Friday, January 21, 2011

The Sacrament of Confession

Priest- “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. You may go in peace.”

Parishioner- “Thanks be to God.”

These words are among the sweetest words that a human can hear. To describe how it feels to know that Christ forgives you, through a priest on his behalf, is very difficult.

I know that my friends from other Christian communities may read this and have conflicting feelings- and probably not positive ones- about the Sacrament of Confession.

I have been on both sides of the Christian track- I grew up in the Baptist Church, and I was always taught that we only needed to privately confess our sins to Jesus (the Catholic Church does ask us to do this as well, so that we are prepared to receive absolution when we receive the sacrament, mindful of our sins- we call this an examination of conscience). If we were earnest and honest, we would receive the absolution that the Catholic Church claims that it can give only through it’s priesthood.

Before we go any further, let me make clear that this is not going to be an exposition of Scripture and Church tradition that defends the sacrament- if you want that, go to:

So, let me return now to my previous point: that I was taught that my confession was to Christ, and Christ alone. This sounds wonderful, because you need not worry about any man knowing your sins. I mean, who would really want to do that?

The 5th Chapter of James (v. 16) tells us to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Even though a priest is not mentioned in that verse; the practical advice of confessing your sins to each other still stands. Some of my friends outside the Catholic Church do this, voluntarily, by going up in front of their congregation and “spilling the beans,” so to speak, about their sins. Interestingly enough, this is also the way that the Catholic Church conducted confession in the early days of the Church (the Church later instituted private confession to protect the dignity of it’s members).

This confuses me, personally- why would someone choose to go up in front of his or her congregation and do such a brave act when they believe that Christ can heal them privately? In my opinion, it may have to do with a sort of public absolution- if the church hears their sins and can forgive them; most certainly Christ forgives them as well.

The problem I always had with this way of “absolution” is that there is really no way to know that Christ has indeed given you absolution. The absolution of the congregation is not equal to the absolution of Christ, no matter how sincere the confession. And, if you are only confessing your sins to Christ in private, there is really no way of knowing when you have sinned “78 times” (see Mt. 18:22).

This is why I consider the private confession of the Catholic Church to be a tremendous blessing in my own life- I can privately discuss my sins with a priest, trained to deal with such matters, and he can give me Christ’s absolution without the need for a public listing of my sins (see the Scripture Catholic link near the beginning of my post for more details). And, if I go to a parish where the Priest does not know me- I am doing my confession with virtually complete anonymity.

Confession is not the humbling of a parishioner before another man, but the humbling of a parishioner before his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It is not humiliation, since it is not public, and it protects the dignity of sinners in coming to their Lord for forgiveness. And, best yet, you can leave the confessional knowing you have received the absolution you seek- and not having to rely on a gut feeling.

May the peace of Jesus Christ rest gently upon all, now and forever. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. You have hit on two key ideas: first, that, to paraphrase St. Augustine, our confession is restless until it rests in Christ -- we need to hear those words, coming, "in persona Christi", "I absolve you ..."; second, that the privacy of the Catholic confessional maintains the dignity of the individual. On the other hand, those traditions who dismiss the Sacrament of Reconciliation as an unnecessary mediation "through a man", fail to see the incoherence of their own practice, that of "spilling the beans" to the entire congregation.

    Thanks for giving us much to think on, Ryan.