But all [these] things [are] out of God, the [one] having reconciled us to himself through Christ and having given to us the service of reconciliation, that God was, in Christ, reconciling to himself [the] cosmos, not reckoning to them their blunders, and having placed in us the word of reconciliation. On behalf of Christ therefore, [we] are ambassadors,1 as with God summoning [others] through us; [we] beg [you] on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. On our behalf, [he] made the [one] not knowing error [to be] error, in order that we may become [on a particular occasion] [the] justice of God in him.– 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 (my translation)
“But we don’t need a mediator for confession!” you may say. “Requiring priests for the confession of sins was the old covenant (Leviticus 4), not the new!”
This is another one of those times where I’m going to talk about the ordinary and the extraordinary means of receiving something from God. Certainly, God can forgive any sins he wishes at any time, and indeed he does so–of that I am certain. But what is the proper means by which we obtain that forgiveness? Do we ask him directly, or do we confess to another?
When I was younger (and Protestant), I held pretty firmly to the “ask him directly” path. “Of course, only God can forgive sins!” said I. “Why even involve anyone else?” I was also given to understand that for the really big sins, I was supposed to take them before the church (meaning the local church, for reasons I was never clear on). But naturally, I had never committed any of those sins. (Remember, I was working under a faulty understanding of the magnitude of sins, not yet understanding the difference between venial and mortal sins.) And so I would sin, usually in private, and I would confess, always in private, and I would feel kinda sorta maybe a little better, but not really. The weight of my sins never quite left me, and the stain of my wickedness was never quite washed clean.
Which is not to say that my emotions are the proper judge of whether or not I was truly forgiven. Of course, I had to forgive myself, and I had to accept the mercy of God, whether I thought I deserved it or not. These are still true even now, when my confessions work quite differently. But my emotional state illuminated something that I didn’t really know before: when my confession is only between me and God, my reconciliation is only between me and God. Sin does not only separate us from God; it separates us from each other. It fractures the Church herself (2 Corinthians 2:5); it fractures our very souls. And as a Protestant, I had no means–at least no means I could see–that could restore a right relationship between me and other people. Could I go before the whole local church? I suppose so, but what could they offer that would restore me to the spiritual union of the Church?
Cue Catholicism, which has an ordinary means of acquiring reconciliation, not only between us and God, but also between us and the Church. It heals those fractures, and the balm of penance soothes our divisions. This ordinary means is called the sacrament of Confession, or Reconciliation, or Penance. (They’re all equally valid terms, often used interchangeably.) It’s called confession because that’s how we start it; we go to confess our sins. It’s called penance because that’s how we finish it; we pray or engage in charity or otherwise perform an act that restores what our first (sinful) act broke. And it’s called reconciliation because that’s what it provides to us when we are faithful and obedient in it.
Now, before you jump on my case, let me clarify something: God is absolutely capable of forgiving sins and restoring right relationship with his Church without involving anyone but you and him. Certainly he is capable of that, or else we wouldn’t have so many Psalms (like Psalm 32:5 or Psalm 51) and wisdom literature (like Proverbs 28:13; Sirach 4:26; 21:1) telling us how important confession is. We know that God has authority to forgive sins and his authority in this matter is absolute, or else the Jews would not have claimed blasphemy by Christ for his statements of the same (Matthew 9:2-3; Mark 2:5-7; Luke 5:20-21).
So why does the Catholic Church insist on this mediation through priests? Well, for one thing, Scripture makes it pretty clear we should confess to one another, and not just in silence (Proverbs 28:13 again; James 5:16; 1 John 1:9). But to whom should we confess? To everyone? Sometimes, yes (2 Corinthians 2:5-10). But to whom should we regularly confess? To those ordained by God and granted this authority by his Word (John 20:21-23), and those to whom they pass along that authority (recall the end of this post on the papacy, specifically the section on the succession of apostolic authority).
That’s what it means for “us” to have this ministry of reconciliation (see the quote at the top of the post): that the apostles (St. Paul included) had the authority to forgive sins, granted to them by God, which they granted to the bishops that came after them. Those bishops, in turn, granted it to the priests of the local parish. But recall again, from my post on mortal sin, that some sins are so heinous that they can only be forgiven by the Pope, and of course, Scripture is quite insistent that there is one sin that no one has the authority to forgive (Matthew 12:31; Mark 3:28-29; Luke 12:10).
