Home Page‎ > ‎

Going to Confession

Rev. Fr. Charles E. Irvin, M.B.A., M.Div., J.D

Why do Catholics speak of "going to confession"? Aren't we supposed to confess our sins to God? Why do Catholics have to go to a priest to confess their sins? The answer is ever so brief: When one "goes" to confession one goes to Jesus Christ to confess one's sins. Sacraments (the Great Eastern Churches refer to them as The Mysteries) are the actions of the Person who is God the Son reaching out to touch us and become one with us through His Mystical Body, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ in His humanity is present to us and encounters us in His body, as St. Paul so clearly teaches, in His risen body, in His Mystical Body. He is the same Jesus of Nazareth who becomes, raised from the dead in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Christ of faith, the Spirit-Filled and glorified Christ whom God has anointed to bring His presence and life to us, to live within is, in our own humanity. We go to Him to confess our sins when we "go to confession". We encounter Him in His Body; it is there we receive His forgiveness. Sacraments are the great signs given off by the risen Body of Christ. They are "outward and visible signs communicating an inner spiritual grace", instituted by Christ to communicate His Holy Spirit into us. Christ's words of institution inthis case are found in Matthew 16:17-19, Matthew 18:18, and John 20:19-23. Bodies give off signs revealing the mind and heart (the spirit) of the person acting within and through those signs. We call it "body language". For instance, what is a kiss? It is body language. But try to define one! Definitions collapse - a kiss is a "sacrament", something that we can only describe, never really define. Only descriptive language is strong enough to carry the weight of the Reality within Sacraments; definitional language lacks the power to convey their total gravity. THE WORK OF CHRIST Jesus Christ is continually redeeming humanity both collectively and individually. He has not redeemed us, He is redeeming us. He is always in being, is-ing, in our humanity now. He is always forgiving, sacrificing, and offering Himself to us in His Body, the Church. There, in His Body, He forgives us and in turn gathers us into one holy union, presenting us in His sacrifice to His Father, thereby making His Father our Father. Sacraments are moments when we can enter (actively and personally) by our own free choice into the dynamic, on-going and never static activity of Christ returning us to His Father in His resurrected and Spirit-filled, glorified humanity. We can only respond to God's initiative and God's invitation. He loves us first, He takes the first initiative. And so He forgives us first. In His reaching out to us He has set up the way back to Him. Therefore we cannot chart our own way back to God (cf. Genesis 11:1-9, the Tower of Babel). We can only respond to His invitation and attend His banquet as He bids us. We are not in control - He is. The Church and the Church's Sacraments come from above, from God, and they retain their own integrity (and truth) apart from any perceptions or decisions on our part. We do not determine for ourselves what their reality truly is, God does! Being invited guests to the Lord's Messianic Banquet we only discover their reality and inner truth, and humbly accept them from Him. The ecclesia, namely the "called out and unified assembly", comes from above; it is not the creation of men and women, rather it is formed in the faith response of men and women to God's gathering-in Holy Spirit. It is when we open ourselves to God that the Holy Spirit assembles us, unites us, and causes us to be the Ecclesia, the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. Holy Communion is His work, not ours. If Christ is essential to the plan of God, then so is the Church! Without the Ecclesia where is the risen Body of Christ? While it is true that God is everywhere it is nevertheless true also that the Church is the privileged and sacramental locus of the Risen Christ among us. SACRED SCRIPTURE The Catholic Church grounds the Sacrament of Forgiveness (going to confession) in Sacred Scripture. See Matthew 16:13-19 and 18:18-20, also Mark 2:1-17 and Luke 7:36-50. St. John's Gospel, as always (c.f. John 11:1-46; John 20:19-23), is special. It is theologically highly developed; sometimes it is referred to as "The Book of Signs". The "Signs" are the seven great miracles of St. John's Gospel. Note the continual connection in John's Gospel between physical healing and forgiveness of sin. St. John always sees the physical as revealing the spiritual. And, in John, Christ's great ministry is that of reconciliation. Read John 11:1-46, then read John 20:19- 23. In John's Gospel, forgiveness, deliverance, healing, freedom, and life are all inter-connected realities. The "baptism for the remission of sins" is our immersion into the death/resurrection event of Jesus Christ. All sacraments emerge out of this "baptism" and are constituted by the events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Those three sacred days (the Sacred Triduum) constitute the "hour" He spoke of at Cana, the "baptism" he longed to be baptized with. In them He transmits over into us the Divine Life and Divine Power that is His, His power over life and death, redemption and sin. Again, see John 20:19-23. So why must we go to the Church to confess our sins? Why not confess directly to God? Why must we confess and acknowledge our sins and/or sinfulness to a priest? Because scripture bids us to! And because Christ has empowered and commissioned his priests to do so. They are ordained to carry on His work, the ministry of reconciliation and the work of our redemption. Baptism remains the basic and fundamental sacrament of repentance, conversion and reconciliation with God. It constitutes us in the essential ministry of the Church, namely the ministry of reconciliation (Christ's fundamental mission). But what happens to those who sin, and repeatedly sin, after being baptized? How does the Lord, living and working in His Mystical Body the Church, relate to them? THE EARLY CHURCH The big problem of the Early Church was: What do we do with someone who has "left" the community via apostasy, open adultery, murder, or any other serious and open rejection of the Christian way of living? Re-baptism was (and is today) impossible since