Lent is a season of repentance of sin. Repentance from sin for Catholics mostly means going to confession—yet another subject that is often misunderstood by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and for that matter, the most unused of the sacraments.
From time to time, you will hear people explain what the most important day in their life was. Maybe it was a wedding day, a particular birthday, the birth of a child, a big promotion, etc. What do you suppose the most important day in Jesus’ life was? I will give you a hint. It was the most important day in the history of the created universe: the day of his resurrection, the day that he rose from the dead.
Immediately after this most important event, Jesus appeared to his closest disciples, and of course the first thing he is going to say to them is going to be pretty important, if not most important. The Gospel of John tells us he said, “’Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’”
The first thing Jesus said, the first thing Jesus did upon his resurrection was to give his disciples the very same authority he had—to forgive sins.
Some might say, “Well, that was the Apostles, not priests.” If Jesus were to give that type of great assurance of forgiveness only through the Apostles, then it would have been offered only to the first generation of Christians. Through the laying on of hands of ordination, the priestly presence of the Apostles continues through them to the bishops, and then to the priests. God’s great gift of forgiveness was not limited to one generation.
But why do I have to go to a priest to have my sins forgiven? Why can’t I go directly to God? The short answer is that you are going directly to God when you go to confession. The priest is “in persona Christi,” that is, “in the person of Christ.” In the same way, we believe that Christ works through the priest at Mass for the Eucharist, baptisms and other sacraments, so too Christ works through the priest to forgive sins. I, as a person, have no authority or ability to forgive sins, but by the fact that I share in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ, it is he who is doing the forgiving.
Here is an analogy: Suppose I walked into your house and I saw you watching television on an eight-inch black-and-white television set. I would probably encourage you to get into the 21st century. Now being the good friend that I am, I go to buy a 72-inch plasma TV to give to you as a gift. You, of course, are thrilled and delighted at the same time. Two weeks later, I stop by for a visit, and your are watching your favorite show on your old black-and-white; the plasma television I gave you is back in the box and in the garage. How do you suppose I would feel?
Jesus gave the great gift of sacramental forgiveness on the most important day of his life; it is a far greater gift than a big television. We all know the intangible feeling we get once we have gone to confession; we know we are forgiven! It is a gift the Catholic Church has kept. Jesus said, “Everyone to whom much is given, of him will much be required” (Luke 12:48). We should not be asking why we have to go to confession; we should be beating down the priest’s door to be able to get to confession. It is a gift that we have a responsibility to use.
Twelve thousand legions of angels cannot forgive sins. The Blessed Virgin Mary in all her heavenly glory cannot forgive a single venial sin. But a priest can! What a gift! God gives this to us as a great gift of his infinite mercy. Nothing we can do can out-do God’s mercy. Hitler’s sins are a speck of dust compared to the fountain that is God’s mercy. But in order to have a good confession, you first have to be truly sorry for your sins, and then have the resolve to try not to sin in the future, which is why the Act of Contrition is important in the confessional.
What might be thought to be unique to Catholics in reality is not. Nearly all Christian denominations believe that God forgives sins through another person. Most believe that at baptism our sins are washed away. Well, if God can use a person to forgive sins in baptism, who are we to say that God cannot forgive sins after baptism, in the confessional, especially since he was the one who said so on the day of this resurrection.
To deny the reality of confession is limiting the power and mercy of Christ. It is Lent. Prepare yourself for the high feast of Easter. Prepare yourself for the day that Jesus gave us this great gift. Cleanse your soul, and go to confession.