The sacrament of Penance helps us to receive God’s grace and forgiveness and once again be reunited with Him and His family.
Non-Catholics and even Catholics often ask why the sacrament of Penance or going to confession is important.
“Why should we go to confession if we can confess directly to God? Isn’t God the only One who can forgive our sins?”
Yes, Catholics believe that we can confess directly to God. We also believe that God is the only One who can forgive our sins. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC):
“Only God forgives sins.” — CCC Paragraph No. 1441 (CCC 1441)
If this is so, why is this sacrament important?
The previous paragraph in the CCC encapsulates the essence of the sacrament of Penance:
"Sin is before all else an offense against God, a rupture of communion with him. At the same time it damages communion with the Church. For this reason conversion entails both God's forgiveness and reconciliation with the Church, which are expressed and accomplished liturgically by the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation." — CCC 1440
Let us break the paragraph down into the four reasons why the sacrament of Penance is important:
#1 The sacrament of Penance reminds us that when we sin, we sin against God
“Sin is before all else an offense against God, a rupture of communion with him.”
Sin, first and foremost, separates us from God not only in the eternal sense, but also right here, right now. Whenever we sin, we often find it more difficult to pray to Him, let alone be in a relationship with Him.
If we do not recognize that it is God against whom we sin, we also fail to realize that we are being separated from Him by sin.
Because of this, we lose the very reason for our existence, the very reason why He created us, that is, to share in His love and perfect goodness.
“God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life.” — CCC 1
When we fail to realize the purpose why He created us, that is, to simply remain in His love, all our other relationships also suffer.
That is why the first step to repentance is recognizing it is God whom we offend by separating ourselves from Him.
The sacrament of Penance is “structured” in such a way that reminds us, the penitants, that we sinned against God whom we should love above all else.
For instance, when we pray the act of contrition after confessing our sins, we start by saying, “Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You.”
In fact, a contrition (which constitutes a sorrow of the soul, the detestation for the sin committed, and the resolution not to sin again) only becomes perfect when it arises from our love for God.
"When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called 'perfect.'" — CCC 1452
The story of David, Bathsheba, Uriah, and Nathan also wonderfully illustrates this.
After “indirectly” killing Uriah in order to obtain Bathsheba as his wife, David was visited by Nathan the prophet who told him of his sin.
David responded by repenting and by writing the most famous among all the Penitantial Psalms, Psalm 51. In the sixth verse, David wrote:
“Against you, you alone have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your eyes.” — Psalm 51:6
#2 The sacrament of Penance reminds us that when we sin, the Church also suffers because of our sins
“At the same time it damages communion with the Church.”
No matter how personal our sins may seem, they always have an effect on other people — our brothers and sisters from the same family of God, the Church. Always.
As a confession, I struggled with pornography, especially with animated characters. There were times when I justified that real people were not being harmed or exploited by watching only animated characters. I thought of my sin only as against God and myself.
But the truth is that others also suffer from my seemingly “personal” sin, albeit indirectly. Every visit to a pornographic website leads to advertising profits for the site owner. These profits encourage them not only to continue publishing lewd materials, but also encourage them to reach more audience, causing others to sin.
The reality is that pornography exploits the circumstances of others — maybe the financial, emotional, or spiritual. Watching pornographic materials only leads to more exploitation.
Our personal sins will always have an effect on God’s people, whether directly or indirectly. Our personal sins can lead not only to the suffering of other people, God’s Church, but also to their own commitment of sin, or social sins.
Saint John Paul the Great (or Pope John Paul II) explained it best in his exhortation:
“Whenever the church … condemns as social sins certain situations or the collective behavior of certain social groups, big or small, or even of whole nations and blocs of nations, she knows and she proclaims that such cases of social sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins… The real responsibility, then lies with individuals.” (Paragraph 16)
When I got married, I also realized how watching pornography distorted my views on sex and marriage. If I was not able to overcome it, it would probably have been difficult for me to appreciate married sex because of the unrealistic fantasies that pornography created. Not only would I suffer, but so would my wife.
Finally, whenever we sin, we tend to separate ourselves not only from God, but also from other people and from the Church itself. Maybe it’s because of shame or pride or the fear of being judged, especially by people who are sinners themselves. Thus, it creates a rift in the unity (and the community) of the Church, the family God is calling us to.
Being exercised or ministered by a priest (and oftentimes in the confines of a church — that is, the physical structure), the sacrament of Penance reminds us that we are seeking not only for God’s forgiveness, but also for the forgiveness of other people who suffer because of our sins, our brothers and sisters in Christ, the real Church.
