Ask Father Sergio: Why Do Catholics Go to Confession?
With this question, I am initiating a new feature of our web page and our Bulletin. Here, I will try to answer your questions, whatever they may be (For example, Why should I go to confession? Why should I go to the Mass? How do I pray?). I am inviting you to send your questions by way of e-mail to me at email@example.com, or just drop your questions off at the parish office, and I will do my best to answer them.
To address the topic of confession is of special importance during Lent, because the initial call of Lent is to “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
We will start with a simple question: When did confession start? The practice of confessing one’s sins began in the first centuries of the Church. Early Christians obtained forgiveness for their sins by practicing prayer, good deeds, fasting and almsgiving. Today, we call this early way of penitential discipline public penance. Sometimes, sinners publicly named their sins, but testimonies from the early Church show that in most cases only the priest knew of a penitent’s offenses. When a penitent did publicly confess his/her sins, the decision to do so was always the private initiative of the person, a free act of Christian faith for spiritual motives.
In those days, some Christians were, for a time, separated from their participation in the life of the community. Around the time of Saint Augustine (4th-5th Centuries), sinners were forbidden to celebrate and share the Eucharist until they repented. All of this sprang from the commission of Jesus to his apostles, as found at the end of the Gospel of John: “Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained” (John 20:22-23).
In a few words I would like to explain the logic of this passage. The first part of the text affirmed that the ability to forgive is given by the Holy Spirit to the Apostles. It also establishes the difference between those things that are forgiven and those that are retained. Now, the only way to make that distinction is to know what a person has done, and that knowledge is only possible if the one who commits sin also confesses it as an expression of what he or she has done.
Since then there has developed what we now know as the contemporary practice of confession. The words that are used to name this sacrament are many: Confession Penance, and Reconciliation. Each of these names expresses one aspect of the sacrament. Confession makes reference to the fact we accept and express verbally that we have sinned. Penance is outward expression of our repentance that the priest asks us to do. Reconciliation is the final goal of all the elements of the sacrament: to be one again with God and to be one again with the community of believers, the Church.
Why do we go to the confession? We go because we are not perfect and because Jesus gave the Church this sacrament that helps us to leave behind our old life. In confessing our sins, we have the opportunity to receive not only forgiveness, but also counsel to help us follow Christ more closely.
Go to Confession and you will see… that the mercy of God is greater than our sins.