Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Why confess to a priest?
by Father Jan Larson
(From the April 8, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)
Many, if not most, pastors and theologians will testify that private confession (telling one’s sins to a priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation) is disappearing from Catholic life. The lines of people waiting to talk to the priest on Saturday afternoons have pretty much vanished. However, Catholics are still coming in good numbers for penance services, especially those celebrated in parishes before Christmas and Easter. At these services people pray, sing and acknowledge their sinfulness, and some will take the opportunity to speak to the priest privately toward the end of the liturgy. So people are willing to spend a good part of an hour praying and celebrating Reconciliation, but hesitate to go to a “private confession” that might take only a few minutes. People, I think, are simply choosing the way of celebrating Reconciliation that is the richer symbolically and liturgically, and that best suits their needs.
Why do Catholics confess sins to a priest?
The Sacrament of Reconciliation emerged in history very gradually. At first, forgiveness of sins was identified only with baptism. It was believed in the first centuries of the Church that people who sinned seriously after baptism were excommunicated from the Church, and in the third and fourth century there emerged a ritual for readmitting repentant sinners back into the Church’s life, after performing some public penance that might last a year or more. The bishop would then welcome these people back formally on Holy Thursday. It was not until the seventh century that there appeared the practice of confessing one’s sins to a priest, a practice begun by missionary monks who were spreading the faith in Ireland.
The reason why Catholics would confess to a priest is based upon the nature of sin. Serious sin is not just something between the sinner and God. Sin also breaks a social contract. Sin affects everyone around us. My sin not only alienates me from the community of the Church, but that alienation also hurts the people of the Church. Thus in my sinfulness I offer my apology not only to God, but to the community whose life I have weakened because of my weakness. The priest, by ordination, is the representative of the community. When I confess to the priest, I am apologizing through him to God and to the Church community. Then the priest, through the Church’s absolution, proclaims both God’s forgiveness and the community’s forgiveness. This is precisely why “reconciliation” is a more accurate name for this sacrament than “confession.”
Private confession can also be good from a psychological point of view. Our sins may be forgiven by speaking directly to God, or through baptism and Eucharist, or even by doing good works. But it is sometimes important to hear a human voice tell us that God loves us, and that God and the Christian community welcome us back with compassion, forgiveness and peace. Jesus himself often told people, “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven.” It is clear from the Scriptures that Jesus intended forgiveness to be a part of life in his community. The ritual shape that forgiveness has taken through history has varied according to the needs of the times and the insights of the community of Christ’s faithful.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)