Father Answers Your Questions


Question Many of my non-Catholic friends say they don’t have to confess their sins to a priest.  They say they confess directly to God and ask for His forgiveness.  I say to them that Jesus gave us the sacrament of reconciliation when he said to his apostles, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained"  (John 20:19-23). 

If a non-Catholic doesn’t confess his or her sins to a priest, wouldn’t that person die with mortal sin on their soul and therefore jeopardize their salvation?  Please explain.


Answer  

You are right to explain to your friends that we as Catholics believe that Jesus gave the power to forgive sins to the Church.  This is most apparent to us when we consider the confession of Peter about Jesus at Caesarea Philippi (Matt 16:13-19).  It is here that Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  It is Peter who says “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”.  Jesus in turns declares to Peter:

“Blessed are you, Simon Son of Jonah.  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly father.  And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.  I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

You can also see how the Church has used this scripture passage as it has developed its teachings in the Official Catholic Catechism.

The Apostles' Mission

858  Jesus is the Father's Emissary. From the beginning of his ministry, he "called to him those whom he desired; . . . . And he appointed twelve, whom also he named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to preach."From then on, they would also be his "emissaries" (Greek apostoloi). In them, Christ continues his own mission: "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you."The apostles' ministry is the continuation of his mission; Jesus said to the Twelve: "he who receives you receives me."

859  Jesus unites them to the mission he received from the Father. As "the Son can do nothing of his own accord," but receives everything from the Father who sent him, so those whom Jesus sends can do nothing apart from him, from whom they received both the mandate for their mission and the power to carry it out. Christ's apostles knew that they were called by God as "ministers of a new covenant," "servants of God," "ambassadors for Christ," "servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God."

860  In the office of the apostles there is one aspect that cannot be transmitted: to be the chosen witnesses of the Lord's Resurrection and so the foundation stones of the Church. But their office also has a permanent aspect. Christ promised to remain with them always. The divine mission entrusted by Jesus to them "will continue to the end of time, since the Gospel they handed on is the lasting source of all life for the Church. Therefore, . . . the apostles took care to appoint successors."

The Bishops - Successors of the Apostles

861  "In order that the mission entrusted to them might be continued after their death, [the apostles] consigned, by will and testament, as it were, to their immediate collaborators the duty of completing and consolidating the work they had begun, urging them to tend to the whole flock, in which the Holy Spirit had appointed them to shepherd the Church of God. They accordingly designated such men and then made the ruling that likewise on their death other proven men should take over their ministry."

862  "Just as the office which the Lord confided to Peter alone, as first of the apostles, destined to be transmitted to his successors, is a permanent one, so also endures the office, which the apostles received, of shepherding the Church, a charge destined to be exercised without interruption by the sacred order of bishops." Hence the Church teaches that "the bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church, in such wise that whoever listens to them is listening to Christ and whoever despises them despises Christ and him who sent Christ."

A priest at his ordination is given “facilities”  (basically defined as permission) to function in the name of the bishop who ordained him.  When he hears confession and gives absolution, he is doing so in the bishop’s name.  In this way the apostolic succession of the apostles to the bishops is maintained.

Still people will asked why I can’t just tell God directly my sins, why do I have to go through a priest.  In one sense these people are right. The church has always taught that in an emergency people can make an Act of Contrition and their sins will be forgiven.  But on a day to day basis, people still need to go to a priest to confess their sins.  Again part of this is based on the scriptural mandate of Jesus given to Peter.  We also have to consider who is effected by our sins.

When we sin we not only weaken our relationship with God, but we also weaken our relationship with the person against whom we sinned and the community of faith to which we belong.  To truly ask for forgiveness we need to ask for forgiveness from all the parties involved, not just God.  For Catholics, the priest as the leader of the community of faith acts for all these individuals.  He acts for God because of the permission given to him from his bishop which came down to the bishop from the apostles given by Jesus himself.  He acts for the entire community of faith because of his position as the leader/pastor.  In this way when you go to the priest to confess your sins you are getting forgiveness not just from God, but from the entire community.  Both are needed.

Also psychology has shown that someone does not really “own” a problem until they admit that problem to another person.  An alcoholic will never start on the path of sobriety until they stand up before a group and admit that they are an alcoholic.  It is only with the group support of an organization like AA that they will find the strength and tools to change.

The same is true for us as sinners.  We need to be able to go to someone and confession exactly what we are doing wrong.  When we confess it out loud, we own it.  In the process we open ourselves up to God’s strength, grace and forgiveness.  God’s strength and help that we need to change will come to us through the community.  We also need to physically hear, with our own ears, that we are forgiven.  All this happens when we go to confession with a priest.

In talking with your Protestant friends, you need to stress how we as Catholics see confession as a gift, not a burden or requirement.  What happens with Protestants who don’t go to confession?  I am going to leave that in God’s merciful hands.  I am not going to pass any sort of judgment.  As a Catholic I am going to continue to enjoy and celebrate the gift that sacrament of Reconciliation gives to me.

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