Why Confess to a Priest?
C. O'Donnell, O.Carm.
An American teacher who has charge of religious education in a primary school told me the other day that she had been preparing children for First Confession. She thought she had done a good job until one eight-year-old asked, ‘Why do I have to say, “First Confession?” Do I have to go through this again?’ He thought that one experience of confession was enough for a lifetime.
We all have different ideas and especially feelings about confession. The title, “Why Confess to a Priest?” is from a two-penny CTS pamphlet that was on sale in churches during the 1940s and 50s. So it is not a recent question. A lot of people like the idea of general confession, where one would get absolution without having to be explicit about any sins. People can jokingly refer of this as ‘confession on the cheap,’ though Church law demands that serious sins remitted in general confession should be specifically confessed at a later date. There is no cut-price confession, at least in the case of serious sin. What serious sin is, is a matter for another time.
Burden or Gift?
The really basic question can be expressed in this way; do we consider confession as a burden or a gift? There are several slightly different ways in which the same question might be put. “Is God being kindly to us in establishing confession, or is it some kind of punishment?” “Is confession an act of mercy, or a hard punishment for sin?” Yet another way of putting the question would be, “is actual confession good for us?” “Would we be better off simply telling our sins to God?” Well, we have all told God that we are sorry for sin, but that does not seem to be enough to satisfy the human heart. Is there something about us that makes it important that we confess serious misdemeanours to another?
We all have read or heard about people who committed a serious crime like murder. They get away with it for years and them they feel they have to tell someone, a friend or even go to the police and hand themselves in. What is going on in these cases?
Another example would be the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The fourth step on the road to recovery is, ‘Make a searching and serious moral inventory of ourselves.’ This is to look really honestly at the whole issue of good and evil – not just drink abuse. Then the sixth step is, ‘Admitting to God, to ourselves and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.’ Again it is all wrongdoing, not just drink offences. Again note who must receive the confession: admit to ourselves, to God and to another human being.
In the New Testament there is a passage in the letter of James that talks about how people are getting along (James 5:7-16). The author begins by exhorting patience. He then speaks about those who are suffering, they should pray. Those who are cheerful should sing songs of praise. Those who are sick should be anointed with oil and have hands laid on them by the presbyters. He then sums up: ‘Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed.’ The confession of sin is somehow necessary for wellbeing.
These three examples of people feeling the need to admit to past crimes, the wisdom of the AA fellowship, and the scriptural connection between confession of sins and healing or well being invite us to look again at the sacrament and see why confession is so important.
If I commit some serious sin, I can, and should, tell God that I am sorry. God is merciful and will, I hope, forgive. But it is a very silent forgiveness. Can I be sure that I have satisfied God? Is he content with my sorrow? In the meantime I can still feel the isolation of sin, and the deep sense of shame that can so easily lead me to think that I am unlovable or nasty. There is a powerful psychological need to feel accepted. If I confess all my sins and I am not rejected, but welcomed and encouraged, then life opens up again. So long as I am not fully honest with myself, and have not admitted the exact nature of my wrongs, then I can easily fall into the grasp of self-hatred. If I admit only to part of my sin or somehow cover up, then lurking beneath is the possible thought, if people really knew what I am like, they would reject me. Confession, even in a dark corner of a Church solves this basic problem. If I confess, then I have my dignity restored; I am welcomed back from the isolation of sin and guilt.
Seen in this way confession is a gift. It can still be embarrassing, but a moment’s embarrassment is a small price to pay. We can perhaps smile at the thought: well I was not ashamed to sin, so why the big deal in confessing it? This psychological need of admitting our evil and of being accepted and respected is at the heart of the sacrament. But there are other advantages. The area of sin is one in which we can very easily have a distorted picture of ourselves and of our sinfulness. We may not be fully honest with ourselves and we can rationalise our failings. We can escape their wrong and the harm they do to others. Other people have an opposite problem. They need to be encouraged and set free from their guilt and perhaps from twisted thinking about themselves. I have often been at services of reconciliation when people have come up just to mention one or two sins and get absolution and felt, if only I could say a few sentences to this person and help them into freedom. But there is no opportunity and they go off, forgiven, but still damaged or enslaved by anxiety, self-hatred, scrupulosity, despair. The possibility of advice is a major feature in the sacrament, and one of the important reasons why we should confess our sins.
We have seen then that we need not only forgiveness of sins, but also a remedy for sin. Sin traps and makes us slaves. Merely to get absolution is a great benefit, but people can need more. A word, a phrase from the priest can bring a lot of healing. Confession is meant to be a dialogue between priest and penitent, so that the sin is uncovered, its roots uncovered and remedies sought. Whether or not all this happens depends on how we use the sacrament, a quick fix, or a step towards healing.
The help that the priest can offer does not necessarily come from the fact that the priest is particularly learned or even very holy, but because Christ in his Holy Spirit is present guiding both the priest and the person confessing sins. What if a priest is angry or unpleasant? There is, I think, only one thing to do. Walk out, telling him perhaps, as you leave, that he is a disgrace. Nobody should put up with ill-treatment of any kind in confession.
We have two answers to the question, why confess to a priest? One is that confession of the exact nature of our sins is very good and healing for us. The second is that we can find remedy for sinful or harmful attitudes to ourselves and others. Why is a priest better? The Church has ring-fastened confession to make it a safe place. There is the seal of confession. Nothing told in confession in order to receive absolution can ever be revealed. The penalty for a priest doing so is papal excommunication, usually with expulsion from priesthood. I have never heard of a case of this strict confessional secrecy being violated. So a third reason is that the Church provided a safe place for the confession that is sometimes necessary for us, and often helpful.
The main reason for confession to a priest is that we are dealing with a sacrament, a way in which Christ set up a means for dispensing grace, ‘Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven’ (see John 20:22-23). The priest cannot really be said to forgive sins by the power of Christ, if he doesn’t know what the sins are. In the sacrament it is Christ who forgives. Since Christ is ascended into heaven, we would not be able to see him or hear his voice forgiving us. But he acts in the person of the priest. When the priest says, ‘I absolve you from your sins,’ he is doing so in Christ’s name and place; we hear the actual words of forgiveness, and the sin is removed forever.
St Thérèse of Lisieux recalls her first confession. She says, ‘I never felt so much joy in my soul. Since then I’ve gone to confession on all the real feasts, and it was truly a feast for me each time.’