The Secret of Confession

"Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love Him." (1 Corinthians 2:9)

The daughter of a Baptist minister becomes a Catholic because of the opportunity to go to confession. A Presbyterian pastor involved in the healing ministry publicly announces his wish that his church have the Sacrament of Reconciliation. A middle-aged mother of three refers to confession as the turning point of her life. Do they know something we don't know?


"It is in Christ and through His blood that we have been redeemed and our sins forgiven." (Ephesians 1:7)

Picture Jesus hanging on the cross, blood coming out of His nailed hands and feet, blood dripping down His face from His thorn-crowned head, blood seeping out His shredded back after having been whipped and scourged. One drop of the blood of Jesus can wash away every sin that has, or will be committed. One drop of the blood of Jesus can wash away wars, nuclear bombing, holocausts, abortion, hatred, and racial prejudice. The only thing that can keep our sins from being forgiven is our refusal to repent and confess them.


"Any forgiving I have done has been for your sakes, and, before Christ, to prevent Satan -- whose guile we know too well -- from outwitting us."(2 Corinthians 2:10-11)

We confess our sins to a priest simply because Jesus said so. He gave the apostles authority to forgive sins in His name. (Jn 20:23) God, of course, does all the forgiving and all the healing, teaching, counseling, feeding, etc. Everything good is done by God's power, but He often works through people, members of the body of Christ, and He has decided to use people as His instruments in teaching, feeding, counseling, etc., and even in forgiving. We are open to God using a person to feed us but when it comes to forgiveness, we are reluctant to involve other people and think we should talk to God alone. But God commands: "Declare your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may find healing." (Jas 5:16)

So, Biblically, we are to confess our sins not only to God but also to other human beings. But why a priest? A priest represents the family of God, our community, the local body of Christ. We confess our sins to a representative of the Christian family because our sins hurt others in the family, and to be reconciled fully we must ask forgiveness not only of God Whom we have disobeyed and those immediately affected by our sins but also of the church family hurt by our sins. It's impossible to apologize to each and every one, but at least we can talk to a representative of the family and ask forgiveness. Unless we confess our sins to a priest, we feel like there's something missing because there is something missing: reconciliation with the church family.


"All this has been done by God, Who has reconciled us to Himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation." (2 Corinthians 5:18)

The priest is the minister of forgiveness, which is one part of the process of reconciliation. The Lord has delegated the priest to forgive in His name and on behalf of His body, the Church, but all of us have an important part in the larger ministry of reconciliation. When many parts of Christ's body minister reconciliation, we see many life-changing confessions.

There are several steps in the process of reconciliation. These steps build on one another. The priestly ministry of forgiveness is in the middle of the reconciliation process. The lay person's ministry of reconciliation both precedes and follows the priestly ministry of forgiveness. Without the layperson's ministry of reconciliation, few people will receive the priest's ministry of forgiveness, and confession will not be completed by healing and freedom from guilt.


"We, for our part, love because He first loved us." (1 John 4:19)

According to Pope John Paul II, we have lost the sense of sin because we have lost the sense of God. If we are aware of God and His love, we will be sensitive to the responsibilities we have in our relationship with Him and to our failures in that love-relationship. When we are aware of love, we become aware of sin. "Little is forgiven the one whose love is small." (Lk 7:47) Fewer people go to confession now, not because we commit fewer sins, but because we have less awareness of sin and of God's love for us.

If we were love-conscious, we would be sin-conscious. We may have been taught to examine our conscience, but even more importantly we should examine our consciousness of God's love for us. For example, you are sitting with another person and gossiping about a third party. You really don't think you are doing anything wrong. The third party, unaware of what you are doing, suddenly walks into the room and gives you a gift. You feel like crawling under the table because that act of love suddenly made you conscious of your sin. In the context of love, our awareness of sin increases dramatically. For example, after Peter experienced Jesus' love when he caught the tremendous number of fish, he immediately was convicted of his sins. He fell at the knees of Jesus and said: "Leave me, Lord. I am a sinful man."(Lk 5:8) The more we love others, the more likely it is that they will be conscious of their sins.

How are we convinced of love and thereby convicted of sin? The Spirit convicts us, proves "the world wrong about sin, about justice, about condemnation." (Jn 16:8) We should ask Him to do this through intercessory prayer. For example, a group met in a nearly deserted church at the time confessions were scheduled and prayed that God's people be convinced of His love for them and thereby convicted of sin. At first, there was only one confession during the hour. Within three years, people were waiting for confession at almost all the confession times. These times had to be extended. Few will go to confession or repent until God's people exercise the ministry of conviction in the Spirit, especially through intercession.


