I’m sorry: Sometimes it’s easier for me to say these words and to mean them than to say I forgive you. Truth be told.
I forgive you: These are beautiful words of the heart, don’t you think? It takes strength to utter them, and I can only speak for myself when I say that sometimes it is only an act of the will prompted by love which enables me to say them at all. My ego and feelings get in the way. Fortunately, God has promised to forgive us when we are sorry and confess our sins to him. I wonder sometimes how easy it is for Him to say, “I forgive you?” But then, he knows our hearts, thank you, God.
You know that I grew up in the Catholic faith, so my experience with “confessing sin” revolved around the Sacrament of Confession, now commonly referred to as Reconciliation. I hear them – the comments about “going to confession.” Many people say that they would rather talk to God privately and avoid the confessional. I admit that I have been ambivalent on the subject. If you aren’t Catholic (or you are and don’t like the practice) follow me here for a moment. When it comes to understanding (or not) what the church teaches, I’ve found that a little education explains a lot. So, here is what I discovered after a “little bit” of investigation.
First of all, we know that if we confess in sorrow and we don’t intend to sin again, then God will forgive us. Thankfully. Now this is the part that I must have forgotten: sin hurts the sinner, but it also hurts the entire Body of Christ. Because sin is a willful and deliberate act against the law of God, it damages our relationship with him. Sin also breaks the fraternal (brotherly) union between the sinner and the Body of Christ, which is the church. In other words, sin hurts the church, not just the sinner. Therefore, reconciliation should take place within the church – it’s not a private thing. It’s sort of like the person who wrongs another person and then is sorry about it. He could tell God he’s sorry and of course he’s forgiven, but he still needs to go and ask forgiveness from the person that was offended, and make amends. The sacrament brings healing and peace to the sinner and to the church.
So….what is the priest’s role, if only God forgives sin? As with anything Catholic, there is a very good explanation for this! And yes, it is biblical! When Jesus appeared to the disciples in the upper room after his resurrection he said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20: 21-23, RCE) Also look at 2 Corinthians 5:18: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” And, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)
Christ gave his apostles authority to give peace to others by reconciling them to God. It is with this intention that our priests act as Christ’s representatives, as the Apostles did. We hear these words from the formula of absolution that the priest recites during the sacrament: “Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace. And I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Peace to you.
So that is my very brief explanation of the gift of the sacrament. The Catechism has so much more for you: see paragraphs 1440-1470. Here is a quick read that may interest you: