May 11, 2019

Sacramental confession and the certainty of forgiveness

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *
Confessional at the Basilica of Notre Dame in Montreal / Credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Confessional at the Basilica of Notre Dame in Montreal / Credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

A few years ago, Paul Croituru and his young son went out treasure hunting near their native village in Romania. To their surprise, they discovered ancient Greek currency dating back 2,350 years to the time of King Philip II. The 300 silver coins turned out to be counterfeit. The father and son now hold the distinction of having discovered the oldest counterfeit money known thus far.

Counterfeit money has been around as long as money has been around. In fact, some have named the production of counterfeit money “the world's second oldest profession.” During war time, nations often resort to counterfeit money to inflict harm on their enemies. During the Revolutionary War, Great Britain attempted to devalue the continental dollar by flooding the market with shovers (fake dollars). During World War II, the Nazis made prisoners in their camps forge British pounds and American dollars to destabilize their enemies’ economies and destroy them.

Satan constantly attempts to entice individuals into counterfeit religion where the forged currency is believing in God while denying sin. The devil would have everyone forget that sin is a reality. In this way, he can render ineffective in us the work of Christ who came to take away our sins. Failure. Weakness. Mistakes. Psychological pressures. Social customs. All these labels the devil uses to disguise sin. But, sin itself remains a fact.

Science always prides itself on beginning every research project with a fact. True religion, likewise, begins with the fact of sin in the world, original sin and personal sin. “The ancient masters of religion…began with the fact of sin. Whether or not man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders…have begun…to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved” (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy). And so can the personal sins of hatred, envy, lust, pride, gluttony and greed likewise be proven.

Even a casual glance at Sacred Scriptures shows that sin taints even God’s greatest heroes and heroines. Adam and Eve lead the procession of sinners. Drunken Noah, untruthful Abraham, adulterous David and Bathsheba, disloyal Peter, and murderous Paul follow. Sin really is not that original. It is the monotonous repetition of the tragedy of Eden: choosing self over God. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8).

In the Sacrament of Penance, the Church offers us the gift of a personal encounter with our merciful Lord who forgives our sins. However, many people, and sometimes even faithful Catholics, say that they do not need to go to a priest for confession to have their sins forgiven. Why confess to a priest who is a sinner himself? God will forgive sins without the ministry of priests. Certainly, God can forgive sins when we turn to him and repent. But, he has chosen to offer us his forgiveness through the ministry of the Church. And, for a reason.

Sin is not just between the individual and God. Every sin that we commit offends God and affects others. Every sin harms Christ’s Body, the Church. The act of confession before a priest recognizes the true nature of sin as an offense against God and others. And so, it is through the Church’s priests that God chooses not simply to forgive our sins but to reconcile us to the Church. (cf. Pope Francis, General Audience, November 20, 2013).

So important is confession that some of the holiest priests of the Church have spent hours in the confessional as missionaries of God’s mercy. St. Philip Neri, a busy parish priest in Rome, spent every morning hearing confessions before continuing his work with youth in the afternoon. So famous was St. Jean Vianney in hearing confessions that a new train station had to be built in his town of Ars so that people from all of France could go there to confess to this holy priest. Most recently, St. Padre Pio heard confessions for not less than 18 hours a day. There were always long lines awaiting him.  

During his public ministry, Jesus forgave sins (cf. Mk 2:5; Lk 7:48; Jn 8:1-11). And, then after the Resurrection, he entrusted this ministry of forgiveness to his priests. On Easter Sunday night, “Jesus said to them ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained’” (Jn 20:21-23). In confession, the priest, weak and sinful himself, acts in the name of Jesus and with his authority.  

In going to confession, we approach the priest, one by one, not as group, not as family. We humbly place before him all our own sins. To receive absolution and be forgiven, it is necessary not simply to confess all mortal sins, but also to have a firm purpose of amendment of sinning no more. As difficult as this might be at times, how great the grace! For, when the priest absolves us, we have, as Jesus promised, the certainty that our sins are forgiven. 

Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.