Over time, the celebration of this Sacrament has passed from a public form — because at first it was made publicly — to a personal one, to the confidential form of Confession. This however does not entail losing the ecclesial matrix that constitutes its vital context.
In fact, the Christian community is the place where the Spirit is made present, who renews hearts in the love of God and makes all of the brethren one thing in Christ Jesus. That is why it is not enough to ask the Lord for forgiveness in one’s own mind and heart, but why instead it is necessary humbly and trustingly to confess one’s sins to a minister of the Church.
In the celebration of this Sacrament, the priest represents not only God but also the whole community, who sees itself in the weakness of each of its members, who listens and is moved by his repentance, and who is reconciled with him, which cheers him up and accompanies him on the path of conversion and human and Christian growth.
One might say: I confess only to God. Yes, you can say to God “forgive me” and say your sins, but our sins are also committed against the brethren, and against the Church. That is why it is necessary to ask pardon of the Church, and of the brethren in the person of the priest.
Pope Francis, General Audience, 19 February 2014
Reflection – Happy Shrove Tuesday! We’re reading through this great general audience from Pope Francis for these few days, in the service of beginning Lent where Lent really should begin: in the confessional. To be shriven is to be cleansed of one’s sins; it is our Catholic faith that the normal means by which we are cleansed is by the action of the Holy Spirit through the ministry of the Church.
Yes, God can forgive people their sins in other ways. This is always the objection raised by people. God can do just about anything He wants, right? As long as it does not contradict the divine goodness or the divine truth, God is absolutely free, being God and all.
The question is not what God can do, but what does God want to do. Christians believe that the full desire, the perfect will of God is revealed in Jesus Christ in the Gospels. Jesus is shown in the Gospels gathering a body of disciples around Himself, and then selecting out of that body twelve men called apostles.
His own ministry has been one of extending by his own authority and word God’s forgiveness and mercy to sinners, a scandalous departure from any accepted practice of the time. After his resurrection he breathes his Spirit upon the gathered apostles and gives them authority to forgive sin or retain it.
And so this is the perfect will of God, that His mercy and His forgiveness be made available to us not in some vague abstract way as we confess to Him in our hearts, but in a flesh and blood, tangible way, words spoken, a human face and a human voice expressing to us those most awesome of words: “I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Of course this also has to do with what Pope Francis points out here, that sin is not only against God but against the community. Even the most secret and private sins, the sins that seem to have little social element to them (sinful thoughts, for example) injure the body of believers. When I choose, even in the most private recesses of my heart, to give way to thoughts of anger, lust, greed, pride, envy, and so forth, I am making myself into a less generous, less kind, less merciful person. Every choice that we make is making us into something, is moving us either towards love or away from love. So every choice we make affects not just us but the whole Church, its internal unity and external mission.
So we need to be reconciled to the Church. But it is the merciful love of God made accessible to us in Jesus Christ which flows through the Church in the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. It is never Fr. Denis Lemieux or Fr. Whoever who is working anything here—there is nowhere in my priestly life where I am more utterly conscious of being a mere channel, a mere vessel of God, than in the confessional. The priest does nothing except pronounce the words of mercy—this is why it is best in general (always allowing for pastoral exceptions) for priests to avoid giving lots of counsel and advice in the confessional. It’s not the place for it, really, and muddies the waters of grace—God is acting here, not Fr. So-and-so.
So that’s what God wants to happen, at least according to our Catholic understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Yes, He can and does forgive people in other ways all the time, obviously. But this is how He wants to show his mercy. And so, if you are Catholic, and this is the faith you have chosen to embrace, there is a simple conclusion to draw from this.
Go. To. Confession. You have nothing to lose but your sin and guilt, and the deepest, fullest, and most beautiful expression of God’s merciful love and the communion of the Church to gain. Amen, and happy Shrove Tuesday.