Christ's covenant commitment made through the Church in baptism always remains in force. One can never be "un-baptized"; we can never undo God's covenant commitment to us. The Sacrament of Reconciliation was given to the one baptized (and who had subsequently, in sin, left the Faith Community) in order to return him or her to the Source of power and holiness, namely Christ's Holy Spirit, to free him or her from a world of fear, anxiety, suspicion, hate, division and alienation from God. There developed, even in the earliest time of the Apostolic Church, a ceremony of public penance followed by a ceremony of reconciliation ministered by a Bishop. This followed a LONG (40 days) probationary period of public penance that demonstrated a genuine sincerity in the penitent. Gradually the practice evolved into going to the Bishop privately to receive reconciliation with the Community through his mediatorship. The early Christians understood that true conversion was a long and difficult process, one that required the Spirit of the Body of Christ in order to sustain and encourage the penitent. God offers, we respond. Hundreds upon hundreds of years later the Irish monks, who re-evangelized Barbarian Europe of the Dark Ages, introduced their own monastic penitential practices which included lists of sins connected with appropriate lists of penances commensurate with the degrees of the seriousness of the listed sins! This outraged the Frankish bishops who called a Council to denounce this "novel practice" of the Irish that so de-formed (they thought) the previous and commonly shared practices associated with the Sacrament of Reconciliation, those prior to the innovations of "those Irish monks." Nevertheless, frequent confession of sins remained the normative practice down to our times. THE MINISTRY OF RECONCILIATION The fundamental nature of the Sacrament of Forgiveness is found in 2 Corinthians 5:18. For this sacrament is the celebration of the reconciliation between the individual repentant sinner with Christ living and working through His Body, the Church, and with God in Christ. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is the paradigm, the critical elements being open admission and action, a "going to" confession in order to receive forgiveness and reconciliation. In our human condition there is always a residual remainder of unredemption within each one of us, no matter how much we may try to deny it! Who can honestly claim that he is without sin? The truth is that deathbed confessions are still occurring even though moderns have tried to do away with the idea of sin and punishment for sin. We need to do works of penance in order to bring light in the darkness, vision in confusion, love in hate, peace in anxiety, and union in disunion. Conversion means "moving from one version of living to another version." We are talking here more about a way of life than about isolated and individual acts. Medieval Monks became a class of penitents for the sake of all of humanity; they set themselves to the task of calling down the power of God's Spirit into the whole vast and complex network of our sin-full human relationships and social order. The monastery was supposed to be a microcosm of the macrocosm that is the Kingdom. The monks were supposed to be a model or a paradigm of the way people should relate to one another as well as being a paradigm of the entire social and economic order in the world around them. Theological Note: God's forgiveness comes first, our repentance follows. God offers, we respond; God proposes, man disposes. Why? Because if a person truly repents deep within his or her heart it is because he or she has hope that change is possible. This hope comes from God; from God's pre-existing gift (or grace) of forgiveness. (Read again, now, the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32). God's pre-existent forgiveness makes possible human repentance. We can love God only because He loves us first! The act of "going to confession", specifically the priest's giving of sacramental absolution, gives us the concrete and experienced assurance of God's saving action in our time, in our condition, and "where we're at". Jesus Christ acts through His Body, the Church, not to change His Father's mind, but rather to change our minds by revealing to us His saving love. When we are in sin we are in a state of confusion, of self doubt, and lack the fullness of freedom because of our insecurity about our selves, particularly in terms of our relationship with God. When we live in a deadly (mortal) state of sin; spiritual death has its grip on us and we need resurrection. (Read now in John's Gospel, Chapter 20, the first activity of Jesus Christ when He rose from the dead). THE "HOW TO" How does one "go to confession"? What is the basic action? The penitent presents himself to a priest (or bishop) of the Church to receive the action of God's forgiveness through the saving work of Christ ministering to us through His Body. The penitent acknowledges his or her sins specifically and admits his or her need for reconciliation and penance. Reconciliation with the Body of Christ IS reconciliation with Christ acting through His Apostles (those in Holy Orders) upon whom His Spirit rests. Such a sign effects what it signifies - the symbol becomes the reality (which is true for all of the Sacraments!). But forgiveness is effective only to the degree that the prodigal, the penitent, acknowledges a need to return to the Father's house, change his our her way of living (conversion) and thereupon live in that set of relationships present in the household of the Father. One final theological note: Read again the Raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-46) and note that forgiveness, deliverance, healing, freedom and new life are all inter-connected realities. The "Baptism for the remission of sins" is immersion into the death-resurrection event of Jesus Christ. All Sacraments emerge out of the events and works of Christ in Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Pentecost, the sum being called "The Paschal Mystery". For that is Christ's "hour", the "baptism" He longed for, and the transmission of His power into His Body, the Church. Another definition of the Church is that she is the continuation of the Christ event down through human time and history. And it is in her that we find the fullness of redemption and the forgiveness of our sins.