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Confession and the forgiveness of sins

Header - Confession the Sacrament of Divine Mercy

 

To better understand the great spiritual treasure contained in the Sacrament of Penance or Confession, let us turn the clock back two thousand years to Palestine, to a scene in the public life of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The majesty of His Person, the wisdom pouring forth from His mouth and the power manifested by His miracles attracted a multitude that followed Him everywhere.


Only God Can Forgive Sins

One day, after curing the centurion’s daughter as a reward for his faith, silencing the storm before the fearful apostles, and expelling the demons in Gerasa, he boarded Peter’s boat for Capharnaum.

Jesus heals the paralytic by Harold CoppingHearing that He was in a house in their city, the people gathered in such numbers that the door of the house was obstructed. But for faith there are no obstacles, so some charitable persons carrying a paralytic, unable to enter by the door, climbed to the roof and lowered the suffering man into the room, setting him at Our Lord’s feet to be cured.

To everyone’s surprise, instead of simply performing the expected miracle, Jesus said: “Courage, son, thy sins are forgiven.”

This was something new. No prophet had dared pardon sins. Not even John the Baptist, the greatest of all, had dared so much, preaching only the baptism of penance for the forgiveness of sins.[1] Nevertheless, this new Prophet declared, “thy sins are forgiven.”

The Pharisees, always looking for something with which to be scandalized, despite the Master’s astounding miracles, thought to themselves: “How does this man speak this way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?”

Truly, only God can forgive sins. That is because sin is an offense against the divine Majesty and only the object of the offense can forgive the offender. No one can forgive an offense done to another, above all when this Other is of a superior nature, God Himself.

Still, the wisdom and the miracles showed that this Prophet possessed powers that no other prophet before Him had possessed. His was an unfathomable perfection. But the Pharisees had hardened their hearts, and their understanding was clouded by passion. Within themselves, they uttered the same accusation that they were to renew at His passion: “He has blasphemed.”[2]

There was drama in the air. Everyone felt it. How would Jesus react before that mute accusation and ill-disguised surprise?

The answer came as a challenge. “Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat, and walk’?”

As always, the Pharisees were speechless before the dilemma offered them by the Rabbi.

In answer to their silence, Jesus said: “But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins,” He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, arise, pick up your mat, and go home.”

“And immediately,” writes Saint Mark, the paralytic “rose, picked up his mat, and went away in the sight of everyone. They were all astounded and glorified God, saying: ‘We have never seen anything like this.’”[3]

The miracle performed by Our Lord on this occasion had an apologetic value. As Saint John Chrysostom explains, Jesus proved His divinity by a triple miracle: “First, declaring openly their secret thoughts and murmurs against Him; second, healing the paralytic, third, performing the miracle with this end in view, that, by it, He might show that He had the power to forgive sins.”[4]


Our Lord Gave the Apostles the Power to Forgive Sins

Here we have the explanation for Confession. As Jesus proved that He was God by means of an astounding miracle, He also proved that He could forgive sins. And, as God, He has not only the power to forgive sins but has also the power to confer this faculty on others.

Furthermore, as Jesus is the only priest of the new Law, the mediator between God and men, a simple “delegation” of the power to forgive sins would still not be enough. It was necessary that Christ unite His Eternal Priesthood to that of those that would continue His work on earth after His ascension into Heaven.[5] For this reason, He instituted the ministerial priest as the visible instrument of His action.[6]

The power to forgive sins was bestowed on the Apostles on the evening of the day Our Lord resurrected from the dead and mysteriously appeared amidst the Apostles gathered in the cenacle behind locked doors.


Jesus the comforter by Del ParsonsSaint John narrates:

Now when it was late that same day, the first of the week, and the doors were shut, where the disciples were gathered together, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst and said to them, “Peace be to you.”

When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side.

The disciples therefore were glad, when they saw the Lord. He said therefore to them again, “Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you.”

When He had said this, He breathed on them and He said to them, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain they are retained.”[7]


The Power to Judge and to Forgive

It is clear in the narrative above that Our Lord instituted not only the Sacrament of Penance, but also the mode in which it must be practiced. On declaring that the sins that a priest forgives are forgiven and those that he retains are retained, He is signifying that, before forgiving, the priest must become acquainted with the sins as well as with the dispositions of the sinner. Only then will he be in a position to judge if there are conditions for forgiveness or not.

