Medicine for the Soul
Why should we receive the sacrament of reconciliation? Almost every Catholic has to answer this question at some point. Many people don’t understand why Catholics must confess their sins to a priest, and many people believe we need to acknowledge our sins only to God.
So how do we answer this important question?
Perhaps the place to begin is with an understanding of the damage done by sin. Every sin damages our relationship with God. If the sin is venial, we’ve damaged, but not broken, that relationship. If the sin is mortal we’ve broken it.
Sin also damages our relationship with the Church. To some degree, we’ve violated truths the Church holds, and our communion with our brothers and sisters in Christ is weakened—or even broken, depending on the sin.
Finally, sin damages our relationship with humanity. Sinning hurts our fellow human beings and ourself.
If we’re to apologize and attempt to change our behavior, who deserves to receive that apology? We owe an apology to God, everyone in the Church, and every human being. These are the relationships that need to be healed. Yet this would be next to impossible.
This is wheåre the priest comes in. A priest is unique. He’s a mediator between God and people. By his ordination, he is God’s representative or ambassador on earth. The Church gives him the power to speak on its behalf, and he represents humanity before God. In a special way, a priest has the faculty to speak on behalf of all the parties who deserve an apology. So the priest receives our confession on behalf of God, the Church, and all of humanity.
But the priest goes beyond accepting the apology. He helps us fulfill the requirement of contrition. Contrition exceeds an apology. It’s a desire not to repeat the offense. This may be difficult, so we always ask for God’s grace to avoid sin. But even hearts that doesn’t want to sin need help knowing how to avoid it.
Thus, the priest offers advice and a penance. Penance is like medicine for the soul. If we understand the purpose of the penance, we begin a practice that can help us avoid a particular sin. While the penance may be specific, the idea is that we’ve at least started on the right path to avoid sin, and now we may freely choose to continue on that path. Finally, Jesus forgives our sins through the priest and doesn’t hold us guilty.
Jesus’ forgiveness allows established relationships to be restored and new relationships to begin—even though the effects of the sinful action may still exist in the real world.