Why do Catholics Confess to a Priest?

By Damian Toh

As Catholics, we go to a priest for the sacrament of reconciliation in order to restore our relationship with God and receive His forgiveness, mercy and grace. Just like children who go to their parents to admit their mistakes, apologise, ask for forgiveness and make amends, so do we go to our Heavenly Father to do the same! Being able to go for confession is such a gift because it is essentially a path that God has set out for us to unconditionally return to Him, whenever we are ready to, after turning away from His goodness (i.e. after we have sinned)! “Why specifically the priest?” you may ask. “Why can’t I simply reconcile with God by myself? Isn’t God’s mercy conditional if I must go to the priest to be forgiven?” There are two responses to this question. 

The first is simply because Jesus had given His apostles the unique authority to forgive sins (John 20:23), and the priests are all ordained by the successors of these very apostles (a.k.a. bishops) to continue doing the same and be channels of God’s forgiveness. The moment a priest puts on his vestment, he is no longer his own self but he represents the person of Jesus Christ. He listens, speaks and forgives us on behalf of Jesus. In a way, we meet not any priest, but God himself at the confessionals.

Secondly, the Catholic faith does not deny let alone forbid her members from asking for God’s forgiveness in our own prayer. In fact, asking for forgiveness should be a staple in our personal prayer lives. The reason why we confess to a priest is because we are not angels – pure spirits who have direct contact with God, but embodied creatures (think tangible, physical, being in a body!).

Now consider why Jesus became human to bring us salvation. Why not do the same from heaven? Consider also why Jesus had to go from town to town for His ministry to heal and forgive sins. Why not simply give healing and forgiveness for all who believed?

The answer to all of these questions is simple: because we are embodied creatures! To be human means having very physical needs, and God knew that the best. Jesus was incarnated precisely because God wanted to encounter us in our very human-ness: He wanted to touch us, to lay His hands on us, to speak to us, to be physically present to us. Jesus ministered to the people with His voice, his hands and his personal presence. In a mystical way, God’s power enters into our lives through physical communication.

This understanding also gives us an insight as to why Jesus left His church with the gift of confession: so that we too can continue to have a real physical encounter with Him mediated by the priest even after He has left this world. There is real power in having a priest hear our confession and say: “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.”

There is also beauty in confessing to the priest as a real person as it also helps receive us back into the community. The priest represents not only God, but the community. The truth is, our sins are never private. Whenever we reject the goodness that God invites us to, we inevitably hurt others, whether directly or indirectly. Confession is thus also an act of reconciliation with a representative of the people we have sinned against. I want to encourage you to continue to find out more about confession! It really is one of the things I am most grateful for in my practice of the Catholic faith.

P.S.2 Sacrament of Reconciliation = Confession. I have used them interchangeably.


Additional Resources:

a. Confession from the perspective of a priest
Confession is a Place of Victory by Fr Mike Schmitz in Ascension Presents

b. Biblical evidence for the Sacrament of Confession
Is Confession in Scripture? By Tim Staples in CatholicAnswers

c. FAQ about Confession
How to Defend the Sacrament of Confession? by Jason Evert in CatholicAnswers


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