Remember, priests are special in this forgiving business. They are the vicars of Christ (as I talked about in my post on the priesthood of believers), so the sacraments they perform are done in persona Christi, “in the person of Christ.” They are limited and finite and broken like the rest of us, but they have dedicated themselves to God, and so Christ works through them to forgive sins and work wonders on earth.
So what does this sacrament really look like? Confession and penance are fine terms, but how do they work?
Well, there is a standard form to confession. You greet the priest, request a blessing, tell them how long it has been since your last confession (this can help them select an appropriate penance, among other things), then identify your mortal sins by type and number (and your venial sins as accurately and completely as possible). The priest will provide instruction on what penance will restore your relationship with the Church, which you agree to accomplish, and then you say an “act of contrition,” a prayer that indicates your repentance and desire to follow Christ. If you miss those parts (i.e., if you don’t confess honestly, if you don’t do penance, and/or if you don’t repent), then any absolution given is not valid.
The opener is almost word-for-word what you see in movies and TV shows (“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned; it has been X days/weeks/months/years/forever since my last confession”). We’ve already talked about how to differentiate and identify your mortal and venial sins. And the act of contrition is just one of several prayers you can memorize that focus on your repentance and desire to repudiate sin and follow God’s commandments. (Of course, you can also communicate those points–(1) I’m sorry, and (2) I’ll try to do better–without memorizing a prayer, but the act of contrition makes it easier to remember.)
Which leaves the “penance” part. What is penance? It depends on the priest and on the sins you’re confessing. Some priests always give the same penance–“Say a prayer for the sick of the parish.” Your job, of course, is not to question your penance, demand a heavier (or lighter) penance, or to try to do the priest’s job for him; your job is to obey, do your penance, and restore your relationship with God and the Church. Other priests will work in your sins–“Say these three prayers for yourself to grow in humility and love for your family, and for the driver that cut you off in traffic.” Some will work in physical penance–“Say the ‘Our Father’2 and spend the next three nights sleeping on the floor without a pillow.” If your sins are criminal, your penance almost always includes turning yourself in to the civil authorities and making appropriate recompense.
Whatever it is, penance is always a sacrifice–of time, of pride, of money, but especially of self. In this way, it restores our relationship to God and to others, because it forces us to return things to their proper order: Jesus first, others second, yourself last (J-O-Y, for those who haven’t heard the backronym I first heard about twenty years ago, but which my local pastor mentions almost every week).
Self-sacrifice is crucial to the whole process: First, we “examine our conscience,” that is, we identify our sins. During this process, we ought to be careful not to think of our sins too lightly; we cannot ask forgiveness for something we intend to keep doing under the presumption that God will keep forgiving us (Sirach 5:4-6). Second, we humbly confess our sins and beg God’s forgiveness, showing this humility by going to another person and being open about our sins (even if it takes some prodding–2 Samuel 12:12-13). Third, we accept our penance, obey God’s will, and work to restore what we have destroyed. Fourth, we must acknowledge the great gift we have been given by holding nothing against our fellows, but forgiving as we are forgiven (Matthew 6:14-15; 18:23-35; Colossians 3:13).
And in case you’re wondering, that whole “priests aren’t allowed to break the seal of the confessional” thing is legit. Many priests talk about not even remembering what was said afterward. And if they do tell tales out of school, so to speak, they are committing one of the few sins that only the Pope has authority to forgive.
Next week, I’ll be diving into the sacrament of marriage. This has a lot of political entanglements attached to it, but I’m going to try to focus on what God and the Church say positively about this sacrament and its benefits. (In a month or three, when I get to ethical behaviors in the Church, I’ll address some of the challenges of a holy marriage in modern society.)
< The Sacraments: The Eucharist (Part Two)
The Sacraments: Marriage >
1 Literally, “Over Christ, therefore, [we] are elder,” but based on context, the “ambassador” translation is most appropriate. It is important to note, though, that this verb is closely tied to presbyter, a term frequently used for bishops.
2 You might know this prayer better as “the Lord’s Prayer.” Catholics name prayers after the first 2-3 words in them.