Why Catholics go to confession and receive the sacrament of Reconciliation has been a topic under discussion for centuries. As a sacramental celebration which clearly distinguishes not only non-believers from Christians but also Catholics from other denominations of Christians,the act of confession and its rite of Reconciliation provides a meaty bone of contention for one and all. Even though today Catholic churches are seldom crowded on Saturday afternoons with penitents ( those seeking confession ) prior to Sunday mass celebrations, the sacrament continues to be available regularly in Catholic churches or through appointment at Catholic Rectories.
With little likelihood that the practice of confession is going away any time soon, non-Catholics and even many Catholics continue to ask why Catholics go to Confession anyhow. Having responded to this question many times myself as a parish lay minister I would answer that question by including these thoughts.
From a legalistic perspective, members of the Catholic Church are at a minimum required to refrain from receiving the Eucharist if they have committed a grave or serious sin until they go to confession. As most Catholics recognize receiving communion as the central act of their faith, they do take on the obligation to confess serious sin, the kind that separates them from God or neighbor, before taking themselves to receive communion.
But most practicing Catholics would tell you there are many more reasons why Catholics go to confession. Not everyone who goes to confession has committed a serious or mortal sin. So why else do Catholics chose to go to confession.
Some Catholics who have been well schooled in theology will tell you that they go to confession because in the New Testament, Christ tells his followers led by Peter that they have been given the power to forgive (or not forgive) sins committed here on earth. If you believe, as Catholics do, that powers given to Peter and the Apostles have been handed down through the centuries from one Pope to the next in the Catholic Church, then you can accept that today’s priesthood continues to carry out the important ministry of the forgiveness of sins.
Of course further examination of Catholic theology tells us that, besides the priest, it is Christ who is present in all seven of the Catholic sacraments including the sacrament of Reconciliation. When one goes to confession and speaks to the priest it is Christ who forgives. It is this belief that in part attracts Catholics to take their dark side to the confessional where they hope to encounter the forgiveness not of Father Whoever but of Christ.
Some Catholics go to confession out of what many call “Catholic guilt”. These are people who have been perhaps too well schooled not just in theology but in what one might call the frailty of mankind. They are constantly aware of their shortcomings and feel the need to unburden themselves of their own misdeeds, large and small to the appropriate authority in the confessional. For this group of Catholics confession is at least in part an activity directed towards spiritual cleansing and it is ongoing.
While all this theology can really motivate some folks to go to confession, for sure others are motivated by what one might consider a more practical reason. There are lots of people who go to confession for compassionate counseling. While they are packing a major sin or two that they wish to unload, they are looking for an experience where the priest does more than hand out a penance and mark them with the sign of the cross. They come to the confessional seeking understanding and in many cases direction. They want help in living better, more holy, more Christian lives. They want to be better spouses, parents, offspring, workers. They recognize that they are at least partly to blame for what has happened in their lives and for this they are sorry but beyond their contrition they want to be shown a path for a better life.
While many Catholics begin to go to confession because it is the rule, because it is one of the seven sacraments or because they have a sense of guilt, many eventually come to another realization. Confession is a wonderful opportunity to have your apology for your own personal sins accepted and acknowledged by one who stands in the name of Jesus and the Church community. Sure you can go out in to the woods or kneel down at your bedside and ask for God’s forgiveness for things which you wish you hadn’t done. But there is a wonderful uplifting of the spirit that can be found when after telling your sins to the priest, he speaks the words of absolution telling you that you have been forgiven. God’s forgiveness it seems is worth all the anxiety of coming to confession in the first place.
There probably are as many reasons why people go to confession as there are people who make it a regular practice, but having the chance to say you are sorry and be forgiven in a compassionate setting by one who we believe is speaking in Christ’s name has to top the list.