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Why did Jesus institute a sacrament for the forgiveness of sins?

People who find it difficult to go to confession and non-Catholics often ask: "Why do we have to go to confession? Why can't we just go directly to God?" The answer is that Jesus instituted the sacrament because He knew human nature and He knew we would need it. Here are four reasons why.

Why do I need to go to confession?

People who find it difficult to go to confession and non- Catholics often ask: “Why do we have to go to confession?” Why did Jesus Christ institute a sacrament – an outward sign which confers grace – for the forgiveness of sins if it only makes life more difficult for us? Why can’t we simply go straight to God in heaven, telling him we are sorry and be forgiven? As it is, we have to seek out a priest, perhaps wait in a queue or find that the priest isn’t even there, or discover that we don’t like the priest anyway, and then confess our sins, all of which can be troublesome. Surely it would have been easier if we could just confess directly to God.

The answer must surely be that Our Lord instituted a sacrament for the forgiveness of sins because he knew human nature and he knew we needed it. After all he was the Son of Man. He knew us, and he knew that it would be a great help for us to receive forgiveness through the mediation of a priest. Why? I would say for four reasons.

1.  We all sin

Firstly, there is the fact that we all sin. In spite of our efforts to do good, we still commit sins, whether venial sins such as impatience, angry remarks, or gossip; or mortal sins like missing Mass on Sunday through our own fault, impure acts or drunkenness. St John reminds us that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 Jn 8:11) And Jesus himself teaches us to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses.” (Mt 6:12)

What can happen, though, is that we lose the sense of sin, the awareness of our sinfulness before God. Cardinal Silvio Oddi, the then Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, said in Philadelphia in 1982: “It would be consoling to be able to maintain that there are now more Communions and fewer confessions because fewer sins are being committed. The headlines of the daily papers, however, do not permit us to be satisfied with that explanation. What has happened, of course, is that the people’s sense of sin has been eroded systematically.”

Pope Pius XII summed it up graphically in a radio message in 1946: “The sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin.”

There is no doubt that the practice of confession, with the examination of conscience which precedes it, is an excellent way of keeping alive and growing in the awareness of our sinfulness. Pope Benedict XVI said in an address to confessors on 19th February 2007: “On experiencing the Lord’s tenderness and forgiveness, the penitent more easily acknowledges the gravity of sin and reinforces his decision to avoid it and to remain and grow in his renewed friendship with him.” One could add that confession also affords the opportunity of clearing up doubts about what is and what is not sin, and about which sins are venial and which are mortal.

2. We have a need to apologise

A second aspect of human nature which points to the helpfulness of confession is the deep human need to apologise when we have offended someone. If a man inadvertently forgets to kiss his wife goodbye as he usually does on leaving the house, and he suddenly remembers on his way to work that he has forgotten, he doesn’t merely feel sorry. He picks up the phone as soon as he arrives at work, rings his wife and apologises. He needs and wants to tell her that he is sorry. Only then does he feel at peace. Jesus Christ knew this human need and he gave us in confession a forum in which we can tell him, through the mediation of a human being, “I am sorry”. If we have a deep-seated need to tell others we are sorry when we have hurt them, how much more do we need to tell our Father God that we are sorry.

3. We need to tell others what we have done

A third aspect of human nature suggesting the need for confession is the human need to tell others what we have done, including our misdeeds. If we have a car accident, for example, we feel the need to tell someone as soon as possible. Or if we have had an argument with a loved one, we also have a need to tell someone about it. Criminals tell others what they have done, even to boast about it, and sometimes this leads to their arrest. We all share our experiences with our friends at work or over a beer or a cup of coffee. And we do this, even though sometimes we receive bad advice from them or they in turn pass on to others what we have said.

In confession, on the contrary, when we tell the priest what we have done we receive only good advice and the priest is bound by the seal of confession never to reveal our sins to anyone.

I once witnessed in a particularly graphic way how deep the need is to tell others what we have done. A non- Catholic woman told me that some twenty years before she had done something which she knew to be very wrong, but in all those years she had never told anyone about it. The years passed and finally she got up the courage to go to a Catholic Church, where she entered the confessional and told the priest, to her overwhelming relief. Of course the priest couldn’t absolve her, but he did give her a blessing. That conversation engraved on my mind in an indelible way the treasure of the Sacrament of Penance. As Catholics, when we have sinned we can not only tell someone but we can also be forgiven in the name of Jesus Christ.

