“This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)
These are the first words spoken by Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, and they are presented as the core of his message. (So too in Matthew’s Gospel; see Matthew 4:17.) Repentance and conversion are at the heart of the Gospel message. We must confess our sins and change our lives if we are truly to be disciples of Jesus.
The Catholic Church teaches that sins are forgiven through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To be clear, it is not the priest who forgives sins. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states explicitly, “Only God forgives sins.” (1441) Jesus, following his Resurrection, gives the apostles the power to forgive sins in his name: “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 21:22-23) In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the successors of the Apostles exercise this authority in his holy name today.
Can you confess your sins directly to Jesus and be forgiven? I am not a theologian and can only speak to this question from personal experience. Going to Confession can be hard. It is an act of humility, but a necessary and appropriate one, I believe, to receive the grace of forgiveness. I grew up Catholic and went to Confession dutifully once a year as a kid. But once I was out on my own, even though I still attended mass weekly, I stopped going to Confession. At first that was largely a function of spiritual laziness. But as I grew older, and begin to pray more frequently, I became more aware of my need to be reconciled to God. Yet I held back from receiving the sacrament. In fact I preferred to think I didn’t need to tell a priest because I could tell Jesus directly. And so I did, in my daily prayers, running through the same sins every day and asking God’s forgiveness every day.
To be sure, there was value in doing this. For me it was a necessary first step to receiving God’s forgiveness. Acknowledging your sins to Jesus and asking for his forgiveness is always a good thing.
The problem was, even though I was doing this every day, I never felt forgiven. If I had, I wouldn’t have kept repeating the same prayer. I just never felt in my heart that I was truly forgiven, no matter how many times I prayed. Eventually I realized I had to go back to Confession.
(A digression. This sacrament goes by several names, none of which are wrong. Confession and Penance are both integral components of the sacrament, and I think the default option for most Catholics is to refer to it as Confession, as I find myself doing here. I like the name Reconciliation though, because it speaks to the end result of the sacrament, the reconciliation of the contrite sinner and the merciful Savior.)
By the grace of God, I did go back to Confession, and I never had to ask God again to forgive those same sins. Once or twice I would ask for forgiveness of those sins in my daily prayer out of habit, and then remember (joyfully!) that those sins had been forgiven. I hate to use a cliché like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, but that really is the best description of how it felt to be reconciled to God.
It may be worthwhile to address some of the reasons why you might not go to Confession. These were things holding me back that I never should have worried about:
The priest won’t grant me forgiveness. Yes he will! The Catechism states clearly: “There is no offense, however serious, that the Church cannot forgive. ‘There is no one, however wicked and guilty, who may not confidently hope for forgiveness, provided his repentance is honest.’ Christ who died for all men desires that in his Church the gates of forgiveness should always be open to anyone who turns away from sin.” (982)
I’m too embarrassed to tell my priest about my sins. It’s a near certainty that, whatever you’re confessing, the priest has heard it before. But you don’t have to confess face-to-face, and you can go to the next closest Catholic church if you’d rather confess to a priest you don’t know. The important thing is to receive the sacrament.
I don’t remember what to do or say. catholic.org has a summary of Confession that includes the steps involved in the sacrament. It also has a good overview of questions to ask in examining your conscience before Confession.
The priest will give me a really hard penance. In my experience the penances have been very modest, usually a few prayers. What I think the priests (and for that matter, God) are looking for is a genuinely contrite heart.
I’m just going to commit the same sins again. This may be the biggest sticking point. The truth is, if we wait until we know we’re going to be perfect to seek Confession, we’ll never go. What we do need is to firmly resolve not to commit the same sins again. There are things I’ve confessed to, that a few months later I was right back in with the priest confessing those sins again. But I know I’m committing those sins less often because of the sacrament, because I’m more aware of the harm caused by my sins, and because I’m more likely to check myself before I engage in those same sinful behaviors. This is the surest sign that I’m receiving God’s grace through the sacrament.
Reconciliation, in short, is not meant as a punishment but is given as gift to repair our broken relationship with Jesus and help us lead holier lives. Go often, and find healing for your soul.