By Rev. John J. Burke.
"Whom when He saw He said: Go, show yourselves to the priests" (Luke xvii. 14).
"Receive ye the Holy Ghost; whose sins ye shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins ye shall retain, they are retained" (John xx. 23).
THE whole of the life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ may be summed up in these words of the Acts: "He went about doing good." He healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and raised the dead to life.
The healing of the body, however, was to Him a secondary object. The healing of the soul was His mission on earth. He frequently called the attention of His followers to this. For example, He cured the man of the palsy to prove that as man He had the power to forgive sins. Another example is when He gives us in the cure of the lepers a figure of sin and its cure.
Leprosy has always been considered a figure of sin. As leprosy covers the body and makes it disgusting and frightful to behold, so sin covers the soul and makes it hideous in the sight of God. The Old Law required lepers to separate themselves from society until their cure was certified to by the priests who were appointed for this purpose. Our Lord has been pleased, in the New Law, to institute a similar method for the cure of the more fatal leprosy of sin. The spiritual leper, the sinner, is to show himself to the priest, make known the diseased state of his soul, and submit to the inspection and treatment of the priest, who is the divinely appointed physician of the soul. But should we not go directly to God, since God alone has power to justify us? It is true, God alone can effect our justification; but He has appointed the priest to judge in His place and pass sentence in His name. To the priests He has said: "Whatsoever you shall bind upon earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth shall be loosed also in heaven" (Matt. xviii. 18); and again: "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained" (John xx. 23). These two texts clearly show that auricular confession as practised in the Catholic Church was taught by Christ. For how could the apostles and their successors, the pastors of the Church, know what sins to bind and retain and what sins to loose and forgive unless the sins were confessed to them and they were allowed to judge?
No matter how numerous or how great these are, provided they are confessed with a sincere repentance, they will be forgiven. And they will be forgiven by the power of the priest. Properly speaking, God alone has power to forgive sins. But no one will deny that He has power to confer this power on others. He communicated this power to His apostles and commanded them, in turn, to communicate it to others by means of the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
That Our Saviour communicated this power to His apostles is evident from the words of St. John: "As the Father hath sent Me I also send you. Receive ye the Holy Ghost; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven." But sin was to continue till the end of the world. Hence the necessity of the means of forgiving sin being coextensive with sin. As the people receive from the priests the Word of God and the cleansing from sin in Baptism, so also do they receive from them the cleansing from sin in confession.
It is certain that the apostles conferred the power of forgiving sins upon others, if we find that those whom the apostles ordained this power. But we find this to be the case.
From the time of Christ until the present the writers of every age tell us that confession of sins was practised. St. John, who lived until the beginning of the second century, says in the 1st chapter of his First Epistle: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all iniquity."
St. Cyprian, who wrote in the third century, says: "Let each of you confess his faults, and the pardon imparted by the priest is acceptable before God."
St. Ambrose, in the fourth century, wrote: "The poison is sin; the remedy, the accusation of one's crime. The poison is iniquity: confession is the remedy."
St. Augustine, who lived in the fifth century, seems to be talking to some people of the present day, who say they confess in private to God, when he says: "Let no one say to himself, I do penance to God in private, I do it before God. Is it then in vain that Christ hath said: 'Whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven'? Is it in vain that the keys have been given to the Church? Do we make void the Gospel? void the words of Christ?"
These first five centuries were the golden age of Christianity. All admit that the doctrines and practices of those early centuries were pure and undefiled, as they came from Christ. But among the practices of the time we find confession. Hence it is a reasonable practice, because conformable to Christ's teaching. We might continue quotations from writers of every century from the sixth to the nineteenth, showing that the teaching and practice of confession did not vary through the lapse of ages from the time of Christ until the present day. But this is unnecessary. The quotations from the first five centuries show that the power of forgiving sin was not only communicated by Christ to His apostles, but by them to their successors by means of the sacrament of Holy Orders. What would be the necessity of this power if they could not exercise it in confession? If, as some say, priests invented confession, some one ought to find out and tell us when and where it was invented, and why they did not exempt themselves from such a humiliating practice.
