On the Sacrament of Penance
‘All May, None Must, Some Should” goes the adage about auricular confession, in private, to a priest. It may seem to some a vestige of the dark ages, akin to self-flagellation. Our tradition is certainly right to pair it with public confession in the context of the liturgy. We also do well to remind ourselves that the power to absolve belongs to the risen Jesus alone, who entrusts its utterance to the Church. As to those who criticize the psychological effects of guilt, we do well to recall that Freud himself understood that the name for a person with no guilt is ‘sociopath.’
My claim here is a simple one, that private confession teaches us several things about forgiveness in general. First of all, the word of absolution is spoken to you. You hear it from the mouth of another sinner, designated by God to speak it. it is more than a thought in our head, which in our anxiety we may come to distort. Absolution happens. It cannot be undone. Like the sin you confess, its absolution occurs in the world. Its point is as fixed as the crucifixion of Jesus itself. This is why one should not reconfess the same sin- it has been put away.
The penitent should have a desire not so to sin again. Given the bound nature of the human being, we may well revert to a sin, but the penitent is the one who is sorry. So Confession requires honesty. Any confessor would tell you that you are to say everything that occurs to you to say. Concealing something means one has not yet understood that it is to God that we confess. And saying what we regret out loud makes us come to terms with who we are in a way more stark than usual.
But the overwhelming experience of confession is freedom. The thing we most yearn for us is available to us. In Jesus we experience the Father running to His prodigal child. This is the starting point of our faith, from which point we are given that freedom to wrestle with a thousand perplexities. As the title of a book by the New Testament scholar Ernst Kaesemann said, Jesus means freedom.