DEAR DOCTIMUS PRIME,
The Apostles’ Creed is a summary of what the Catholic Church believes. An article from this creed which many Catholics seem to have a problem with is the one connected with the Sacrament of Penance. Those who have a problem with it don’t understand why they cannot confess to God directly and in the privacy of their homes. They wonder why there must be a human agency, in this case a Priest, who must hear their confession. Before we get to that, there are some things we should set straight.
IN THE OLD TESTAMENT,
We notice that God always wants to be with us. When our first parents lived in the Garden of Eden, God would come down to walk with them in the cool of evening (cf. Gen 3:8). When Adam and evil sinned, they were separated from God and that only led them into more sins (Gen 6:5; 18:26; Ex 10:17-19, 34:6; 2Sam 12:13). But God never stopped providing means of restoring humans back to His friendship. As Israel grew in their understanding of their relationship with God, they understood that there was a need to mend their relationship with God whenever they sinned.
The fourth and fifth chapters of the book of Leviticus dwell extensively on sin offering and the forgiveness which would be obtained following atonement by the priest. This sin offering is made either by a king, an individual or even a whole congregation. God specified the animal to be immolated in the sacrifice. Before the sacrifice is performed the penitent mentions his/her/their sins. It is clear from this that one had to make their sin(s) known to a priest or prophet for them to be forgiven. Achan confessed his sin of theft to Joshua (Josh 7:20-21), Saul confessed to Samuel (1Sam 15:24-25), and David confessed to Nathan (2Sam 12:13). All these only prefigure the greater plan which God wanted to accomplish with the coming of Christ.
IN THE NEW TESTAMENT,
God perfected his plan of restoring us to friendship with Him when in the fullness of time, He sent his Son to redeem us from sin (Gal 4:4). The angel told Mary that the child was to be called Jesus because He will save His people from their sins (Mt 1:21). When Jesus healed the man who had been paralysed for a long time, he told him that his sins had been forgiven (Lk 5:20). It is evident that Jesus’ mission was to call sinners. This is clearly not in contention. Many are more focused on how this forgiveness is brought about.
Jesus alone has the power to forgive sins and He gave this power to His Apostles, after His resurrection (Jn 20:23). He did this only after instituting a Church to be the visible sign of His presence in the world (cf. Mt 16:18). It is to the Church that he gave the power to make disciples, baptize, teach and forgive sins (Mt 28:18-20; Jn 20:23). So when the Church through, her ordained ministers, celebrate the sacraments, She is doing exactly what Jesus wants her to do.
IN THE SACRAMENT OF RECONCILIATION,
You don’t just report yourself to a priest. When you come before a priest in confession, you are led through a process of HEALING and RESTORATION. This often takes place in four stages:
CONTRITION: You acknowledge your sins and become truly sorry for them. You recognize the Power of God’s mercy and his willingness to restore you to relationship with Him.
CONFESSION: You tell God what you have done. Just as in the Old Testament, you also the need to confess your sin to His representative, the Priest.
ABSOLUTION or pardon for your sins: This is granted by God through the priest when He says:
“GOD THE FATHER OF MERCIES, THROUGH THE DEATH AND RESURRECTION OF HIS SON HAS RECONCILED THE WORLD TO HIMSELF AND SENT THE HOLY SPIRIT AMONG US FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS; THROUGHT HE MINISTRY OF THE CHURCH MAY GOD GIVE YOU PARDON AND PEACE, AND I ABSOLVE YOU FROM YOUR SINS IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, AND OF THE SON AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT.”
With these words, you are restored to friendship with God and with the Church whose unity you have injured by your sins (cf. Rom 12:12-26).
PENANCE: the priest prescribes a penance to heal you of the injuries that sin inflicts on the soul. This may take the form of prayers or works of charity and the admonition to avoid the occasion of sin.
WHAT THE PRIEST DOES
Whether in the Old or New Testament, God has assigned an intermediary role to the priest whenever forgiveness of sin is concerned. In his capacity as Confessor, the priest, acting in the person of Christ, acts as teacher and physician to guide you and prescribe means of helping you heal the wounds of sin and effective ways of avoiding sin in the future. This is a lot better than you can do by simply asking God to forgive you your sins and hoping that He has heard your prayers.
Here are a few words to ponder; the first is from St Paul and he says that we have received “a ministry of RECONCILIATION”, to reconcile people to God (2Cor 5:18). The priest is fulfilling this injunction when he hears confession and absolves you of sin. The second is from St Augustine: “If you believe what you like in the Gospel and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe but yourself.