The seal of confession is an essential aspect of the sacrament of Penance. This sacred trust between penitent and confessor cannot be broken.

Thus, in the tribunal of Confession, as in any other tribunal, it is necessary that there be an accused, an accuser, and a judge. In Confession, the role of accuser is exercised by the penitent who accuses himself to the priest of the sins he has committed; hence the necessity of oral confession.[8] The judge is the priest.


The Absolute Necessity for Secrecy in Confession

Our Lord, having established the Sacrament of Penance and the need for the penitent to declare his sins to the priest, also established the secrecy of Confession as a necessary consequence. For if secrecy were not obligatory, Confession would be odious if not impossible. This would render the sacrament ineffective, which is absurd.

Therefore, the secrecy of Confession is a divinely instituted right and cannot be abolished by any earthly authority. Any attempt in this respect is in direct opposition to God’s will.

Besides being a divine right, this obligation of secrecy was also established by ecclesiastical law, which always imposed the severest penalty for its infraction.[9] Current legislation continues to maintain the same, declaring that any confessor who violates the secrecy of Confession is automatically excommunicated and can only be absolved by the Holy See.[10]


Is It Not Too Humiliating to Confess to Another Man?

Is it not too humiliating to have to submit to another man, himself a sinner, at times possibly even a greater sinner than the one confessing his sins?

If we truly realized the scope of God’s infinite grandeur and majesty and His immense perfection, we would be much more ashamed of telling our sins to Him (as if He did not already know them,) than to a man. The more perfect is the creature we address, the more miserable we appear and the more evident is the contrast between perfection and sin.

That is why theologians say that when a person dies in the terrible state of mortal sin and appears at his private judgment before the unspeakable perfection of God, he flees from God and hurls himself in Hell to hide his shame.

Thus if we analyze this well, this very humiliation of having to confess our sins to another man is a mercy of God. How much more humiliating it would be to kneel before the Divine Master Himself and tell Him all our sins! What is the humiliation before a man compared to the humiliation of recounting our sins before the infinite perfection of God?

In any case, this is the form in which Our Lord instituted the Sacrament of Confession, so we should submit in a spirit of obedience and love. In His infinite wisdom, He does everything to perfection. When men try to modify what He instituted, the result can only be deplorable.

The prideful attitude of saying, “I confess directly to God,” is almost the same as saying: “I am so perfect that I go directly to God Himself. I have no need of those crutches that are the Sacraments, the advice or the help of other men.”

The priest is “taken from among men and made their representative before God to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”[11]

An angel cannot be a mediator. To refuse thus the mediation of another man is to refuse the priesthood, because the priest, while a mediator, has to be of the same nature as those for whom he mediates. That is why Our Lord, the Supreme Priest, became flesh and took our nature onto Himself, as Saint Paul says: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.”[12]


But Can a Sinner Forgive Sins?

Jesus forgivesTo a priest applies, even more than to the common faithful, the general convocation to sanctity of Our Lord when he said: “So be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[13]

But a priest is also subject to temptation and can not only sin but be, in certain cases, a sinner. Nevertheless, even when he sins, he does not forfeit the power that comes to him from the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

This was the objection raised at the beginning of the Church by the Donatist heretics as a result of a misunderstanding of the doctrine on the sacraments.

But Saint Augustine made it very clear to these same heretics that the power of the sacraments does not come from the sanctity of its ministers but from the infinite sanctity and perfection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.


I Have No Sins to Confess…

Many people feel no need to go to Confession, thinking that they have no sins. They should consider what Scriptures says: “For the just man falls seven times.”[14] “Yet there is no man on earth so just as to do good and never sin.”[15] “If we say, ‘we have not sinned,’ we make Him [God] a liar, and His word is not in us.”[16]

In these times of extreme corruption, let us avail ourselves of this instrument of divine mercy that is Confession. Let us carefully examine our consciences and with the firm resolution of turning away from sin, confess our failings to the priest.