#3 The sacrament of Penance helps us receive God’s forgiveness
“For this reason conversion entails both God's forgiveness…”
When Jesus came down from heaven, He not only saved us by dying on the cross, but throughout His ministry, He also reintroduced God to us a Father.
Jesus reintroduced God to us as a Father who is not only just, but also merciful. Jesus did not only preach a message of salvation and repentance, but through His words and His life, He also preached a message of forgiveness.
"When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, 'Child, your sins are forgiven.' Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves, 'Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?' Jesus immediately knew in his mind what they were thinking to themselves, so he said, 'Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth'—he said to the paralytic, 'I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.'" — Mark 2:5-8,10-11
By coming down from heaven as a man, God made it easier for us to receive His forgiveness. And just as Jesus received the authority to forgive sins from His Father, He also gave this authority to forgive sins in His Name to the apostles, men who comprised His early Church.
"[Jesus] said to them again, 'Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.' And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.'" — John 20:21-23
Again, we, Catholics, believe that only God forgives sins.
"Only God forgives sins. Since he is the Son of God, Jesus says of himself, 'The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins' and exercises this divine power: 'Your sins are forgiven.' Further, by virtue of his divine authority he gives this power to men to exercise in his name." — CCC 1441
But like how Jesus made it easier for us to receive God’s forgiveness through another man, the Church also makes it easier for us to receive God’s forgiveness through other men, through His Church.
Yes, we can ask for God’s forgiveness directly. But for some people, myself included, it is difficult to face God when we know we have sinned against Him, let alone receive His forgiveness. We need other people to tell us how much God loves us. We need other people to help us receive God’s forgiveness.
In the absolution of sins, the priest says, “Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
It is not a matter of God’s willingness to forgive our sins, but our willingness and openness to receive His forgiveness. And it is easier to receive His forgiveness with the help of the Church, to whom He has given His authority to forgive sins in His Name.
#4 The sacrament of Penance helps us to be reunited with other people, the Church
“… and reconciliation with the Church, which are expressed and accomplished liturgically by the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.”
Finally, because our sins not only separate us from God, but also from His people, His Church, the sacrament of Penance also helps us to be reconciled with the Church.
The sacrament is patterned after how Jesus also reconciled sinners back into His own family, the people whom He called His brothers, sisters, and mother by doing the will of God, His Church.
"During his public life Jesus not only forgave sins, but also made plain the effect of this forgiveness: he reintegrated forgiven sinners into the community of the People of God from which sin had alienated or even excluded them. A remarkable sign of this is the fact that Jesus receives sinners at his table, a gesture that expresses in an astonishing way both God's forgiveness and the return to the bosom of the People of God." — CCC 1443
Why is it so important to be reconciled with God’s Church if we can already be reconciled with God?
Because God not only calls us to love Him, but also to love our neighbors.
"Jesus replied, 'The first is this: "Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength." The second is this: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." There is no other commandment greater than these.'" — Mark 12:28-31
God calls us not only to have a relationship with Him, but also to be part of and be united with His family. Continuing the first paragraph of the CCC:
"[God] calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church." — CCC 1
Like how Jesus reconciled sinners back into His family by eating with them and allowing them to follow Him, He also gave this task of reconciling sinners back to His family to His disciples, His early Church:
"In imparting to his apostles his own power to forgive sins the Lord also gives them the authority to reconcile sinners with the Church. This ecclesial dimension of their task is expressed most notably in Christ's solemn words to Simon Peter: 'I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.' 'The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of the apostles united to its head.'" — CCC 1444
There are two verses in the Gospel according to Matthew where Jesus gave the authority to bind and loose. Both of these verses spoken by Jesus in the context of His Church (Matthew 16:17-19 and Matthew 18:15-18).
That is why to bind and to loose have a profound meaning in the Church, especially in the communion of sinners with the family of God and with God:
"The words bind and loose mean: whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive anew into your communion, God will welcome back into his. Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God." — CCC 1445
Thus, being reconciled with His family is important because it also means being reconciled with God.
The sacrament often ends with the priest’s giving of an act or acts of penance which we must do. They are often spiritual or corporal works of mercy reminding us to pray or to do charitable works for our brethren, our brothers and sisters, signifying once again our unity with God’s family, His Church.
"Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’" — Matthew 25:44-45
I will update this essay to cover other questions about the sacrament of Penance. But, in the meantime, you may read this section of the Catechism.
At the same time, let us prepare our hearts for the coming season of Lent. And what better way to prepare than to receive God’s grace and forgiveness and once again be reunited with Him and His family through the sacrament of Penance.