On a rather regular basis, I am asked via email about the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) and forgiveness of sins. The questions that I am thinking of are mostly from folks who are firmly entrenched in their Christian faith in the Protestant or Reformed tradition. But increasingly these days, inquiries also come from Catholics. Sometimes they are not really questions at all. They are invitations for me to debate them as they wish to free me from the errors of my Catholic beliefs or free the Catholic from the need to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The question is always some variation of “how can priests forgive sins” when – and here are the variations in their logic – (a) there is no such thing as priest, there is only Jesus as High Priest, (b) only God can forgive sins, (c) people only have one mediator, jesus Christ, and therefore one need only ask Jesus for forgiveness, (d) Scripture never talks about confessing sins to a priest, ….and I think that covers the common debate topics.
All of the above topics are well covered on the internet. One only need a search engine and a query akin to “Why do Catholics confess their sins to a priest?” There are plenty of good, well reasoned responses/objections that are respectful, Scriptural, and made with good intention.
When another Christian sister or brother asks me, as a priest, about the Sacrament of Confession, I think a more interesting and possibly helpful question is whether they confess their sins to another believer in their congregation. I think the response is about 99% “No, I confess my sins to God in prayer.” By the way, I think that is very commendable and laudatory practice, one the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes and recommends in para. 1434 and following.
I ask them what they think of James 5:16. Mostly they are not aware of the verse. It says, “confess your sins to one another.” (James 5:16) I simply ask them if they are doing what Scripture asks them to do. I am not interested in “Bible-one-upmanship” but pointing them to the powerful experience of speaking your sins aloud to another person. The experiencing of moving past human pride onto the path of reconciliation and conversion.
Some folks object that another cannot forgive sins, only God, so what’s the point. I agree that only God can forgive sins. As you might expect the conversation will return to the Catholic celebration of Confession. “So, Father, you are agreeing that a priest cannot forgive sins!” I simply share with them the words of reconciliation spoken by the priest to the penitent:
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit.
God forgives our sins. The priest, as a minister of the church, grants absolution, which is not forgiveness as such but a “freeing” or “releasing” one of guilt, consequences, or penalties tied to the sin. The literal meaning of the word comes from its Latin origins, meaning “to break the chains.”
Breaking the chains, freeing one from the burden, helping to point the way to God – such is the role of the Confessor. But in a similar way, such is the role of the one to whom you tell you sins as directed by James 5:16 – “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful.” The prayer that “may God given you pardon and peace…” A powerful prayer indeed.
There is also the very human reality. One can indeed confess their sins to God – but do you? And does God give you feedback? I am not being glib. Jesus understood that we fragile humans need to hear the words, “God forgives you” or “You are forgiven.” We need someone to hold up a mirror to our lives so that we move from forgiven towards wholeness and healing. And sometimes, we need a friend or confessor to look at us askew and say, “Really?…. how’s that working out for you?”
No matter what our denominational connection – or no connection at all – confession, repentance and conversion are part of what it means to be fully and wholly human. As St. Irenaeus noted: “the glory of God is the human person fully alive.” Confess your sins and break the chains. Become fully alive, that the Glory of God may shine into the world.