The idea of being face-to-face with a priest and telling him of your sins is indeed a daunting task. I can still remember how nervous I was the last time I had to go through it and ended up bawling my eyes out in front of the priest. So why do I, along with every Catholic in the world, do it when we can just go directly to God? Let me explain in this article.
Catholics confess to a priest because he is a mediator, a link between God and the people. He serves as a channel since we can’t administer the sacraments on our own. During confession, he also acts in the person of Christ. So if we speak to him and him to us, we can encounter Christ himself.
So is a priest the only one whom we can confess to? Moreover, is confessing our sins to a priest really important as a Catholic? Let’s answer these questions below.
Roles of a Priest in Confession
“Why should I go to confession with a priest when I can just go directly to God?” This is a question you’ll often hear from those who criticize the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Some would even say that a priest is just another human being, so there’s no reason why we should be confessing to him. However, the priest plays specific roles that make him crucial to this sacrament. So what are these roles?
If you notice, each sacrament corresponds to some of the biggest moments of our lives. For instance, baptism is for when we are born, confirmation marks our transition to adulthood, marriage, and the Holy Orders show our choice of a lifetime commitment, and anointing is for the end of our life. The other two sacraments are there to strengthen us as we go through life: the Holy Eucharist for sustaining our spirit and the sacrament of penance so our sins can be forgiven.
Now, we can’t receive these sacraments – these graces of God – on our own. We need someone, a mediator, to act as a link and a channel between us and God.
2. Representative of the Community
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1422), it mentions that the sacrament of penance allows us to reconcile with the Church, which we have wounded by our sins. So our sins offend God and our community. For our “community”, the Church, to forgive us, we need someone who stands as the community’s representative – which is one of the roles of a priest.
During confession, the priest acts “in persona ecclesia”. In English, he is “in the person of the Church” or “in the person of the community”. So when he forgives our sins, he is also forgiving us for what we did against our community.
3. Representative of Christ
Contrary to what others say, the priest isn’t just another human being during confession. He serves “in persona Christi” or “in the person of Christ” in English. So with faith, we believe that it is Christ that we are confessing and speaking to. So when the priest tells us that our sins are forgiven, it is Jesus Christ who forgives us.
When Jesus Christ started his Church, he gave Peter and the other apostles authority, telling them: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19, Matthew 18:18) Then after he was resurrected, he told his apostles: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:22-23)
Following these biblical passages, Jesus gave his apostles the authority to forgive our sins. Through apostolic succession, the bishops became the successors of the apostles. The bishops then choose the priests to be their collaborators, who are then tasked to exercise the ministry of reconciliation. This can be seen in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1461), which states:
“Indeed bishops and priests, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, have the power to forgive all sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
That said, it may make us feel better to confess our sins to just about anyone. However, it is only by God – through the person of the priest – that we are forgiven. Besides, confessing to a priest gives the experience a more personal touch. He can give us counseling and advice that matches our unique situations. He can ask us questions, clarify, and give us penance that is specifically tailored to our spiritual needs and healing.
Is Confession to a Priest Necessary for a Catholic?
Going to confession is necessary for every Catholic. We are encouraged to receive Holy Communion frequently so we can receive Christ and nourish our spirits. Now, to be able to receive Communion, we should not be conscious of grave sin. But as people, we sin so often. So we need to be forgiven regularly, too – and to do that, we must go to confession.
The sacrament of reconciliation is also necessary for every Catholic as it is a way to heal and restore our relationship with the Lord and the Church. By asking for forgiveness of our sins, we can avoid eternal and temporal punishment. Most of all, we can have peace of mind and spirit, knowing that we are right with God.
So does it really need to be a priest? Yes. According to the Code of Canon Law (#965): “A priest alone is the minister of the sacrament of penance.” In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1462), you’ll find that priests are given authority by either the bishop or the Pope to exercise and administer this sacrament.
Think of it this way: “The priest is the sign and the instrument of God’s merciful love for the sinner.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1465). He is there to help us and lead the way towards Christ.
So yes, it’s totally understandable that you might find it difficult to say your deepest and darkest secrets and ask for forgiveness from someone you don’t know. But always remember, the priest acts in the place of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. So the next time you find yourself in front of the priest during confession, think of it as having a conversation with Christ.