For this small effort, this small humiliation, the reward is immense. Our soul is washed clean, our sins are forgiven, and we return to God’s friendship. As the Psalmist says: “cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure; wash me, make me whiter than snow.”[17]

 

 



Notes:

1. Cf. Luke 3:3. [back to text]

2. Matt. 26:65. [back to text]

3. Mark 2:5-11; cf. Matt. 8:1-34; 9:1-8. [back to text]

4.. Cornelius a Lapide, St. Matthew’s Gospel, Chaps. I to IX, in The Great Commentary of Cornelius a Lapide (London: John Hodges, 1893), p. 353. [back to text]

5. See 1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 5:6; 7:24; Ps. 110:5. [back to text]

6. Our Lord instituted the Sacrament of Holy Orders on Holy Thursday. After anticipating the sacrifice of the Cross in a sacramental form by the transformation of the bread and wine into His body and blood, He commanded the disciples: “Do this in remembrance of Me.” On giving this command, He also granted the necessary power to execute it, that is, the power to consecrate. (Luke, 22:19; 1Cor.11:24.) [back to text]

7. John 20:19-23. Saint Cyril explains that Saint Thomas, despite being absent, also received the Holy Ghost and then the power to pardon sins eight days later when Our Lord appeared to him and converted him from his incredulity. (cf. Cornelius a Lapide, The Great Commentary–St. John’s Gospel [Edinburgh: John Grant, 1908], p. 273). [back to text]

8. Under special circumstances, the Church allows general absolution without oral confession, but oral confession must be made at the first opportunity. (See Canon 963.) [back to text]

9. Cf. “Seal of Confession. … Imposed by Christ in instituting the sacrament, this obligation has repeatedly been inculcated by ecclesiastical authority.” Fr. Gregory Manise, O.S.B., s.v. “Seal of Confession,” in Dictionary of Moral Theology (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1962), p.1105. [back to text]

10. Canon 1388, cf. Canon 983. [back to text]

11. Heb 5:1 [back to text]

12. Heb. 4:15. [back to text]

13. Matt. 5:48. [back to text]

14. Prov. 24:16. [back to text]

15. Eccles. 7:21. [back to text]

16. 1 John 1:10. [back to text]

17. Ps. 51:9. [back to text]


 

 

 

 

Quote of the day

DAILY QUOTE for September 29, 2020

The wicked exist in this world either to be converted or tha...

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September 29

 

The wicked exist in this world
either to be converted
or that through them
the good may exercise patience.

St. Augustine of Hippo


My Mother, I will stand with you on OCTOBER 10, 2020

Saint of the day

SAINT OF THE DAY

Archangel St. Michael

The fight between St. Michael and Lucifer has not ceased but...

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Archangel St. Michael

St. Michael is the model of the Christian warrior because of the fortitude which he showed by casting into hell the legions of damned spirits. He is the warrior of God who will not tolerate the divine Majesty to be challenged or offended in his presence, and who is ready to wield the sword at any time in order to crush the enemies of the Most High. He teaches us that it is not enough for a Catholic to behave well: it is also his duty to fight evil. And not just an abstract evil, but evil as it exists in the ungodly and in sinners. For St. Michael did not cast evil into hell as a principle, a mere conception of the intellect, nor are principles and concepts susceptible to be burned by eternal fire. It was Lucifer and his minions that the Champion of the Almighty cast into hell, as he hated the evil that existed in them and which they loved.

We live at a time of profound religious liberalism. Few Christians have an inkling that they belong to a Church militant, as militant on earth as St. Michael and the faithful Angels were militant in heaven. We also should know how to crush the insolence of wickedness. We too must tenaciously counter the adversary by attacking him and rendering him powerless.

In this struggle, St. Michael should not just be our model but our help. The fight between St. Michael and Lucifer has not ceased but continues throughout the ages. He helps all Christians in the battles they wage against the power of darkness.

Archangel St. Gabriel

The Incarnation of the Word is the greatest act of power and...

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Archangel St. Gabriel

“And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. Who having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said to her: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God.
Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end.”

