Why do we need Confession?

If you have ever wondered why confession is necessary, or why it's important to go often, find answers in the wisdom of Pope Francis. Discover how confession restores our friendship with God, why we should be sorry for our sins, the advantages to confession, and more in this blog.

The Lord’s mercy is inexhaustible, for those who seek forgiveness. God respects our freedom; we must freely ask for his pardon of our sins. “God who created you without you, will not save you without you”, says St Augustine. Divine grace and human freedom work together for the salvation of our souls. God the Father “doesn’t just leave the door open to us, but he awaits us”, says Francis. “He is engaged in waiting for his children”. It is up to us to decide to enter the door of God’s mercy.

Why do we need confession? We are called, each and every one of us, to be saints. In baptism we receive the new life of God, the life of holiness, symbolised in the white baptismal garment. However, due to the weakness of our fallen nature we are prone to sin and indeed we do fall along our journey towards heaven. This is why the Holy Father teaches that “conversion is not the question of a moment or a time of the year, it is an undertaking that lasts  one’s  entire  lifetime”.   Indeed,  “this  is  our  life:  to rise again continuously and resume our journey”.

Restoring friendship with God

At times it is more urgent to receive this sacrament, specifically, if one has committed a mortal sin. This is a sin “whose object is grave matter and which is committed with  full  knowledge  and  deliberate  consent”.   Because this sin means the loss of grace, the extinguishing of the divine life in us, the sooner we receive God’s mercy and restore our friendship with him the better.

In any event, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is immensely fruitful since it gives us the opportunity to say sorry to God who has given us everything and proven his love in a supreme way on the cross. “God has shown his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rm 5:8). We know how important it is for us in human relationships to be able to say sorry to those we have hurt or wronged in any way. The closer the person is to us, a parent, a sibling, a dear friend, the deeper our sorrow. In order to express our sorrow to our most loving friend of all, Jesus Christ, and to receive his forgiveness, we have the sacrament of confession.

While conversion is a free human choice, it is before all else a gift of God. Preaching in St Peter’s Basilica to a large congregation of people about to go to confession, Pope Francis pointed out to them that “being here to experience his love, in any case, is above all a fruit of his grace… The power to confess our sins is a gift from God, it is a gift, it is ‘his work’” (cf. Ep 2:8-10).22  Thus, when we find it hard to go to confession, we do well to ask the Lord for the grace we need to approach this sacrament. In a special way, we might appeal to Mary, the Mother of Mercy, to lead us to her Son, to encourage us, as she did at Cana, to do whatever he tells us (cf. Jn 2:5).

Sorrow for our sins

We have already given some consideration to God’s action in this sacrament. The Lord lovingly welcomes us and guides us, and most importantly of all grants us his healing and pardon in the words of absolution which the priest pronounces in the person of Christ. What is the part of the penitent, of the one who goes to confession? The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly explains the three “acts of the penitent”, namely contrition, the confession of sins, and satisfaction (nn. 1450-1459).

Among the penitent’s acts, “contrition” or sorrow for sin occupies the first place. This contrition is called “perfect” if it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, and “imperfect” (also called “attrition”) if it arises from the consideration of sin’s ugliness or the fear of eternal damnation and the other penalties threatening the sinner (contrition of fear). While we should aim to love God above all else and hence have perfect contrition, imperfect contrition is also a gift from God and is brought to completion by sacramental absolution in confession. Indeed the fact of approaching the sacrament of penance is already an expression of sorrow for sin. Our sorrow for sin includes “purpose of amendment” or the resolution not to sin again. This often has very practical implications such as the avoidance of “occasions of sin”, namely places or situations that tend to lead to sin.

No one can be excluded

At times some people may consider that their particular sins cannot be forgiven, perhaps because they seem too serious and beyond pardon, or perhaps because of having been away from confession for a long time. In his preaching Pope Francis has dealt with this temptation in a very encouraging way:

No one can be excluded from the mercy of God… With how much love Jesus looks at us! With how much love he heals our sinful heart! Our sins never scare him. Let us consider the prodigal son who, when he decided to return to his father, considers making a speech, but the father doesn’t let him speak. He embraces him (cf. Lk 15:17-24). This is the way Jesus is with us. ‘Father, I have so many sins…’ – ‘But he will be glad if you go: he will embrace you with such love! Don’t be afraid’… Do not forget that God forgives all, and forgives always. Let us never tire of asking forgiveness.

