One of the more common statements that we hear from Protestants in regards to confessing our sins to an ordained priest is “I just confess my sins directly to God”. Of course, we should acknowledge our sins immediately when we are aware of them and ask God’s forgiveness. However, the God who created us knows what we need infinitely more than we do. This is why He instituted the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
According to Elizabeth Young’s survey of Carl Jung’s views on confession and forgiveness in the Journal of Religion and Health, man is a naturally religious being with an innate need to confess his wrongdoing in order to gain absolution from one qualified to give it. It is an ancient and universal phenomenon that can be attested to by psychotherapists, priests and rabbis. Confession bridges the gap between human psychology and religion, like the two beams of a cross at the place where they intersect-guilt.
A brief survey of both the Old and the New Testament demonstrates that as with everything else, when it comes to confession to a priest, “Father knows best.”
If a man carnally lie with a woman that is a bondservant and marriageable, and yet not redeemed with a price, nor made free: they both shall be scourged: and they shall not be put to death, because she was not a free woman. And for his trespass he shall offer a ram to the Lord, at the door of the tabernacle of the testimony. And the priest shall pray for him: and for his sin before the Lord: and he shall have mercy on him, and the sin shall be forgiven. Lev. 19:20-22
These is just one illustrative example from the Old Testament Scripture. In the New Covenant, Jesus perfects the old covenant: sins are not just atoned for; by His authority they are forgiven. And in His wisdom He transfers the authority to forgive sins to His apostles.
If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions. Matt. 6:14-15
Jesus cannot contradict Himself. He told us in certain terms that we must forgive to be forgiven. But, then He gave a special power to His New Testament priests to either forgive or not forgive the sins of anyone in His name. There is only one way they could know what sins need forgiveness as well as judge the sincerity of the penitent—they would need to hear their confession.
He said therefore to them again: Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you. [He gave them His authority.] When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. [He gave them the Spirit in order to help them carry out their spiritual mission.] Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them: and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained. [He gave them the power to forgive or retain the sins of any.] John 20:21-23
His New Testament priest, St. Paul, puts that power to use.
And to whom you have pardoned any thing, I also. For, what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned any thing, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ. 2Cor. 2:10
The effects of sin are all around us. They are also within us. The effects of failing to seek reconciliation with God, one another and ourselves are also evident. Reconciling with an adversary, friend or ourselves is a local treatment, which can improve other relationships germane to the damaged personal relationship eventually leading to the more thorough eradication of the disease of sin in the sacrament of reconciliation.
Let us regularly go to the Physician of Life who speaks to us the words every person longs to hear, “May God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins.” When we walk out of the confessional, we can rest assured that our sins are blotted out. There is no need for anxiety, assumptions, presumption or self-deceit.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes it well:
1465 When he celebrates the sacrament of Penance, the priest is fulfilling the ministry of the Good Shepherd who seeks the lost sheep, of the Good Samaritan who binds up wounds, of the Father who awaits the prodigal son and welcomes him on his return, and of the just and impartial judge whose judgment is both just and merciful. The priest is the sign and the instrument of God’s merciful love for the sinner.