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After His resurrection, Jesus Christ gave His apostles the power to forgive or retain sins in His name.Two questions faithful Catholics often hear from Protestants, non-believers, and, unfortunately, fellow Catholics are: (1) Why do Catholics have to confess their sins to a priest? and (2) Why can’t Catholics simply make a confession directly to God? Since Vatican II, lines for Confession in Catholic churches have become much shorter, while the lines for Communion have become much longer. Why is this?

The Crisis

Many Catholic theologians believe there has been a loss of a sense of sin. This has occurred not only in society in general, but also among members of the Catholic Church. There is also a deficiency in Catholic catechesis or teaching about the nature of sin and the healing power of the sacrament of penance, which is also called the sacrament of confession or the sacrament of reconciliation.

Obviously, there is a very great need to restore a genuine sense of sin among our Catholic people. They need to be catechized more fully; teaching needs more substance. There needs to be a greater understanding of the official teachings of the Catholic Church regarding sin and repentance. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a good place to begin.

All human beings, in our society and in our Church, have a fallen human nature and a darkened intellect. These are the legacy of our first parents, Adam and Eve, and together they create a weakness or inclination toward sin.

Of great importance is the need for Christians to understand that Jesus Christ Himself instituted the sacrament of penance for the forgiveness of sins. This is very biblical.

Institution of the Sacrament

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his apostles who were His first priests, “Whatever you bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven.” (see Matthew 16:13-20 and 18:15-20)

In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells these same apostles, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (see John 20:19-23)

Having a special representative to plead with God for the forgiveness of the sins of the people can be found in the Old Testament, too. In the Book of Baruch, the Jewish exiles in Babylon repented of the sins that had led them into humiliation by their enemies. They asked the priests back in Jerusalem to intercede for them saying, “Pray for us to the Lord, our God, for we have sinned against the Lord, our God.” (see the Book of Baruch, chapter 1)

Therefore, there is a great need in these modern times to make clear, to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, what the sacrament of penance is really about in a comprehensive manner.

The Reality of Sin

First of all, we need to be aware that there is an infinite, all holy God. He created the world and everything in it. He also created the first two human beings, Adam and Eve, without sin. When they sinned against God out of their own freewill, they became separated from Him.

All human beings are descended from Adam and Eve, and we have inherited this same defect called original sin, which inflicts us with a weakened will and a darkened intellect. As a result, we often have a tendency to sin, and we do not fully comprehend the consequences of our sin.

Remedy for Sin

Jesus Christ came into this fallen world 2,000 years ago as its redeemer and savior. He established the sacrament of baptism, which makes it possible for all His baptized followers to receive pardon for their sins.

In the sacrament of baptism, our soul is cleansed from all sin, both the original sin we inherited from Adam and Eve and any personal sins we committed. But what about our spiritual lives after we have received baptism?

Father John Trigilio and Father Kenneth Brighenti, authors of books on the teachings of the Catholic Church, explain it this way:

"The sacrament of penance is for spiritual healing. Just as tumors are benign or malignant, the Catholic Church teaches that sins are either venial or mortal. Mortal sins are very serious and, until confessed, they kill all spiritual life in the soul."

Mortal sins are intrinsically evil, and some examples are murder, adultery, blasphemy, and homosexual acts such as sodomy.

Other sins are called venial because they are lesser sins that do not kill all spiritual life in the soul. However, they do weaken and diminish our spiritual health and make us less effective disciples of Jesus Christ.

Mortal sins ordinarily must be confessed to a priest in order to obtain forgiveness. The confession of venial sins is also a good practice, but it is not absolutely necessary for forgiveness. Because Jesus gave the apostles the power to forgive sins in His name, He must have wanted them to use it.

Sacrament of Penance

The sacrament of penance has been the remedy given by Christ to His followers for the forgiveness of sin. Before receiving this sacrament, Catholics ought to make a thorough examination of conscience. Particularly important is to recall any mortal sins committed and confess those to the priest.

The penitent would also do well to stir up a genuine sense of sorrow for venial sins which have been repeatedly committed. After confession, the penitent will be given a penance to fulfill and absolution by the priest. Often, spiritual advice will be given on how to be a more faithful disciple of Christ.

Conclusion

Scott Hahn has written an outstanding book on the sacrament of penance entitled Lord, Have Mercy: The Healing Power of Confession. In it, he writes:

"The sacrament of reconciliation has fallen into disuse. Some parishes have pulled back to a half-hour per week of posted times for confession. Yet never has the world known such a need for the sacrament. Some people seek escape from their sins through drugs or codependent relationships. Others hope to find relief through counseling or other therapies.

While all these might help us mask the symptoms, none ultimately can cure the disease of sin. Only by confessing our sins do we allow the Lamb of God to take them away. Through confession, we begin to heal. We begin to get our story straight. We come home through the open door to resume our place in God’s family. We begin to know peace."

So, go to confession and then go in peace. God bless you.

+JMJ+

© Rev. James Beegan, M.S.F. Original article published in The Messenger magazine from the Missionaries of the Holy Family.

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