Why do Catholics confess their sins to a priest? Isn’t God the one who forgives us?
Of course, God is the one who alone can and does forgive us our sins, but God in His mysterious plan for us from the beginning chose to show His love, including His forgiving love, through the Church.
Remember the healing of the paralytic by Jesus and the reaction of the crowd? First, Jesus said, "Your sins are forgiven. "Then He told him to rise and walk. The reaction of the leaders to the first statement was: "He has blasphemed. Only God can forgive sins." The response of the people to the whole experience was different. They praised God for giving such authority to men.
The emphasis of the Bible is the fact that Jesus forgave sins as the Son of Man, as one sent by God. This power to forgive sins Jesus passed on to the Apostles. The words are from John’s Gospel (John 20:21ff.): "Peace be with you,’ Jesus said again, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Then He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven them: if you hold them bound, they are held bound."
But how can one know what sins to forgive or what sins to retain unless these are made known; that means unless they are confessed? This experience of confession of sins to a priest to receive the sign of God’s healing forgiveness is called by the Church the Sacrament of Penance or the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We are once more made one with God. Jesus intended this power to be exercised not only by the Apostles, but also by their successors for the good of sinners.
In Matthew, chapter twenty eight, we read: "Full authority has been given to me both in Heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you and know that I am with you always until the end of the world." Now, as Catholics, we believe that by ordination, a priest is given as much power to minister God’s healing forgiveness as the Apostles themselves possessed.
So the first reason why Catholics confess their sins to a priest is that God has chosen to express his forgiving love this way. Our humanity is sacred to God, He reaches out to us through and in accord with our humanity. God knows that one of our needs is to be certain, to be re-assured. God wants me to know with faith assurance that when I am sincerely repentant, when I am truly sorry, that He has forgiven my sins. Again and again Jesus showed His love through outward, external signs. The words said by the priest, "I absolve you from all your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," are those faith-signs of the certainty of God’s forgiveness.
Another need that we have is to get things off the chest, so to speak. We may know what is bothering us, but until we speak about it to someone else, the burden remains heavy. In the actual confession of our sinfulness to a priest, there is also a human feeling of being made free. In our letting go, God’s healing grace renews us and by the humbling experience of admitting our sins to another, we are responding to God’s call. A humble and contrite heart God will not spurn.
Besides being at one with God, Jesus indicated that we need to be at peace with one another. In Matthew 5:23, Jesus said: "If you bring your gift to the altar and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar. Go first to be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift."
Sin is both personal and communal. It affects me and my relationship with God. Practically, I cannot go to everyone personally and ask forgiveness, but the priest, as confessor and leader, represents the Church, the Community of Faith. In the experience of confession I am not only asking God to forgive me, but I am also asking the same from my brothers and sisters in the Lord. Faith in Jesus opens me to receive the sign of the Father’s forgiveness, healing and love each time I confess my sins this way.