Terri left a nice comment to my last post in which she asked, among other things, why Catholics confess their sins to priests when we can go directly to Christ. Here’s an explanation, as well as some other good info here and here. Those links provide enough info that I don’t think I need to get into the details myself. What I can offer, as usual, is my experience:
The concept of confession was not something I struggled with in the conversion process. When I read up on the reasoning behind it it sounded right, so I moved on to focus on the issues that I did have trouble with. But in the long road to becoming Catholic, more than a year between the time that I thought I was “probably” going to enter the Church to when I finally did, I thought a lot about my sins. The more I prayed and attempted to grow closer to God, the more my sinful past (and present) bothered me.
Not yet having the option of confession, I went directly to Christ.
In my prayers, though they were often scattered and interrupted by my notorious inability to focus, I asked Jesus to forgive me for all that I had done. I thought over my past and present sins in as much detail as I could recall, and expressed sincere regret. I also prayed that God would lead me to better understanding of the weight of what I’d done. I’d read the work of some great saints who talked about how attempting to understand God goes hand in hand with attempting to understand just what a tragedy our sins — our stunning rejections of God’s pure, self-giving love — really are. So I prayed to know God better, and asked him to let me see my life through his eyes, sins and all.
When the time finally came for my first confession, I thought it would be redundant. Having gone so long without the sacrament available to me, I’d pretty much straightened everything out with God myself — I’d offered a full and honest account of my sins asked sincerely for forgiveness.
So, that cold April night, as I stood in the dim light of our church and listened to ethereal chant music waft through the building, I wasn’t anxious. I was in the middle of moving to a new house and had a million things on my plate and just needed to get this checked off my to-do list.
Then, when I finally sat down in front of our priest, everything changed.
I’d thought about all these sins a million times within the safe confines of my head, but now I had to speak of them. I had to put them into words. I had to hear it, and so did someone else. Though I fully believed the Catholic teaching that I was confessing my sins to God, that the priest was only a conduit, there was still the fact that another person would hear my words. I started shaking. Then I started crying.
Something about saying these things for another person to hear made it real, so much more real than when I’d thought about it in prayer. Not wanting to hold up the line, I wiped the tears from my eyes and tried to get through it as efficiently as possible. And then I got to the part where I needed to confess the fact that, on countless occasions, I’d made fun of Jesus Christ himself. I started the sentence, but was stopped by a lump in my throat. I’d already prayed about this so many times, I didn’t think it would be so difficult. Our kind priest waited patiently. I tried again, but stammered after the first couple of words. How do you say something like that? I thought of the crucifix at the front of our church, depicting the Man who volunteered to undergo a long death of unthinkable torture for people like me. And I had to say, out loud, that I had flippantly ridiculed him — on many occasions. I was sobbing. I was a mess.
When I finally stammered out my full confession, I listened eagerly for the priest to tell me that my sins had been forgiven. I also eagerly awaited receiving my penance. When the priest told me to recite one of the Psalms a certain number of times as penance, I was so grateful. I wanted so much to do something to show God how sorry I was — not for his sake, since he already knew my heart, but for me. I knelt in front of the crucifix and recited the Psalm with all the love I could muster. Being able to demonstrate my regret and contrition in a physical way was so healing, so cathartic.
So many things became clear to me that night, some of which I wrote about here and here. By allowing me to put my sins into words for someone else to hear, God answered my prayer that I might better understand the weight of what I’d done. Yet, in a turn I didn’t expect, by allowing me to hear someone else say words that I’d been forgiven, God also allowed me to better understand the immensity of his mercy, and his love.
I know that God doesn’t need us to participate in the sacrament of confession. He knows our hearts, and doesn’t need any kind of formality in order to grant us forgiveness. But, from my experience, I think I know why he has given us this beautiful ritual: for us. It’s a gift. It’s a way for him to allow us humans to have something tangible to cling to in our fallen world, to better feel the tragedy of sin, and the glory of his perfect love.