Why Go to Confession Anyway?

There’s been a renewed questioning of the role of confession lately, sparked by the new confession iPhone app, which helps one do an examination of conscience as a preparation for the Sacrament of Confession. Father Z gave a review of the application at his blog, detailing its usefulness and its flaws. His comments are in line with what the Vatican is saying about the use of the application: it is not a substitution for confession to a priest.

So this is what it comes down to – the app is there to help Christians in their examination of conscience (which, by the way, should be part ones daily prayer, at least before bedtime), especially as one prepares to partake in the Sacrament of Confession/Reconciliation. Since the app is not a substitute, we must go beyond the app to re-focus the purpose of the Sacrament itself. I wonder out loud, “Was this part of the strategy all along in the mind of the developers?” I’ll leave that question for someone else to expand upon.

Here then, is the question that has been back and forth in Christian circles for as long as I can remember:

“Why go to confession anyway? Can’t we just take it directly to God? After all, ‘only God forgives sins.’ (Mark 2:7)”

To answer this question, we must first consider the nature of sin and its effect. Sin damages relationships, both 1) those with God, as well as 2) that of the Church (the body of Christ). Jesus, in his own ministry, forgave sins with the understanding of how sin not only is an offense to God, but also becomes a block to a person’s participation in the community. He does this in a most shocking way — he sits down to table with them:

During his public life Jesus not only forgave sins, but also made plain the effect of this forgiveness: he reintegrated forgiven sinners into the community of the People of God from which sin had alienated or even excluded them. A remarkable sign of this is the fact that Jesus receives sinners at his table, a gesture that expresses in an astonishing way both God’s forgiveness and the return to the bosom of the People of God. (CCC #1443 /ref. Luke 15; 19:9)

In injuring one’s relationship with God and injuring one’s relationship with the Christian community, it is for this that we also need a means to ask pardon not just to God (which of course is most important), but there is need to be reconciled also to the community (as Jesus taught in welcoming sinners to the intimacy of the table meal). This welcoming the sinner back to full communion continues on through Jesus’ imparting to his apostles, and those appointed by them,  his own power to forgive sins and to reconcile sinners with the Church:

This ecclesial dimension of their task is expressed most notably in Christ’s solemn words to Simon Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 16:19) “The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of the apostles united to its head.” (LG 22, 2) (CCC #1444)

The words bind and loose mean: whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive anew into your communion, God will welcome back into his. Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God. (CCC #1445)

In the confessional, the priest represents both Christ the Head, and in the members of Christ’s body – the Church. When a penitent comes for confession, she recognizes her actions, words and/or deeds has caused harm to another, wounding the body of Christ; when one sins, all suffer from it, even when the sin seems hidden or is unknown to others.

There is also a practical point to be made.  Hopefully, all of us have experienced what it feels like to be forgiven by someone we have offended. In our asking them to forgive us, we find healing of our heart, and the invisible burden of our transgression falls from our shoulders. We feel light. We feel that burden on our conscience is removed, and our relationship with the person restored. This is a symbol of what happens on a larger scale when we come before a priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We bring our contrite hearts before God in the confessional, express the ways we have broken communion with God and with our brothers and sisters, and we seek to be restored in friendship with God and with our community. With the words of absolution we are reminded it is God who receives our contrite confession, and it is He who forgives, through His minister the priest, acting as a servant of God:

God, the Father of mercies,
through the death and the
resurrection of his Son
has reconciled the world to himself
and sent the Holy Spirit among us
for the forgiveness of sins;
through he ministry of the Church
may God give you pardon and peace,
and I absolve you from your sins
in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The Church acknowledges other effects from this Sacrament. When we approach the sacrament with a contrite heart, it “is usually followed by peace and serenity of conscience with strong spiritual consolation.” (CCC #1468). Thus, the penitent finds herself spiritually stronger to help her in the future when faced with temptation; she finds resolve and strength to overcome vices that lead her into sin. In this way, frequenting the sacrament often, becomes part of the spiritual food for the journey of the Christian as she strives for holiness.

With this in mind, we can approach the iPhone app as a tool that helps us recall how we may have ruptured our friendship with God and our neighbor (the Body of Christ), and then make our way to a priest who is there to help us be reconciled to God.


An overview of confession and act of contrition:



Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (Catechism)

Examination of Conscience – A Daily Duty as explained by Fr. John Corapi, SOLT

The iPhone App for Confession – Useful but Flawed by Father Z

A Priest’s Examination of Conscience from the Imitation of Christ

Our Own Worst Enemy by Defend Us in Battle

QUAERITUR: Long distance sacramental absolution of sins? No.

Roses Smell Great, on Returning to the Church

Forgiveness – A Way Home