To better understand the great spiritual treasure contained in the Sacrament of Penance or Confession, let us turn the clock back two thousand years to Palestine, to a scene in the public life of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The majesty of His Person, the wisdom pouring forth from His mouth and the power manifested by His miracles attracted a multitude that followed Him everywhere.
Only God Can Forgive Sins
One day, after curing the centurion’s daughter as a reward for his faith, silencing the storm before the fearful apostles, and expelling the demons in Gerasa, He boarded Peter’s boat for Capharnaum.
Hearing that He was in a house in their city, the people gathered in such numbers that the door of the house was obstructed. But for faith there are no obstacles, so some charitable persons carrying a paralytic, unable to enter by the door, climbed to the roof and lowered the suffering man into the room, setting him at Our Lord’s feet to be cured.
To everyone’s surprise, instead of simply performing the expected miracle, Jesus said: “Courage, son, thy sins are forgiven.”
This was something new. No prophet had dared pardon sins. Not even John the Baptist, the greatest of all, had dared so much, preaching only the baptism of penance for the forgiveness of sins.1 Nevertheless, this new Prophet declared, “thy sins are forgiven.”
The Pharisees, always looking for something with which to be scandalized, despite the Master’s astounding miracles, thought to themselves: “How does this man speak this way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?”
Truly, only God can forgive sins. That is because sin is an offense against the divine Majesty and only the object of the offense can forgive the offender. No one can forgive an offense done to another, above all when this Other is of a superior nature, God Himself.
Still, the wisdom and the miracles showed that this Prophet possessed powers that no other prophet before Him had possessed. His was an unfathomable perfection. But the Pharisees had hardened their hearts, and their understanding was clouded by passion. Within themselves, they uttered the same accusation that they were to renew at His passion: “He has blasphemed.”2
There was drama in the air. Everyone felt it. How would Jesus react before that mute accusation and ill-disguised surprise?
The answer came as a challenge. “Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat, and walk’?”
As always, the Pharisees were speechless before the dilemma offered them by the Rabbi.
In answer to their silence, Jesus said: “But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins,” He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, arise, pick up your mat, and go home.”
“And immediately,” writes Saint Mark, the paralytic “rose, picked up his mat, and went away in the sight of everyone. They were all astounded and glorified God, saying: ‘We have never seen anything like this.’”3
The miracle performed by Our Lord on this occasion had an apologetic value. As Saint John Chrysostom explains, Jesus proved His Divinity by a triple miracle: “First, declaring openly their secret thoughts and murmurs against Him; second, healing the paralytic, third, performing the miracle with this end in view, that, by it, He might show that He had the power to forgive sins.”4
Our Lord Gave the Apostles the Power to Forgive Sins
Here we have the explanation for Confession. As Jesus proved that He was God by means of an astounding miracle, He also proved that He could forgive sins. And, as God, He has not only the power to forgive sins but has also the power to confer this faculty on others.
Furthermore, as Jesus is the only priest of the new Law, the mediator between God and men, a simple “delegation” of the power to forgive sins would still not be enough. It was necessary that Christ unite His Eternal Priesthood to that of those that would continue His work on earth after His ascension into Heaven.5 For this reason, He instituted the ministerial priest as the visible instrument of His action.6
The power to forgive sins was bestowed on the Apostles on the evening of the day Our Lord resurrected from the dead and mysteriously appeared amidst the Apostles gathered in the cenacle behind locked doors.
Saint John narrates:
Now when it was late that same day, the first of the week, and the doors were shut, where the disciples were gathered together, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst and said to them, “Peace be to you.”
And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. The disciples therefore were glad, when they saw the Lord.
He said therefore to them again, “Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you.”
When He had said this, He breathed on them and He said to them, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain they are retained.”7
The Power to Judge and to Forgive
It is clear in the narrative above that Our Lord instituted not only the Sacrament of Penance, but also the mode in which it must be practiced. On declaring that the sins that a priest forgives are forgiven and those that he retains are retained, He is signifying that, before forgiving, the priest must become acquainted with the sins as well as with the dispositions of the sinner. Only then will he be in a position to judge if there are conditions for forgiveness or not.
Thus, in the tribunal of Confession, as in any other tribunal, it is necessary that there be an accused, an accuser, and a judge. In Confession, the role of accuser is exercised by the penitent who accuses himself to the priest of the sins he has committed; hence the necessity of oral confession.8 The judge is the priest.
The Absolute Necessity for Secrecy in Confession
Our Lord, having established the Sacrament of Penance and the need for the penitent to declare his sins to the priest, also established the secrecy of Confession as a necessary consequence. For if secrecy were not obligatory, Confession would be odious if not impossible. This would render the sacrament ineffective, which is absurd.
Therefore, the secrecy of Confession is a divinely instituted right and cannot be abolished by any earthly authority. Any attempt in this respect is in direct opposition to God’s will.