The mercy of God is beyond what we can fully grasp. The Lord forgives us, not because we are worthy, but because he loves us freely and infinitely. As Benedict XVI once put it, “God loves us in a way that we might call ‘obstinate’ and enfolds us in his inexhaustible tenderness”.

The consideration of the immensity of God’s love will help us to confess and to have confidence in his mercy. As St Teresa of Avila urges in Chapter Nineteen of the book of her Life:

Let us trust in the goodness of God, which is greater than all the evil we can do. When, with full knowledge of ourselves, we desire to return to friendship with him, he remembers neither our ingratitude nor our misuse of the favours that he has granted us… Let them remember his words and consider what he has done to me, who wearied of offending his majesty before he ceased forgiving me. Never does he weary of giving and never can his mercies be exhausted: let us, then, not grow weary of receiving.

Sincere confession of our sins

The question is often asked: why the need to confess to a priest? Is it not sufficient to confess my sins to God privately in my own heart? There are many reasons why “confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of penance”.

“First”, as Francis explains, “the forgiveness of our sins is not something we can give ourselves. I cannot say: I forgive my sins. Forgiveness is asked for, is asked of another, and in confession we ask for forgiveness from Jesus. Forgiveness is not the fruit of our own efforts but rather a gift”.

Secondly, as we saw in Chapter Twenty of St John’s Gospel, the risen Lord entrusted the mission and power to forgive sins to priests within his Church. The Church is the place where Christ continues his work of salvation here and now through the power of the Holy Spirit. “That is why it is not enough to ask the Lord for forgiveness in one’s own mind and heart, but why instead it is necessary humbly and trustingly to confess one’s sins to a minister of the Church”.

Moreover sins, even the most hidden ones, have an impact on others, especially on our brothers and sisters in the faith. An offence against God is also an offence against his people, and that is why pardon must be sought of the Church in the person of the priest, a sacred minister of the Church. The Holy Father has pointed out that the Sacrament of Reconciliation frees us from the tendency towards individualism and subjectivism. “God forgives every penitent sinner, personally, but the Christian is tied to Christ, and Christ is united to the Church”.

Advantages to confession

Besides these reasons there are very good human advantages to confessing our sins. The Lord has designed his sacraments wisely and lovingly, in a way that best responds to the needs of our nature. As the Catechism points out, “the confession (or disclosure) of sins, even from a simply human point of view, frees us, and facilitates our reconciliation with others”.

In a word, it is helpful psychologically and emotionally to be able to unburden ourselves. Moreover, the words of absolution which we hear in confession provide an external assurance of forgiveness which is very important for our inner peace. Because confession provides this objective confirmation of pardon, “we have to appreciate it” says Francis. “It is a gift, a cure, a protection as well as the assurance that God has forgiven me”.

It may also be added that the honest confession of our sins is a powerful antidote to superficiality. Freely to recognise, articulate and own up to what we have done badly stretches us in a healthy way that helps us to grow and mature as people.


Of course the confession of our sins requires us to be sincere. It is the teaching of the Church, as expressed at the Council of Trent that “all mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession, even if they are most secret”. If we wish to receive pardon for offences committed, it makes sense to ask forgiveness for each of those offences. This is why it is helpful to examine our consciences before going to confession so as to confess our sins as best as we can remember.  It is good to be simple, straightforward and to the point. As Friar Laurence says to Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “Be plain good son and homely in thy drift, Riddling confession finds but riddling shrift” (Act II, Scene 3).

We may well have to battle against feelings of shame. After all, no one enjoys saying what he or she has done wrong, and some sins cause us greater embarrassment. The Holy Father has addressed this all-too-human challenge on several occasions in his characteristically direct style. “‘But Father, I am ashamed…’ Shame is also good; it is healthy to feel a little shame, because being ashamed is salutary… Shame too does good, because it makes us more humble”. The sacrament of confession does not humiliate us, but it does humble us, and humility is the path to holiness.

The honest confession of our sins helps us to be simple, less complicated internally, and hence more serene. In his Treatise on Penance, St Ambrose wrote: “If you want to be justified, confess your fault: a humble confession of faults untangles the knot of faults”.