In a pastoral letter for Advent 1998, Archbishop George Pell, at that time Archbishop of Melbourne, elaborated on this aspect of the sacrament: “It would be ironic in an age where we are encouraged to verbalise our problems, and speak about our concerns, when so many more people are helped by competent counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists, that the personal exchanges necessary in individual confession to a priest should be falling into disuse. Many people are helped wonderfully in the First Rite of Penance, because the combination of personal confession, sincere repentance, absolution, advice and penance are the best means to deal with guilt.” Indeed, it has often been said that many people would not need to have recourse to a counsellor or psychologist if they made more regular use of the Sacrament of Penance.

4. We need to know we are forgiven

Fourthly, we need to know that we are forgiven. We need to hear it in a human way. When we were children growing up, we did many wrong things. We went to our parents and told them we were sorry. If they just grunted and didn’t reply, we wouldn’t know whether we were forgiven and we would be very uneasy. But when they put their arms around us and said, “Don’t worry, dear, I forgive you”, we were at peace. As is obvious, the human need to know we have been forgiven is deeply rooted in human nature.

Of course, we can tell God directly that we are sorry, but then we don’t hear that we are forgiven, and we might wonder whether we are sufficiently sorry and really determined to avoid committing that sin again. Moreover, we have probably had the experience of having sinned, sometimes even grievously, of saying an act of contrition with the intention of going to confession, and finding that the real peace did not come until we actually went to confession and heard the words, “I absolve you from your sins”. We need to hear those words with our ears, and only then are we certain that we are forgiven. After all, we are human beings with a body and soul, not pure spirits, and Our Lord instituted the sacraments as outward signs precisely so that we could know when grace is acting in us.

In this way, through the mediation of the priest who absolves us, the Sacrament of Penance brings Christ close to the penitent. Pope John Paul II, speaking in a general audience on 22th February 1984, asked the question, “Why should I reveal to a man like myself my most intimate situation, and even my most secret sins? Why can’t I address myself directly to God, or to Christ, instead of having to go through the mediation of a man in order to obtain forgiveness for my sins?” He answered, “It is well to consider that despite the feeling of discomfort that ecclesial mediation can cause, it is a very human method, so that the God who frees us from our sins does not fade into a far off abstraction which would, in the end, become a colourless, irritating and despairing imitation of ourselves. Through the mediation of the Church’s minister, this God makes himself very close to us in the concrete reality of a heart that is indeed pardoned. In this perspective we come to ask whether the Church’s instrumentality, instead of being contested, should not rather be desired, since it responds to the deepest expectations that are hidden in the human soul, when one approaches God and lets himself be saved by him.”

When we hear the words of absolution we know we are forgiven. Jesus, after all, instituted the sacrament in the form of a judgment: “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven. Whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” (Jn 20:23) The priest, having judged our understanding of what we have done and our degree of sorrow, determines that he can forgive us and he pronounces the words of absolution. Then “what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven.” (Mt 16:19) Without the mediation and judgment of the priest we would, in the end, be judging ourselves, and no one can be a good judge in his own case. We would always tend to let ourselves off the hook too lightly.

What is more, that encounter with Jesus Christ is, in a sense, a right of the penitent and a right of Christ as well. Pope John Paul II, in his very first encyclical Redemptor hominis, wrote: “In faithfully observing the centuries-old practice of the Sacrament of Penance, the practice of individual confession, with a personal act of sorrow and the intention to amend and make satisfaction, the Church is therefore defending the human soul’s individual right. As is evident, this is also a right on Christ’s part with regard to every human being redeemed by him. His right to meet each one of us in that key moment in the soul’s life constituted by the moment of conversion, forgiveness.” (RH 20)

Is this not the way Christ healed the sick and forgave sinners when he was on earth? He came close to them and laid hands on them one by one. As someone once commented to me facetiously, only on one occasion did Jesus heal ten lepers at once, and they were a most ungrateful lot! He wants to come close and lay his hands individually on each person, and therefore he institutes this sacrament. In this regard the use of the grille or screen can be helpful. Apart from allowing the penitent to remain anonymous, which is a right of every penitent, the fact that the penitent cannot see the priest makes it more clear that he or she is confessing not merely to the priest but to Christ himself.

This blog is extracted from our book Why go to Confession?, where the author encourages those who confess regularly to appreciate it more, and he encourages those who do not to reconsider its many benefits.

To learn more about the importance of Confession, and to support the mission of CTS, order your copy of Why go to Confession? today.