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Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Sacrament of Confession

The Sacrament of Confession

When I was in college a baseball teammate of mine tried pretty hard to convert me to his ‘Bible Church.’  Unfortunately I wasn’t the Catholic I should have been at the time, but somewhere along the line I had learned that the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ founded.  Frustrated, my teammate gave up on me for a while, until one day after practice, when he asked me if I still attended “that Catholic Church.”  I told him that I did and his response I thought was a little odd: “But where is Confession in the Bible?”  I pointed him to John 20:21-23.  He was totally unfamiliar with the passage, but that was the last exchange we ever had about religion.

It is interesting that as Catholics, when our Faith is challenged by Protestants, almost invariably one of the first things they will bring up is Confession.  They seem to think it is a medieval invention by priests intended to maintain control and to humiliate the Faithful, as well as make themselves necessary mediators, usurping the unique mediation of Christ, the ‘one mediator between God and man.’ (1 Tim. 2:5)

This being the case, we should have a solid response so that when we are challenged we will be able to share the Truth with our brethren, and so that we will not be led astray.  As always, I must first confess that I am not qualified to give a completely comprehensive defense, and would recommend seeking other resources as well.  Catholic Answers has quite a few.

This week I would like to focus on this incredible Sacrament.  I intend first to show that it is Scriptural, and then to demonstrate that it is one of the most amazing gifts of love our Savior has given us.  Finally, in ‘The Fathers Speak,’ at the end of the week, I will give ample evidence that this Sacrament dates to the early Church and not simply to the Middle Ages.

I will begin with the Scripture passage that I gave my friend those many years ago - John 20: 21-23: “[Jesus] said to them again, ‘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.”

This is a very clear text showing Jesus giving the Apostles the power to forgive sin, but a deeper examination may help our challengers see even more clearly what is going on.

Jesus begins by saying, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’  In other places in Scripture He tells the Apostles that whoever hears them hears Him, and whoever rejects them rejects Him.  He gives them the power to bind and loose (Mt. 18:18).  Clearly Jesus, in many places in the Gospels, shares His authority with His Apostles.  And when Jesus healed of the paralytic He made it perfectly clear that He had the authority to forgive sins (Mt. 9:2), not just as one man forgives another, but as God.

By immediately telling the Apostles in verse 23 that whose sins they forgive are forgiven and whose sins they retain are retained, it is clear that his ‘sending them as the Father sent Him’ includes the forgiving of sins, in His Name.  That is why He breathed on them and gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Only with a power that comes from God can they forgive sins in His Name, so that they are truly forgiven.

St. Paul recognizes this in his second letter to the Corinthians.  He tells the people that God has reconciled the world to Himself through Christ, and given the Church ‘the ministry of reconciliation’ (2 Cor. 5:18).  He says it includes a message of reconciliation and also implores the Corinthian Christians, who have already been baptized and accepted Jesus as Lord, to ‘be reconciled to God’ (verse 20).

In James 5:13-15, the Apostle gives us a beautiful description of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.  He clearly indicates that this Sacrament is to be performed by the priests and includes the forgiveness of sins.  Though it is not Confession, it shows that the priests have the power to forgive sin.  Immediately after, he tells people to confess their sins to one another.  It does not specifically tell them to confess to a priest but reading verses 13-16 together it makes a lot of sense in light of the Sacraments of the Church.

Why, then, did Jesus give us this Sacrament instead of allowing us to just ‘go directly to God,’ as many people Catholic and non-Catholic alike, claim to do?

Certainly we go directly to God with our sins and contrition for those sins, and we should make an examination of conscience at least daily.  But when we go to Confession, we are not confessing to a man and hoping he will forgive us, we are taking our sins to Christ and through the authority received at his ordination, the priest is the minister of Christ’s own forgiveness.

But again, why?  We can’t completely understand, with our limited minds, why God does something, but we can certainly understand to a degree.

First, sin makes us slaves, and keeps us in darkness.  It is easy to tell God we are sorry for our sins, but in Confession, we have no choice but to bring them into the light.  As with all darkness, once it is brought into the light, it loses its power.  Confession forces us to face the ugly realities about ourselves, and to take power over them.

It also forces us to examine our consciences.  If we are to make a good Confession, we have to honestly look at our weaknesses and failures, which blesses us with self-knowledge and humility.  The humility it requires to go to Confession in the first place allows that necessary virtue to develop in us.  The Sacrament also allows us to benefit from the counsel of a priest.  Certainly the fields of psychology and counseling are very valid and valuable, but many professionals in the field will admit that what many of their clients need is Confession.  They confess to a counselor who can not give them true peace and forgiveness, when what they really need is a priest.  Again, this only refers to a percentage of people seeking counseling and a good counselor may benefit all of us at times.  But a counselor will never be a substitute for a spiritual director, or a Confessor.

I tell my students that one of the greatest predictors of their future happiness is whether or not they make regular Confession a habit.  Nothing else keeps us grounded, or gives us peace in the same way.  These are only a few of the blessings of the Sacrament of Confession, and I have not even yet touched on the incredible blessing of hearing the words, “I absolve you of your sins,” which I will speak about later this week.

Finally something should be said to those Catholics who refuse to go to Confession because they tell God they’re sorry for their sins privately, on their own terms, and have decided that He must have freed them from their sins regardless of the fact that the Church tells us that at least mortal sins must be brought to Confession.  If not, it’s His fault.

God has given us everything.  He died so that we would be freed from sin and have everlasting life.  Even after accepting Him sometimes we fall, perhaps even very seriously, and He has given us a Sacrament with so many blessings and Graces that frees us again, and again, and again.  Yet there are those who are members of the Church, and know that they should go to Confession, yet refuse.

If we were dying from a deadly disease and a doctor were to prescribe a treatment guaranteed to cure us, if we were to refuse to take it, could we blame the doctor?  Would it be rational to say, “No, I will not take this treatment that I know will cure me, but I do want to be cured.  If I am not, it is not my fault; it’s the doctor’s?”  Of course that would not be rational.  The truth is, in that situation, it would be true to say that we did not really want to be healed, at least not enough to take the necessary treatment.

The same is true for Confession.  If we refuse to receive this great gift, it is silly to say we really want to be freed from our sins.  If we did, we would take the treatment.  That being said, I know it can be scary.  I am not judging Catholics who don’t go to Confession.  I have been there.  But I want to encourage them to go.  Just go.  Our trust must outweigh our fear.

          In a few days I will share a true story of the healing power of Confession that was told to me by a priest.  It is one of a million such stories.  I will also share some audio of another priest sharing his perspective on Confession that is incredibly beautiful and reminds us that all the priest wants to do is bring us back to God.

          I will finish today with this thought: A man was complaining to his Catholic friend about how cruel it is for people to have to go to Confession.  “My nephew goes to Confession regularly,” he said, “and he’s always nervous before going.  Why should he have to go through that?”  “I believe you,” said the man’s Catholic friend, “that your nephew may be nervous going into Confession.  But what is he like coming out?”  

That is a feeling, a reality, that can be found nowhere else in the world.