The Sacrament of Confession is a concrete and certain manifestation of God’s mercy. Whereas confession to God in prayer can leave us with feelings of peace, we aren’t always the best judge of ourselves. But Confession is a sacrament, a visible sign that accomplishes a spiritual reality. The priest’s absolution in Confession acts as a visible and definite indication that an individual is truly forgiven.
This is such a blessing, and it is why Confession is so freeing for so many Catholics. In this sacrament, the priest’s words are jam-packed with the promise of Christ’s forgiveness: Whosoever’s sins you forgive are forgiven –Jesus in the Gospel of John (20:23).
In this life, no one is beyond the allure of sin. But despite our weakness, God is always working in us and drawing us closer to Himself.
Often enough, when we sin, we run from Christ. Instead of approaching the only One Who can heal us, we hide in shame or surrender to despair. But Jesus came “to call not the righteous but sinners” (Mk. 2:17). Sin manifests our spiritual sickness; but thankfully, this means we are just the kind of people Christ seeks to befriend!
So how do we remedy a grave sin or even return to Christ after a prolonged period away from Him? If we want to be reconciled with God, we must repent. Repentance is a change of mind and heart—from a life against to life towards God.
Only grace-inspired love can restore someone to intimate relationship with God—if that individual had in fact previously rejected God through grave sin. Examples of such love-based conversion are found throughout Scripture. David, after his affair with Bathsheba, addresses God in prayer: “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” In the Gospel of John, it is Peter’s threefold profession of his love for Christ that once again restores him—after his previous threefold denial of Him.
Nevertheless, sometimes our sorrow does not amount to this kind of repentance, motivated by love of God. We might have genuine sorrow, but it is instead born out of a lesser motive, like fear of hell or disgust of sin—a kind of sorrow known as imperfect contrition. But thankfully, this is where the awesome gift of the Sacrament of Confession comes into play. Imperfect contrition prepares one for the grace received in Confession. Together with this sacrament, imperfect contrition is sufficient to restore one to God.
Not only is Confession a privileged expression of God’s mercy, it is also the normative means of post-Baptismal reconciliation with God. That is, Confession is not an optional means of forgiveness within the Christian dispensation. Confession was ultimately instituted by Christ. As a sacrament, it is one of those physical signs that take place within the Christian community—precisely as a visible manifestation of God’s salvific activity in the Church.
The key difference is this: the Sacrament of Confession is a concrete and certain manifestation of God’s mercy. And above all, Confession was instituted by Christ.
The Sacrament of Confession is an extension of the very ministry of Christ, who, in turn, continues His mission through the Church. Unless one appreciates the Church itself as an extension of God’s salvific activity, then one will not fully appreciate Confession. Our salvation is mediated through matter—through signs, events, and other people—precisely because we are body-soul unities. Just as God became flesh and dwelt among us, so He continues to manifest His saving presence through physical reality.
God has set things up so that humans are not merely passive with regards to His plan. They are active participants. From the very beginning, Christians understood that to be Christian means to belong together in community, with different gifts and roles.
The Church as people, the Body of Christ, extends grace to the world. Every Christian is a “mediator” in this sense. The baptized Christian is called to continue the mission of the Kingdom of God. And yet, this work of reconciliation is extended in different ways, depending on one’s role in the Church.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul expounds upon the special "ministry of reconciliation" given to him by the from the Lord. Paul notes that through Christ, God has accomplished the work of salvation. Still, Paul can claim a specific ministry to advance this reconciliation. Paul has no difficulty recognizing that God is “making his appeal through” him and other church leaders. In the Sacrament of Confession, also called the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the priest continues this ministry of reconciliation.
After His Resurrection, Christ assigns His disciples with the continuation of his own ministry: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Already, these words are very suggestive. After all, what was Jesus’ primary purpose—the reason He was “sent”—other than to reconcile the world to God? But then Christ becomes even more explicit: “He breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirt. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn. 20:20-23).
By the power of the Spirit, the Apostles are empowered to forgive and retain sin. “If you forgive,” he says, “they are forgiven.” Truly, then, the Apostles were entrusted with the forgiveness of sins.
That Christ gave the Apostles a real authority over spiritual matters is also indicated by the power of “binding” and “loosing” (Matt. 18:15-18). In the respective passage, the Church is envisioned as a recognizable, visible society. It has real authority. For if one does not accept the decision of the Church, he is to be considered a “Gentile” or “tax collector.” In other words, the person is excluded from the church community.
In this way, the Church has what we can call a juridical and disciplinary authority. In fact, this is what “binding” and “loosing” suggest. For the Judaism at the time of Christ, these terms indicated the ability to make authoritative decisions, including the power of admitting and excluding people from the community.
Already in the New Testament, we see ministers other than the Apostles continuing this work of reconciliation. The epistle of James insists that if anyone is sick, we should “call the elders of the church” to “anoint them with oil” (James 5:14). The Greek word for “elder” here is where we ultimately get the English term “priest.” So not only the Apostles but their associates, the priests, are identified as being vehicles of God’s healing. James continues: “Therefore confess your sins to each other … so that you may be healed” (5:16). Here we see that the New Testament puts priests right within the context of the confession of sins.
Though perhaps surprising to some, the fact is nevertheless certain: The Catholic practice of Confession comes straight from the first century Church, rooted in Christ’s own commission, and recorded in the New Testament.
Outside the New Testament, other first-century documents already emphasize the need for confession. The Didache instructs the faithful to confess their sins within the community: “Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience” (Didache 4:14). In the same century, Clement of Rome says to “submit yourselves to the presbyters” and “receive correction so as to repent” (Letter to the Corinthians 57). Clement sees the presbyters—the priests—as having the task of overseeing reconciliation within the community.
At the beginning of the second century, Ignatius of Antioch once more confirms this. His entire corpus of letters is grounded in the notion that union with God depends on union with the bishop. Sinners must “turn in penitence to the unity of God” and “to communion with the bishop” (Letter to Philadelphians 8). For Ignatius and early Christians, communion with the bishop ensured communion with the Church, and communion with the latter indicated communion with God.
We can say that, at least at first, sacramental Confession was manifested through the communal nature of the church. Within a century or so, the need for a more explicit rite arose alongside the predicament of how to deal with those needing a more profound reconciliation after Baptism.
The issue came to a head in the year AD 250 when Emperor Decius inflicted a persecution aimed at the extermination of Christianity. Churches found that several of the faithful had succumbed to the idolatrous acts required by the pagan emperor. Such apostasy was deemed unforgivable by some: the Novatian sect refused reconciliation to those who had fallen away. The orthodox position struck the right balance: Pope Cornelius led the merciful position of reconciling the lapsed with the Church—albeit not without penance.
From the third century on, testimony regarding the forgiveness of sin within the context of sacramental Confession is found in abundance.
From Rome, North Africa, and the West to Asia Minor, Syria, and the East, the recourse for forgiveness of post-Baptismal sin included the system of penance presided by the bishops and priests. This widespread practice—all within the first few centuries of Christianity—is indicative of its origins in the Apostles and, ultimately, Christ Himself.