The message that St. Gabriel – which means “the strength of God” – took to Our Lady is a message that affirms the Incarnation of the Word and therefore the greatest act of power and domination that God could exercise upon the world. With the Incarnation of the Word, God was preparing to rescue the world. In doing this, He, who is king of the world by right, also became king by conquest. Thus, He – the second Person of the Blessed Trinity – entered the earth to conquer on the cross. In this special way, He established His kingship upon the world. From this, we can draw some applications for the prayers we can still address to him today. St. Gabriel announced the coming and triumph of the Messiah to Our Lady and thus to all men. We should ask that he now announce the recovery of God’s effective kingship upon the earth through the coming of the fulfillment of the Fatima message.

Today we are in a situation that is even worse than that of the ancient world before Our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, we can ask that Our Lord Jesus Christ reign once again, that He establish His reign on earth in Mary and through Mary, and that this period of darkness in which we find ourselves come to an end. He has done one thing, let Him do the other. He had the key to do it to close the era of antiquity, and thus opened a new epoch. Let Him close this era and open the Reign of Mary. Second: we should ask St. Gabriel for an enormous, superabundant devotion to Our Lady and that this devotion grow every instant until the end of our lives. Third: we should ask him for a most ardent, intransigent, vigilant and therefore most militant love of purity; and to have every form of revulsion and disdain for impurity in every way and degree. This is what we should ask him. May he thus protect us and bring us closer to Our Lady.

Archangel St. Raphael

St. Raphael appeared to Tobias disguised in human form and t...

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Archangel St. Raphael

St. Raphael is first mentioned in the Book of Tobit, where he appeared disguised in human form to Tobias, son of the blind man Tobit, and traveled with him from Nineveh to Media. While they were in Media, the Archangel told Tobias of Sarah, daughter of Raguel. Sarah had been married seven previous times, but each time, on the night of the wedding, her husband was abducted and slain by a demon. St. Raphael convinced Tobias to present himself as a husband to Sarah, who accepted him.

Sarah despaired that yet another of her husbands would be taken from her, and she prayed for her own death. Raphael banished the demon from her, and she and Tobias had a happy marriage. After the wedding feast, Tobias and Sarah return to Nineveh. There, Raphael cured Tobit’s blindness, revealed his true identity and returned to heaven.

Raphael's name means "God heals." This identity came about because of the biblical story which claims that he "healed" the earth when it was defiled by the sins of the fallen angels. He is also the patron of the blind, happy meetings, nurses, physicians and of travelers.

Weekly Story

WEEKLY STORY

In his book, The Secret of the Rosary, St. Louis de Montfort...

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The Rosary, the Devil and the Queen

In his book, The Secret of the Rosary, St. Louis de Montfort relates that Blessed Thomas of St. John was a great devotee of the Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As such, he was known for his powerful, moving sermons on the Rosary, which led people to adopt this devotion to their great benefit.

Furiously jealous of the holy man’s success with souls, the devil began to so torture Thomas that he fell sick, and was so ill for so long that the doctors gave up on saving his life.

One night, when the poor man thought he was near death, the devil appeared to him in a hideous form, coward that he is, seeking to frighten Thomas into despair.

But, making an effort, the good priest turned to a beautiful picture of Our Lady near his bed crying out with all his heart and strength:

“Help me, save me, my sweet, sweet Mother!”

No sooner had he pronounced these words, the picture came alive and extending her hand, the heavenly Lady laid it reassuringly on the priest’s arm, saying:

“Do not be afraid, Thomas my son, here I am and I am going to save you. Get up now and go on preaching my Rosary as you did before. I promise to shield and protect you from your enemies.”

No sooner had Our Lady pronounced these words, than the devil fled in a hurry. Getting up, Thomas found that he was perfectly healed. 

Thanking the Blessed Mother with tears of joy, Blessed Thomas again went about preaching the Holy Rosary, now with renewed favor and gumption, and his apostolate and his sermons were enormously successful. 

St. Louis the Montfort concludes this story saying, “Our lady not only blesses those who say her Rosary, but also abundantly rewards those who, by their example, inspire others to say it as well.”

 


 

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In his book, The Secret of the Rosary, St. Louis de Montfort relates that Blessed Thomas of St. John was a great devotee of the Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

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