I became a full fledged member of the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil in 2007. Since I had already been baptized when I was younger, all I needed to do was make a profession of faith and receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. Before I was confirmed by the bishop, and since I had been baptized, I had to go to Confession and confess all known mortal sins I had committed. In this entry, I hope to answer three questions non-Catholics might have about this important sacrament: why is Confession necessary, what is Confession, and on what authority was this sacrament established?
First, why do we need Confession? In order to fully understand this sacrament, a basic understanding of the Catholic teaching of original sin is necessary. When Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, sin and death entered this world. Since then, humans have been suffering from the effects of original AND actual sin. Original sin is what stained our souls and separated us from God. Actual sins are the actions we commit, or refuse to commit, that violate God's laws and commands. According to the teachings of the Church, there have been only two who have not suffered the effects of original sin. First, and most obviously, our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The other was his mother, Mary, whom we believe was preserved from the effects of sin by God in order to prepare for her role in the Incarnation of Christ.
When Catholics begin receiving the sacraments, the first sacrament is baptism. It washes away the stain of original sin, symbolizing our entry into the Church and beginnings as Christians. Even though it washes away the original sin, we are still prone to actual sin. That is where the Sacrament comes in. It allows us to repent of any sins that we may have made, and helps reestablish our relationship with our Lord.
Second, what is Confession? What exactly goes on in the confessional? In order to make a good and proper confession, we need to examine our consciences and see where we have failed to follow Christ. There are a few ways in which we can sin, with each category overlapping the other in places. First, there are sins of commission and sins of omissions. Sins of commission are sins we actually commit that violate God's laws and commands. Sins of omission are actions we are commanded to do, but don't do. These two categories can fall under two other categories: mortal and venial sins.
Mortal sins are the most serious type of sins. In order for a sin to be mortal, three conditions must be met. First, the sin must be grave matter. Second, we must know it's grave matter. Finally, we must commit that sin with full intention of the will. If any of these conditions are not met, then the sin is venial. When we go to Confession, we are obligated to confess all known mortal sins (key word being known), and we are strongly encouraged to confess venial sins. If we fail to knowingly confess our mortal sins, then a mockery of the sacrament is made. Confession, which is considered a Sacrament of Healing, is like going to the doctor. Failing to tell the doctor of all your symptoms will not help the doctor make a proper diagnosis or suggest a proper course of treatment. Likewise, failing to confess all known mortal sins doesn't allow the priest to give us helpful advice and a suitable penance.
The procedure for Confession goes as follows: the penitent enters the confessional, confesses sins, receives advice (depending on the priest) and a penance. A penance is the equivalent of a spiritual prescription, designed to help repair our relationship with God. Then, the pentitent gives an Act of Contrition (this is very important), and then receives absolution. As mentioned above, making a good confession depends on confessing all known mortal sins. Another way to make a good confession is to have firm purpose of amendment. Basically, we must firmly resolve not to commit that sin again. As humans, we will stumble and fall, but we must resolve not to intentionally commit that sin again. Otherwise, it makes a mockery of the sacrament.
Finally, on what authority was his sacrament established? By Jesus himself. In the Old Testament, there is a foreshadowing of the sacrament when King David confessed the sins of adultery and murder to Nathan, the prophet. In John 20: 22-23, Jesus himself grants the apostles the authority to forgive sins. Whatever sins are forgiven, they will be forgiven; what sins are retained, they're retained. To this day, only a priest who has the proper permission can hear confessions and offer absolution. When a priest hears confession. he acts "in persona Christi." Because of the seriousness of the sacrament, because of the necessity for the penitent to be able to confess his sins, the priest cannot reveal what he learned in the confessional. This is known as the Seal of the Confessional, and is known as the Priest-Penitent Privilege, one of the few privileges restricting or banning testimony in a court of law.
Hopefully, this will answer any questions some might have regarding this important sacrament of the Catholic Church.