Confession alone, however, will be of no avail without contrition. Contrition is a sincere sorrow and detestation for sin with a firm determination to sin no more. To the truly humble and sorrowful sinner confession is not a punishment, but a remedy for a tortured conscience. The most painful secret to be kept by a heart not yet corrupted by disease is the secret of sin and crime. The soul that loves God hates sin and desires to separate herself from it. To this desire is associated the desire of expiating it. All, from the mother who questions her child about wrongdoing to the judge who interrogates the criminal, recognize in spontaneous confession an expiatory power.
Confession, it is true, is necessarily accompanied by shame and humiliation. This humiliation is diminished by the knowledge that it is of divine origin and that eternal silence is divinely imposed upon him who receives it. Priests never divulge what they know from the confessional. They have been ill-treated, as was Father Kohlmann in this country; have even been tortured and cruelly put to death, as was St. John Nepomucene, in order to extort from them knowledge they gained in the confessional, but without avail. For what they knew through the tribunal of penance, they knew as ministers of God. And as it is better to obey God than man, no minister of state could force them to divulge that which the laws of God forbid.
Only sinners, who after a thorough preparation, a sincere sorrow, and a good confession, can realize the soothing and beneficial effects of confession, and feel with David, "Blessed are they whose sins are forgiven." If you have ever noticed such after leaving the confessional you could see joy beaming on their countenances, as if a heavy burden had been removed.
Confession quiets the conscience. But this is only one of the benefits it confers upon those who practise going to confession. It has also a salutary influence upon their morals; for one of its necessary conditions is promise of amendment.
The pagans of the first centuries were aware of the guiding and reforming power of the confessional. Voltaire, the leading infidel of the last century, one who made sport of everything Christian, says that "there is, perhaps, no wiser institution, and that confession is an excellent thing, a restraint upon inveterate crime, a very good practice to prevent the guilty from falling into despair and relapsing into sin, to influence hearts full of hate to forgive and robbers to make restitution—that the enemies of the Romish Church who have opposed so beneficial an institution have taken from man the greatest restraint that can be put upon crime." While his everyday experience forced these words of praise from the arch-infidel, his hatred of the Church creeps out in the word "Romish."
Confession of sin, as we have seen, is a reasonable practice, because it was taught by Jesus Christ, and by His apostles and their successors from Christ's time until the present; but especially because it has the power of soothing and pacifying the conscience by freeing it from the torture of sin, the poison of crime. It is not strange, then, that it is so dear to virtuous souls. It is offensive only to those whose hearts are so hardened as to blunt the sting of remorse. Confession is Christianity using its moral power to correct and perfect the individual. In the confessional the minister of God is continually coming in contact with hearts in which reigns an idol that he overthrows, a bad practice that he causes to cease, or some injustice that he has repaired.
Confession is one of the gates by which Christianity penetrates the interior man, wipes away stains, heals diseases, and sows therein the seeds of virtue. The lives and experience of millions are witness of the truth of this. Is it not, then, a reasonable, a beneficial practice? It is only the malicious or the ignorant who calumniate the practice and the consecrated minister who sits in judgment in the sacred tribunal. Those who lay aside their prejudice and study the question soon become convinced of its divine origin. A little study and reflection will show them that confession of sin benefits society by preventing crimes that would destroy government, cause riots, and fill prisons; that it promotes human justice, makes men better, nobler, purer, higher, and more Godlike; that it soothes the sorrowful heart whose crime might make the despairing suicide; and that individuals and families who frequently, intelligently, and properly approach this fountain of God's grace will receive His blessing here and a pledge of His union hereafter.
This is taken from Reasonableness of Catholic Ceremonies and Practices.
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