Do We Really Need It?
Why should you go to confession? There are a hundred reasons we conjure up why not to go to confession, but there are twice as many reasons why we should go.
"I Can Confess Directly to God."
The most popular argument against going to confession is "I don't need to go to a priest. I can confess directly to God." St. Augustine had to deal with this in the fifth century:
Let no one say... "I repent before God. God knows it and pardons me." What! Was it then said in vain to the priests, "Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven"? You hold the Gospel of no account. You despise the words of Christ, and you promise yourself what he refuses to you.
You can indeed confess directly to God, and be forgiven venial sins. However, as the Catechism of The Catholic Church (CCC) teaches, "Individual and integral confession of grave sins followed by absolution remains the only ordinary means of reconciliation with God and with the Church" (CCC # 1497). For mortal sins we need more than just "direct confession": Anyone conscious of grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion (CCC #1385).
Also, by not making use of the sacrament of Reconciliation, you do not receive the sacramental grace that comes from going to confession.
St. Francis de Sales wrote:
In confession you not only receive absolution from the... sins you confess, but also great strength to avoid them in the future, light to see them clearly, and abundant grace to repair whatever damage you have incurred. You will also practice the virtues of humility, obedience, simplicity, and charity. In the single act of confession you will exercise more virtues than in any other act whatsoever.
St. John Vianney said, "When you go to confession you un-nail Our Lord."
When you confess directly to God you don't hear the words of absolution from the priest, by which you can be sure you have been forgiven. Jesus gave his apostles the power to forgive and retain sins (Jn. 20:23). A priest can often tell if you are truly contrite for your sins. He can help you know what things are truly wrong and what things are serious matter. It is said, "No one is a good judge in his own case." The priest helps us arrive at an objective understanding of how we stand before God. There is great comfort in knowing we are truly forgiven, not just subjectively, but objectively.
St. Dorotheus said "It does not matter how many virtues a man may have, even if they are beyond number and limit. If he has turned from the path of self-accusation, he will never find peace."
In confession, too, we can get some spiritual guidance. We may need counsel on how to deal with a problem in a truly Christian way. The priest can often help us find the right approach.
There is another reason to go to confession, of course. The Catechism of the Church states:
According to the Church's command, "after having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year" (CCC1457).
Each year we put off confessing serious sins, alas, another serious sin is added.
As anyone who has gone to confession recently knows, the sacrament of penance is not a harsh tribunal of justice, but a manifestation of God's infinite mercy. God waits patiently for us to return to him so that he can embrace us again with his love and help us to be at peace. The priest is there in the confessional to represent Christ, the one who told the parable of the lost sheep, the prodigal son, who forgave his executioners from the cross. This is the Jesus who waits for you in the person of the priest in the confessional!
"Confession is Painful!"
One person said he had a friend who "shakes all over every time she goes to confession, and has many friends who do the same. How can you call this a consoling sacrament?" Perhaps more important than how she feels when she goes is how does she feel when she leaves? This is the key.
Also, Many people tremble at the mere thought of going to the dentist, or for surgery, but consider the alternative: rotted teeth, diseased organs, etc.
Rotted teeth and diseased organs are serious matters, but a rotted soul... What a tragedy. Some put off the confession of serious sins and try to cover them over with various arguments why they shouldn't go. After a while they feel that they have accomplished their goal, the pain is numbed. They hardly notice it. It's like an infected wound that gets covered over by skin. You almost forget it is there. But it is there, festering away and eating away at your whole body. Unconfessed mortal sins eat away at the soul, but the corrosion is almost invisible. It can be like a cancer, which is not discovered until it's too late.
Many psychologists have marveled at the power of this sacrament. It is not primarily a psychological exercise, but there is a psychological element. We are told that strong emotions need to be expressed in some healthy way. If we keep them in we may develop a neurosis. Guilt can be a strong, and helpful emotion, if we allow it to move us to apologize. If we hold it in however, it will pop out in other ways, as toothpaste used to come out from the side of the tube when we squeezed the tube without taking the cap off. Guilt will come out as criticism, especially of the Church. Or, it may come out as anger, anger over any little thing that happens. Unexpressed guilt can make us very sour people.
"But, I thought guilt was a bad thing," you say? Some guilt is good, some bad. The guilt that moves us to contrition and apology is good. The guilt that we keep after that is bad. Once you go to confession and are absolved, get rid of the guilt. Prolonged guilt is often the result of pride. The person thinks, in effect, "How could someone like me do something as terrible as that?" The fact of the matter is we are all weaklings in the eyes of God, and it is only when we say with St. Paul, "I will boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me" (2 Cor. 12:9), that we get strength.
