Why confess to a priest?
We confess to a priest because Christ gave his disciples the power to forgive sins . . .
Catholics confess to a priest because they first went to Jesus, and he told them to go to a priest. Christ himself determined to forgive and retain sins through human intermediaries.
After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples. “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’” (Jn 20:22-23).
The apostles and their successors don’t merely proclaim forgiveness to those who repent; they can also “retain” — that is, refuse to confer absolution for sins. They have the discretionary power of “binding and loosing.” Jesus commissioned his community on earth to speak in his name not just metaphorically, but metaphysically. The sacrament of Penance as a mediation of Christ’s work is dictated by the logic of the Incarnation.
Catholics believe that Jesus is, quite literally, present on the earth today carrying out his ministry of the forgiveness of sins through the body, the Church, that acts in and bears his name. God was present to us in the flesh 2,000 ago; he continues to impart his grace in a fully personal way through those, beginning with the apostles, whom he has ordained to perpetuate his mission from the Father.
In Hebrew and the later Christian tradition, confession of sin was never just a private matter between me and God. God’s people have always commissioned particular individuals from among the people to speak forgiveness on behalf of God as well as the community.
For the ancient Israelites, confession of sin was much more complicated than for us. People offered up sin sacrifices and trespass offerings involving cattle, goats or sheep and required the ministry of the priest and the altar. Christ transformed the sacrificial system. His death put an end to animal sacrifices. He is now our sin offering, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn 1:29).
Catholics ultimately confess to God, who alone can forgive sins. The priest, for his part, visibly extends Christ’s priestly ministry, the same way the preacher extends Christ’s prophetic ministry. In creation, God fashioned humans to carry out his rule over the earth. In redemption, he resorts to those he has created in his image. When we confess to a priest we are confessing to Christ, the one High Priest who carries out his ministry through the ordained priesthood.
Al Kresta is CEO of Ave Maria Communications and host of Kresta in the Afternoon. This column is taken from his book “Why Do Catholics Genuflect?” © 2001. Used with permission of St. Anthony Messenger Press. To order copies, call 1-800-488-0488 or visit servantbooks.org