Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

March 31, 2014

Why Do I Have to Confess My Sins to a Priest?

During Lent, you may have heard a variation of the question from teens on why they must confess their sins in the Sacrament of Penance. Author and teacher Michael Pennock fielded this question often from his own students at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, OH. His answer is contained in the book Questions from Seventh Period: Doc Pennock Answers Teen's Questions on Life, Love, and the Catholic Faith. Here is his answer:

Have you ever wondered how a worm gets inside of an apple? From the outside? Not really. Botanists tell us that the worm comes from the inside. It does so when an insect lays its egg in the apple blossom. Weeks later, the worm hatches in the heart of the apple, then eats its way out. Sin is like the worm. It begins in the heart and works its way out of a person’s thoughts, words, and actions.

How do we Christians deal with sin that eats away at us, disfiguring the person Christ meant us to be? He’s given us a great way to undo the damage of sin in our lives—the sacrament of Reconciliation. When we go to confession we are saying to ourselves and to our fellow Christians: “I want to be good—right now! I want to be a good apple and bear good fruit for Christ. I want to get rid of sin that is disfiguring me.”

The sacrament of Penance, also known as the sacrament of Reconciliation, is Jesus’ gift to his Church to assure us of his forgiveness of our sins and to lighten our hearts.

Unless we confess our sins, they will continue to eat away at us. Sacramental confession is medicine to the soul. It attacks the evil in our hearts and allows the Divine Physician to heal our spiritual ills.

How often should you go to confession? Church law (known as canon law) requires Catholics to confess once a year, if they are consciously aware of committing a mortal sin. TheCatechism of the Catholic Church states:

Individual and integral confession of grave sins followed by absolution remains the only ordinary means of reconciliation with God and with the Church (CCC, 1497).

The Catechism also teaches that if we are conscious of mortal sin, we must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before receiving Holy Communion (CCC, 1385). These teachings support the regulation that Catholics must receive the Eucharist at least once a year, during the Easter season. This is a bare minimum for being a practicing Catholic. To receive the Eucharist worthily, we should be in a friendship relationship with Jesus, free of mortal sin.

Strictly speaking, if we have not committed mortal sin, we don't have to go to confession. But the Church recommends regular celebration of this sacrament—for example, during Advent and Lent, on a school retreat, during times of renewal, even every month or so. It is a great means to grow in holiness by practicing the virtue of humility, a first step to repentance and a way to fight pride, the root of all sin.

Why go to confession? Here are some excellent reasons:

  • To experience Christ's love firsthand. Jesus forgave sin. He continues to do so today through his Church and his representatives—bishops and priests—to whom he gave power to forgive in his name: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:23). It is very human to want some assurance of love and forgiveness when we have sinned, and yet repented. Jesus left us this great sign of love to lift our burdens and comfort us.

  • To tell the truth about ourselves. We all sin. We carry guilt. The New Testament instructs: “If we say, ‘We are without sin,’ we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing” (1 Jn 1:8-9).

When we confess our sins aloud to Christ's representative, the priest, we overcome self-deception. We’ve named our sins, a sure sign of contrition and true repentance. Modern psychology tells us that confession is “good for the soul.” It lifts burdens, relieves guilt, forgives sin, and starts you on a new path on the spiritual journey. The priest, who acts in the person of Christ, says “I absolve you.” We need to hear this to be assured of God’s forgiveness and love for us.

Don’t be afraid to be honest in confession. Sure, you might be embarrassed at some of your sins. But father has heard them all. And he, too, is a sinner. If you are unduly anxious, find a sensitive priest and tell him you are nervous. Ask him to help you make a good confession. He'll take it from there. And he will rejoice that you came to him. Remember always that the sacrament of Reconciliation is a sacrament of love.

  • To reconcile with others. Sin is never an isolated affair. It alienates a person from God, self, and others. We are a family. We are the body of Christ. When one members sins, other members of the body suffer. Confession acknowledges that we need to reconcile ourselves not only to God but to our Christian brothers and sisters as well, those we have harmed by being less than what we should be. The sacrament of Reconciliation heals my sinfulness, repairs my relationship with the Christian community, and challenges me to transform the sinful world in which I live.

  • To grow in holiness. The sacrament of Reconciliation intensifies our love of Jesus. It gives us a more sensitive conscience, so we can look at reality with the eyes of Christ. Going to confession can counteract spiritual laziness and combat bad habits and attitudes. It can draw us closer to God and our brothers and sisters. It can teach us to detest venial sin, strengthen us to resist all mortal sin, and love virtue.

If you have been away from confession for a while, check the times the sacrament is scheduled for your parish. You'll really be glad you did.

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