Once Fulton Sheen was instructing an airline stewardess in the faith. When he taught her about confession, and the need to go, in order to be forgiven serious sins, she blurted out, "Now I know I'll never become a Catholic." Sheen said, "Come back for one more hour, and if you still feel the same, we'll end the lessons." She agreed. The following week she came again and the hour ended the same way, only this time she was angry and screaming. He said, "There is nothing I have said which should bring such a reaction... Did you ever have an abortion?" She said "Yes," and began to weep. It was out, and she was no longer angry or reluctant to continue. She finished her lessons, went to confession and joined the Church. And, she found peace. She feared the pain of confessing, but was glad when it was over.
Sometimes by avoiding a painful thing today we bring on twice the pain tomorrow.
But, what if the priest gets angry with me? That seldom happens anymore, but if it does, simply ask the priest, "Father, did you die on the cross for me?"
There is another thing to remember about the discomfort of this sacrament: the more we go, the easier it is to go. Everyone should attempt to go to confession at least once a month, but ideally every two weeks. The more often we go to confession, the more sensitive we are to our sins, even our small sins, and the less discomfort we feel.
To be sure, if a person has a serious psychological problem with confession, he should discuss it with a priest and see about the possibility of being excused, at least for a time.
"I'm Embarrassed to Tell My Sins to Another Human Being!"
True, it can be embarrassing, but that should not keep us from so great a source of grace. How often we go to a friend to tell them some wrong we have committed against our spouse. Do we believe it is Jesus in the confessional, or don't we? Who could be a more understanding friend? I have received more understanding and comfort from the priests in the confessional than in any good friend.
What will he think of you? He will see you as Jesus sees you: one who has been wiped clean. But won't he look down on me? Let the priest without sin be the first to throw a stone. We priests have to go to confession too. Do you think we are without sin? Think again. Priests know also, that some of the greatest saints_St. Augustine, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Margaret of Cortona_had been great sinners. Who is to say you are not the next? Priests try to look at the "new you," not the old one.
The priest is bound not only to never reveal the sin of a penitent, but to try to forget sins as soon as he hears them. There is an expression that we priests have: What I know from confession, I know less than that which I do not know at all.
So often confession is the beginning of a great conversion. Bishop Sheen told this story:
When Charles de Foucauld, a hero of France but still an evil man, entered a church one day, he knocked at the confessional of Father Huvelin and said: "Come out, I want to talk to you about a problem." Fr. Huvelin answered, "No, come in; I want to talk to you about your sins." Foucauld, struck by Divine Grace, obeyed; later on he became a [hermit] in the desert and one of the saintly men of our times.
A young man once gave a talk about his conversion. He had been a Catholic since childhood, but he fell into sin and neglected confession, though he continued to go to Mass. So, he did need conversion. He went to confess one Saturday afternoon, and found himself at the end of a long line of people. He looked at his watch and decided he didn't have time to go, so he started to leave. A woman close to the confessional grabbed him as he went by and said, "Here, take my place. You look like you may need it more that I." Indeed he did. He was caught... by the Hound of Heaven. He went in, confessed, and returned to the sacraments for the first time in over ten years. He went on to become a priest.
"I Don't Need to Go to Confession. I Have Only Venial Sins."
Pope John Paul II said on June 15, 1983:
The sacrament of reconciliation is not reserved only for those who commit serious sins. It was instituted for the remission of all sins and the grace that flows from it has a special [power] of purification and support in the effort of amendment and progress. It is an irreplaceable sacrament in the Christian life; it cannot be disregarded or neglected if one wants the seed of divine life to mature in the Christian and produce all the desired results.
When we confess just venial sins we develop a greater sensitivity to them, and become more inclined to overcome them. Most people who commit mortal sins began with repeated venial sins, and thus weakened, fell into more serious sins.
One person went on a retreat and as part of the retreat he went to confession. It had been more than two years since he had gone. He hadn't committed any mortal sins so he didn't absolutely have to go. Nonetheless, the priest gently corrected him on his staying away for so long. "Could it be a matter of pride that you haven't come to confession all this time?" He encouraged him to go at least once a month from then on, just for venial sins. The man admitted his pride, and resolved to go monthly.
Pius XII wrote in Mysticii corporis:
For a constant and speedy advancement in the path of virtue we highly recommend the pious practice of frequent confession... for by this means we grow in a true knowledge of ourselves and in Christian humility, bad habits are uprooted, spiritual negligence and apathy are prevented, the conscience is purified and the will strengthened, salutary spiritual direction is obtained and grace is increased by the effectiveness of the sacrament itself.
Confession: God doesn't need it. We do.