Besides being a divine right, this obligation of secrecy was also established by ecclesiastical law, which always imposed the severest penalty for its infraction.9 Current legislation continues to maintain the same, declaring that any confessor who violates the secrecy of Confession is automatically excommunicated and can only be absolved by the Holy See.10
Is It Not Too Humiliating to Confess to Another Man?
Is it not too humiliating to have to submit to another man, himself a sinner, at times possibly even a greater sinner than the one confessing his sins?
If we truly realized the scope of God’s infinite grandeur and majesty and His immense perfection, we would be much more ashamed of telling our sins to Him (as if He did not already know them,) than to a man. The more perfect is the creature we address, the more miserable we appear and the more evident is the contrast between perfection and sin.
That is why theologians say that when a person dies in the terrible state of mortal sin and appears at his private judgment before the unspeakable perfection of God, he flees from God and hurls himself in Hell to hide his shame.
Thus if we analyze this well, this very humiliation of having to confess our sins to another man is a mercy of God. How much more humiliating it would be to kneel before the Divine Master Himself and tell Him all our sins! What is the humiliation before a man compared to the humiliation of recounting our sins before the infinite perfection of God?
In any case, this is the form in which Our Lord instituted the Sacrament of Confession, so we should submit in a spirit of obedience and love. In His infinite wisdom, He does everything to perfection. When men try to modify what He instituted, the result can only be deplorable.
The prideful attitude of saying, “I confess directly to God,” is almost the same as saying: “I am so perfect that I go directly to God Himself. I have no need of those crutches that are the Sacraments, the advice or the help of other men.”
The priest is “taken from among men and made their representative before God to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”11 An angel cannot be a mediator. To refuse thus the mediation of another man is to refuse the priesthood, because the priest, while a mediator, has to be of the same nature as those for whom he mediates. That is why Our Lord, the Supreme Priest, became flesh and took our nature onto Himself, as Saint Paul says: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.”12
But Can a Sinner Forgive Sins?
To a priest applies, even more than to the common faithful, the general convocation to sanctity of Our Lord when He said: “So be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”13 But a priest is also subject to temptation and can not only sin but be, in certain cases, a sinner. Nevertheless, even when he sins, he does not forfeit the power that comes to him from the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
This was the objection raised at the beginning of the Church by the Donatist heretics as a result of a misunderstanding of the doctrine on the sacraments. But Saint Augustine made it very clear to these same heretics that the power of the sacraments does not come from the sanctity of its ministers but from the infinite sanctity and perfection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
I Have No Sins to Confess…
Many people feel no need to go to Confession, thinking that they have no sins. They should consider what Scriptures says: “For the just man falls seven times.”14 “Yet there is no man on earth so just as to do good and never sin.”15 “If we say, ‘we have not sinned,’ we make Him [God] a liar, and His word is not in us.”16
In these times of extreme corruption, let us avail ourselves of this instrument of divine mercy that is Confession. Let us carefully examine our consciences and with the firm resolution of turning away from sin, confess our failings to the priest.
For this small effort, this small humiliation, the reward is immense. Our soul is washed clean, our sins are forgiven, and we return to God’s friendship. As the Psalmist says: “cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure; wash me, make me whiter than snow.”17
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- Cf. Luke 3:3.
- Matt. 26:65.
- Mark 2:5-11; cf. Matt. 8:1-34; 9:1-8.
- Cornelius a Lapide, St. Matthew’s Gospel, Chaps. I to IX, in The Great Commentary of Cornelius a Lapide (London: John Hodges, 1893), p. 353.
- See 1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 5:6; 7:24; Ps. 110:5.
- Our Lord instituted the Sacrament of Holy Orders on Holy Thursday. After anticipating the sacrifice of the Cross in a sacramental form by the transformation of the bread and wine into His Body and Blood, He commanded the disciples: “Do this in remembrance of Me.” On giving this command, He also granted the necessary power to execute it, that is, the power to consecrate. (Luke, 22:19; 1 Cor.11:24.)
- John 20:19-23. Saint Cyril explains that Saint Thomas, despite being absent, also received the Holy Ghost and then the power to pardon sins eight days later when Our Lord appeared to him and converted him from his incredulity. (cf. Cornelius a Lapide, The Great Commentary–St. John’s Gospel [Edinburgh: John Grant, 1908], p. 273).
- Under special circumstances, the Church allows general absolution without oral confession, but oral confession must be made at the first opportunity. (See Canon 963.)
- Cf. “Seal of Confession. … Imposed by Christ in instituting the sacrament, this obligation has repeatedly been inculcated by ecclesiastical authority.” Fr. Gregory Manise, O.S.B., s.v. “Seal of Confession,” in Dictionary of Moral Theology (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1962), p.1105.
- Canon 1388, cf. Canon 983.
- Heb 5:1.
- Heb. 4:15.
- Matt. 5:48.
- Prov. 24:16.
- Eccles. 7:21.
- 1 John 1:10.
- Ps. 51:9.