"Jesus appeared in Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:15, our translation)

Repentance is responding to God's love by making a definite decision to change our minds, our hearts, our lives. John the Baptizer appeared, proclaiming a baptism of repentance (Mk 1:4): an immersion, a bath in repentance. In the baptism of repentance, we let the Lord deal with the root of our sins, and not just the symptoms. We change our life-style. We give evidence that we mean to reform. (Mt 3:8) We can help each other repent deeply by speaking the truth in love (Eph 4:15), by prophetically proclaiming the two- edged sword of God's word which will judge the thoughts and reflections of our hearts. (Heb 4:12)


"As long as I would not speak, my bones wasted away with my groaning all the day, and night. Your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Then . I said, 'I confess my faults to the Lord.' and You took away the guilt of my sin." (Psalms 32:3-5)

After the baptism of repentance, we are ready to confess out sins. But a great spiritual battle often rages when we decide to go to confession. The devil makes a goal-line stand to keep us from victory. He'll remind us of bad experiences in confession, get us worried about what the priest will say, and even try to make us paranoid about someone overhearing our confession. The Church permits confession behind a screen to allay some of these fears. We need to encourage one another as we fight in the spiritual warfare surrounding confession.

If the devil cannot intimidate, manipulate, or threaten us to prevent our confession, he will try to diminish its effectiveness. He will tempt us to confess our sins in only a general way so as to prevent us from taking full advantage of the possibilities that the baptism of repentance has opened. We should not be scrupulous about the exact details or number of our sins, but we are to express fully our experience of repentance and, as the Spirit leads, be specific and open about the details of our sins.


Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me." (Psalm 51:4)

Few people will experience the fullness of forgiveness, unless God's people take up the ministry of reconciliation after penitents walk out of confession. Just because we're forgiven, it doesn't mean we know we're forgiven; and even if we know we're forgiven, it doesn't mean we're healed, it doesn't mean we're completely free of guilt. How many leave the confessional doubtful about being forgiven and not joining in the joy of heaven over repentant sinners? (see Lk 15:7, 10) How many leave the confessional hurting deeply? Confession, although it can bring some healing, does not of itself always bring total healing. The priest is not the whole body of Christ; he is only one member. Furthermore, priests, being human and sinful, make terrible blunders in the confessional. They need our help. They need to send penitents into the body of Christ to receive more healing, assurance of forgiveness, and freedom from guilt.

The devil accuses us night and day. (Rv 12:10) As we walk out of the confessional, the devil says: "It's not that easy. You're still no good. You're as 'dirty' as when you walked in here. If people ever knew what you did, you wouldn't have a friend in the world." We often don't see ourselves as God sees us and don't forgive ourselves. Our self-image may be distorted as we are hurting, ashamed, and guilt-ridden. God's people must rally to the ministry of reconciliation and bring healing to those who are forgiven, but still under attack. We should minister reconciliation, as the father of the prodigal son did. The prodigal son returned with the words: "I have sinned against God and against you (father); I no longer deserve to be called your son." (Lk 15:21) He confessed his sins, but he felt no good and not worthy to be called a son. The father immediately jumped to the ministry of reconciliation and healing and said: "Quick! Bring out he finest robe and put it on him. Help him respect and forgive himself. Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. Show him in tangible ways he is loved and respected, not a slave but a free man." We have many prodigal sons and daughters; we need many ministers of reconciliation to love, honor, and heal them.


But we had to celebrate and rejoice! This brother of yours was dead, and has come back to life. He was lost, and is found." (Luke 15:32)

The first time I heard the expression: "Let's celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation," I thought it a peculiar saying. Confession did not seem to be a celebration. Going into a dark closet and talking to somebody behind a screen -- what's to celebrate? And yet the Bible tells us that celebration is the fulfillment of the whole reconciliation process. As people emerge from the confessional, we should not only reach out with healing hands and embrace them, but we also join in the joyful praises of heaven over sinners who repent. We kill the fatted calf; we have a confession party. We put the final touch on life-changing confessions.

I have had confession parties with many families and groups. We go to church, pray together, and go to confession individually. Then we fellowship to celebrate God's forgiveness. Confession parties promote frequent confession since we all like to celebrate. They also give us God's attitude toward reconciliation.


God has chosen you to read this pamphlet. It is no accident. God is calling you not only to go to confession but to begin a new and frequent reception of the sacrament -- at least monthly. Then after you've removed the plank from your own eye, you can remove the specks from others' eyes. (Mt 7:5) Invite others to confession. God is calling you to be a minister of reconciliation, to celebrate and rejoice over one sinner who repents. Say "yes" to His call.


Nihil obstat: Reverend John J. Jennings, November 19, 1985.
Imprimatur: † Most Reverend Bishop James H. Garland, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, November 21, 1985.