The need to make reparation

The third act of the penitent is “satisfaction”, the need to  make  up  for  our  sins  in  so  far  as  we  can.   As  Pope Francis explains in his Bull for the Year of Mercy, “God goes beyond justice with his mercy and forgiveness.

Yet this does not mean that justice should be devalued or rendered superfluous. On the contrary: anyone who makes a mistake must pay the price”.  Making reparation is not a question of trying to satisfy an implacable God, but rather a requirement of justice, of love of God and of our human nature. As the Pope told a large gathering of priests: “Mercy…does not exclude but rather includes the just obligation to atone for, to the extent possible, the wrong committed”.

An act of love

Atonement is an act of love which seeks to reunite us fully with God who is the fulness of Love. Further, while absolution takes away sin it does not remove all the disorders caused by sin. “In the Sacrament of Reconciliation God forgives our sins which he truly blots out; and yet sin leaves a negative effect on the way we think and act”.  Human freedom and dignity also demand that we have the opportunity to make up for our sins and faults freely and lovingly.

The need to do penance in order to expiate the “temporal punishment due to sin” is part of the sacrament of confession. This is why the confessor assigns a particular penance to the penitent. Besides this, we can always offer other penances in the course of our daily lives through which we make a loving reparation to God and by which Christ is formed ever more fully in us (cf. Ga 4:19).

The value of frequent confession

The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church offers a useful summary of the effects of the sacrament of penance:

reconciliation with God and therefore the forgiveness of sins; reconciliation with the Church; recovery, if it has been lost, of the state of grace; remission of the eternal punishment due to mortal sins, and remission, at least in part, of the temporal punishment which is the consequence of sin; peace, serenity of conscience and spiritual consolation; and an increase of spiritual strength for the struggle of Christian living (n. 310).

This list, which contains much of what we have seen in the preaching of Francis, also provides the rationale for frequent confession. This sacrament is a source of immense grace, ongoing purification and increasing intimacy with God. Not only are our sins forgiven but we receive the spiritual strength we need to keep up the Christian battle by growing in the virtues. Moreover confession can often be a setting in which to receive spiritual direction.

Our sins are always the same

We may sometimes be bothered by the thought that our sins are always the same. Benedict XVI addressed this concern very effectively in a catechesis to thousands of First Holy Communion children:

It is very helpful to confess with a certain regularity. It is true: our sins are always the same, but we clean our homes, our rooms, at least once a week, even if the dirt is always the same; in order to live in cleanliness, in order to start again. Otherwise, the dirt might not be seen but it builds up. Something similar can be said about the soul, for me myself: if I never go to confession, my soul is neglected and in the end I am always pleased with myself and no longer understand that I must work hard to improve, that I must make progress. And this cleansing of the soul which Jesus gives us in the sacrament of confession helps us to make our consciences more alert, more open, and hence, it also helps us to mature spiritually and as human person… It is very helpful to confess regularly in order to foster the cleanliness and beauty of the soul and to mature day by day in life.

Growing in charity

While confession nurtures our faith and hope, above all it is an effective means to grow in charity, the greatest of all the virtues (cf. 1 Co 13). The scene of the sinful woman who comes up to the Lord at the feast in the house of Simon the Pharisee is striking and also instructive. Standing behind Christ “at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with ointment” (Lk 7:38). To those who were scandalised by her actions, Christ firmly replied: “I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Lk 7:47).

This poor woman had reverenced Christ’s body in advance of the Passion in which the Lord’s body would be broken and his blood would flow to redeem the world from sin. By her actions she showed a deep contrition and loving refinement – she made reparation in advance for the crucifixion of Jesus – which God abundantly blessed by granting her forgiveness of all her sins.

Being open to the mercy of God increases our charity, while in turn our love of God will lead us to seek his pardon often.

This blog is extracted from our book The Beauty of Confession With Pope Francis by Fr Donncha Ó hAodha. Pope Francis speaks of repentance, sin and confession from personal experience. Why do we need Confession? Are we truly forgiven? How to overcome feelings of unworthiness? How often should one go to Confession? These questions and many others are explored and answered.

For more inspiring wisdom from Pope Francis on going to Confession and to support the mission of CTS, order your copy of The Beauty of Confession With Pope Francis today.