"I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 16:19) Jesus says this to Simon after renaming him "Peter" and declaring that "on this rock [petra] I will build my church."
Only God can forgive sins. The Jews of Jesus' time knew this, which is why many religious leaders accused him of being a blasphemer when he claimed to forgive sins. Of course, Jesus was committing no blasphemy; he can and does forgive sins, because he is God.
So why do Catholics confess their sins to a priest? We believe that Jesus gave the apostles the authority to forgive sins (John 20:23) and reconcile sinners with the Church (Matthew 16:19). That authority has been handed down through apostolic succession to all priests. When a priest says, "I absolve you from your sins," he is acting in persona Christi -- "in the person of Christ." It is the priest saying the words of absolution, but it is Christ himself administering the Sacrament and forgiving our sins.
In the very early days of Christianity, grave sinners performed public penances, which could sometimes take years to complete! The practice of private confession and penance grew out of the monastic tradition several centuries later, and has remained in place to this day. But the basics of the Sacrament -- particularly that a person must be absolved of all grave sins before receiving the Eucharist -- have been in place since the earliest days of the Church:
"Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. . . . On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure" (From the Didache, 70 AD).Those basics include: confession of sins, contrition, penance, and absolution.
The Process, and Why I Love It:
1. Examination of Conscience. We do this before going to confession so that we know what sins we're going to confess before we walk in the confessional. It's one thing to say, "yes, I'm a sinner." It's another to take a good look at everything you've done and really think about when you've been wrong.
Many people develop the practice of doing this daily, or even twice daily, to be better aware of how they're doing. Generally, I think we're pretty good at remembering our serious transgressions. But examining our consciences frequently helps us to see those smaller vices, those habits that slowly poison our souls and become more and more difficult to "die to."
2. The Confession of Sins. After entering the confessional, we kneel or sit before the priest and say, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." We say how long it has been since our last confession, and then we confess our sins. For most people, this is the hardest part. It can be very difficult to hear ourselves saying our sins them out loud, especially when they are serious. But I really think this is crucial. In those moments, I can really feel the weight of my sins; I can also feel myself truly taking responsibility for them.
And no, I don't feel scared to be telling them to a priest. I know I am really telling them to Christ himself. Also, the priest is bound for life by the Seal of Confession to keep all sins private. The patron of confessors, St. John Nepomucene, was put to death for refusing to reveal a woman's sins to her jealous husband (who happened to be a king named Wenceslaus -- evidently not the "good" one from the Christmas carol!).
3. Contrition. This means that we must be truly sorry to obtain forgiveness. The most popular "Act of Contrition" prayer isn't the one I learned as a child and I still don't have it memorized, but I prefer it to the one I learned and I'm hoping to memorize it soon:
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You, and I detest all my sins, because of your just punishments, but most of all because they offend You, my God, Who are all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin. Amen.4. Penance: This is assigned before absolution, but performed afterwards. It usually doesn't take long; most of my penances have been prayers (Our Fathers, Hail Marys, for special intentions) or readings (from scripture or the lives of the saints). Catholicism for Dummies makes the point that "whatever the penance, it's merely a token, because Catholics believe that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is what made atonement for our sins. Your penance is for your benefit -- to remind yourself that God comes first and you come last." I know I could use all the help there I can get!
5. Absolution: Here, the priest gives his sacramental absolution and God forgives us:
"The formula of absolution used in the Latin Church expresses the essential elements of this sacrament: the Father of mercies is the source of all forgiveness. He effects the reconciliation of sinners through the Passover of his Son and the gift of his Spirit, through the prayer and ministry of the Church." (CCC 1449)Hearing the words, "I absolve you from all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," is a liberating and joyful experience.
6. Sanctifying grace: This is God's love dwelling in the soul. When we commit mortal sins, we effectively shut the door on sanctifying grace. The Sacrament of Penance restores it. Even if we only have venial (less-serious) sins on our soul, more sanctifying grace is always a very good thing. It washes away the spiritual illness from our souls and fortifies us, helping us to avoid sin in the future. I have gone to confession much more often in recent years than when I was a teenager and young adult, and I can certainly perceive the huge difference that sanctifying grace has made in my life.
Remember, no matter what you've done, God still loves you and always wants you back! "There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance" (Luke 15:7).
*Did you catch what happens in John 20:22? "He breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'" Note that Jesus performs an outward sign [breathing], which he did not have to do, to show the invisible grace of the Holy Spirit. Love!