Some people outside of the Catholic faith look at how odd it is for confession of their sins to a priest. They will posit, Mat. 6:6, that they can go to a secret place and pray for forgiveness from God directly. Why confess to an intermediary priest? A believing Catholic may wonder why go to confession frequently?
For some, non-believing and believing Catholics alike, the idea of Confession is a put off for a direct relationship with God. For example, what does the priest know that God doesn’t already know about us? It isn’t another’s business what or how often my sins are except God and me!
There is a story and it is just a story about a newly ordained priest that was very pious and fervently committed to include the topic of confession in his sermons every Sunday. The senior pastor eventually called in the young priest and counseled him to speak on some other subjects besides, confession. He said to the young priest, “The people are beginning to feel uncomfortable and put off with your repetitive sermons centered on confession each Sunday. Next Sunday is the feast of St. Joseph. Why not talk about good St. Joseph?” Following the pastor’s suggestion, the following Sunday, the young priest began his sermon as such. “Today is the feast of good St. Joseph. And all of you know that St. Joseph was a carpenter. He made his living by contract to build various necessary items for day to day living, such as tables and chairs. I’ll bet he was given a contract from the local clerics of his time to build a confessional booth. Speaking about confession let me tell you….”
I would resolutely say like our young priest, that we do not talk enough about confession and its frequency as the prescription for sin and guilt. Confession or the sacrament of Penance actually washes away all past guilt, wrongs and sin. The priest is not just an intermediary but is Christ Himself, working through the priest to forgive or retain sins as scripture clearly avows in John 20:21-23 and Matt. 18:15-18. The believing Catholic, receives the assurance of a fresh moral slate when he clearly examines his conscience, confesses his sins and does not hold back any. He piously seeks forgiveness and absolution from the priest, the alter Christus, and then does the prescribed penance or restitution. Christ works his forgiveness through His priest.
People, who find the Catholic notion of confession and penance odd, are supported by an age that is not taking the blame for their bad conduct. I hear time and again that sin and guilt are out of date and something of the past. To modern thinking when we misbehave it is because our parents have been bad examples, or we did not have proper food or grade B milk, or there were no after school programs or we did not have the right sports equipment. Perhaps other kids bullied us on the school playground. So we went astray and are not accountable for our actions. But nevertheless we still feel out of sorts or even melancholy and not centered.
The out of sorts feeling is our moral thermostat, or conscience. The degrees on our moral thermostat are the degrees of guilt. We can dull the conscience and unreasonably set aside guilt by blaming others or our past situations and thus throw away the thermostat. Yet we still never feel just quite right.
In the physical world we can ignore our doctor’s prescription for sound health. I heard of a patient who read how cigarette smoking can be the cause of lung cancer. He then reasoned falsely that it was better to stop reading than quit smoking.
When we have a broken bone we are in pain. Why? Because the bone is not were it ought to be. When our conscience is not where it ought to be then we suffer. Some of us will try to cover up our uneasy conscience by drinking, or amusement but in moments of quiet the guilt and pain is still there.
What are we do to dispel the feeling of not being centered? First we must assuredly admit that sin and guilt are very real today as in past decades, no matter how many around us may deny it or how much we have dulled our conscience with rationalizations and false reasoning. We can all vote to deny gravity in the physical universe but when we fall gravity will break us anyway.
Secondly, let us ask God to give us the grace to dispel the notion that Catholic Confession is an odd thing but an ordained prescription from the Master himself, who gave to his apostles and their successors the authority to forgive sins.
Third, realize that Christ came to change men’s hearts towards God and not their environment. Both the social and physical environment can be improved with enlightened and perfected men and women filled with the grace and love of God.
Fourth, confession to a priest is not so odd after all. A clock with a broken main spring cannot fix itself. It needs a clock smith. Nor will Christ come down on earth to fix a clock. Instead Christ authorized his apostles and their successors to work through them using their eyes, and ears and tongues to pronounce His forgiveness. The priest gives feedback to make sure we are not rationalizing our sins away.
Finally when the priest pronounces the words of absolution he gives a penance to perform. Why? Because when there is a transgression in the moral universe, justice requires restitution. If I break my neighbor’s window, he may forgive me but he would certainly want me to repair his window. If I take a nail and hammer it into a board and then pull the nail out I leave a hole in the board. If the board had feelings it would want me to fill the hole that I left behind from the nail.
How often ought we to confess our sins? Pope Pius XII confessed his sins daily and Pope John Paul II weekly. St. Peter asked Jesus if he should forgive his neighbor, seven times. Jesus said to Peter, we are to be forgiven, seven times seventy.
I would posit that it is not odd to go to a priest for frequent confession in the sacrament of penance. What is odd is not to realize that we are imperfect and fallible creatures that often need to receive the clear assurance that we are forgiven. We can start anew with God’s fortifying grace the sacrament affords towards our perfection in holiness.