Confession (formally The Sacrament of Reconciliation or Sacrament of Penance) is a sacrament of healing. Through this sacrament, the sanctifying grace of God is restored after you have rejected Him through mortal sin and destroyed the grace He has given you. (See What harm is a little sin? for my brief explanation of sins.)
Reconciliation is not punishment but more of a celebration. Not because you have sinned, but because you have examined your conscience, are sincerely sorry, wish to do better in the future and are returning to God. Like the prodigal son’s father, you are forgiven and brought back into harmony with Him. In the sacrament a Priest, acting “in persona Christi” (“in the person of Christ“) absolves you of your sins restoring your relationship with the Father.
This sacrament, like all seven sacraments, is a gift given to us from Jesus.
And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
On the coast of Caesarea Philippi Jesus thus gave Peter the authority to absolve sins. For more information, see also John 20:22-23, Matthew 9:2-8, and Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians 11:2-7. You not only know your sins are forgiven when you receive this sacrament, but are told so by someone with the authority to speak for our Lord.
Not only do lay Catholics receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but the clergy does too. You may be surprised to learn that includes the Pope. Many have done so frequently.
Next month, God willing, I will be received into the Catholic Church and receive Communion. Catholics may receive the Eucharist only if they are in a state of grace. At some point soon, I must therefore receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time. I hope my pastor has a lot of patience, I have a long list! I will let you know how it goes… (update, see: Bless me father for I have sinned)
Penitents must confess all their mortal sins in order for their confession to be valid. This is easier if your last confession was recent. My situation is, shall we say, more challenging. Fortunately all sins, including those you truly do not remember, are forgiven.
This in no way is an “out” for those sins you would rather not mention. If you purposely exclude any sin remembered and know it to be a mortal sin, your entire confession is invalid and you have not received absolution. You have purposefully lied to God through omission; reflect, pray and come back again when you can be fully honest. Also, knowing a sin to be mortal is determined by the teachings of the Church and not open to personal “viewpoints.” I will save exploring this for a future post.
Lastly, let’s look at the seal of the confessional. It is absolute, inviolable and permanent. That means that your entire confession is forever confidential. The confessor (Priest) may not disclose, hint, or act on what is said under any circumstance, regardless of the sins confessed, your death or any consequences to him. All Priests take this extremely seriously. If he were to break confidentiality, it would result in his excommunication. Priests (St. John of Nepomucene and Father Felipe Ciscar Puig) have been martyred for refusing to break the seal. Your confession is between you and God. A Priest is present to help you and to be an intermediary.