eyes off the sin that was to be and fixed your gaze only on your creature’s beauty … Not that sin was hid from you, but you concentrated on the love [you had for creating mankind] because you are nothing but a fire of love, crazy over what you have made" (Prayer XIII).

This same love, which focuses on the loveliness of human beings, rather than on our sinfulness, is recalled and called upon in Holy Mass: in preparation to receive Holy Communion, the Priest Celebrant begs Jesus to "look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church."

There is a risk, in speaking so forcefully about God’s unconditional and unbounded love for us, that some people might abuse it, thinking to themselves: "Sin is no big deal; God still loves me." Yes, God still loves the sinner. Just as we cannot earn God’s love, so we cannot do anything to make God stop loving us, even by our sins. The message of God’s love should not lead us to be indifferent to sin; rather, it should inspire a hatred for sin and fuel our efforts to love our neighbor as the best way to respond in kind to God’s love.

St. John Mary Vianney, the Patron Saint of Priests, and a much-sought-out confessor, encouraged sinners to go to Confession by telling them that "the good Lord knows everything. Even before you confess, he already knows that you will sin again, yet he still forgives you. How great is the love of God: he even forces himself to forget the future, so that he can grant us his forgiveness!"

Conclusion

The confessional in the church and the Priest Confessor sitting there, waiting, serve as a reminder of the unbounded and unconditional love God has for each of us. It also reflects how well Jesus understood human nature and sin, providing assurance of forgiveness and reconciliation with God and the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church.

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The sight of the confessional in the church and the Priest Confessor sitting there, waiting, will hopefully lure us to Confession with the promise of relief from the burden of sin and guilt (we have only to experience this relief one time to be made to want it again) and of putting things right with God and others.

St. John Vianney sat in the confessional of the church in Ars, France, for hours each day, waiting for penitents. Many came. They came, maybe because the saintly Curé of Ars prayed so long and hard for their conversion. They came with hope, trusting that God’s mercy is greater than any sin. They came burdened by their sins, wanting relief, and needing to hear the words "I absolve you from your sins." They left as friends of Jesus and of his Mystical Body, the Church.

Yes, it is not easy to go to Confession, but the spiritual and human benefits from confessing our sins to a priest far outweigh the difficulties. Will we let the embarrassment that comes from pride keep us from enjoying these benefits? May we use the Sacrament of Confession, this great gift from Jesus, frequently, soon, now.

Printed with permission from the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas.

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