"He breathed on them and said: Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained."
G. K. Chesterton, the great English convert to the Church, was once asked by a friend why he became a Catholic. "To get rid of my sins," was the immediate reply. The answer showed his deep faith in the Sacrament of Penance and the consolation he received in going to confession.
When you realize that it was the Divine Saviour Himself who commanded Confession, it is easy to see that this Sacrament can give extraordinary peace of mind. The night before our Divine Saviour died, He gave to His Apostles - His first priests - the power of changing bread and wine into His Body and Blood. After His resurrection, He gave to them and their successors another great priestly power, the power of forgiving sins in His Name when He said, "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained."
No other meaning can be given to those words except that Our Lord demands that people who believe in Him must confess their sins to one of His representatives. How is one of Christ's ambassadors going to forgive an individual unless that individual actually tells what his sins are? This was the practice in the only Christian Church until the l6th century when the reformers denied the efficacy of confession. We know definitely that even St. Peter himself, the Prince of the Apostles, heard confessions and absolved the faithful. In 1911, in one of the catacombs in Rome, a large stone slab was found with this inscription on it: "Here (that is, in this very spot) Blessed Peter absolved the faithful from their sins confessed."
You know the old objections of non-Catholics to confession. One of them is that confession is the invention of priests. Priests, they say, want to pry into the private lives of people. Well, if priests invented confession, or the Sacrament of Penance, would they not have exempted themselves. Whereas, you know that priests, bishops, and even the Pope must go to confession. Besides, hearing confessions is very hard work. The priest spends hours, especially before the great feasts like Easter and Christmas, hearing confessions and it is very tiring work.
Then, too, non-Catholics say: "Why go to a priest? He is a mere man, like yourself. Why not confess to God direct?" First of all, it was Christ who laid down the rules of salvation. If He demands that people confess their sins, and there is all the evidence in the world that that is His will, then there is nothing I can do about it except go to confession. Besides, how many people regularly take time out, examine their consciences and actually confess their sins direct to God. I wonder. The Church is teaching us what Christ commanded to make us put our spiritual lives in order and periodically demands that we confess - at least once a year under pain of serious sin.
The Sacrament of Penance is a wonderful Sacrament. It is impossible to estimate the amount of peace and happiness this Sacrament has brought to men through the centuries, ever since the time when Our Lord said to the Apostles: "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained." A contrite, sincere confession has brought joy and comfort and a fresh start in life to billions of men and women.
Let me dispell one false idea which a large number of Catholics have in regard to confession and that is this: they believe that if they go to confession they must receive Holy Communion. That idea is absolutely false. They are two distinct Sacraments. You can go to confession as often as you wish and there is no obligation to receive Holy Communion except during the Easter time. Indeed, if you should have the misfortune to fall through human weakness into mortal sin, you have an obligation in conscience to make your peace with God by making a good confession. Such a person should make a perfect act of contrition immediately and resolve to go to confession as soon as possible.
Why are so many Catholics afraid to go to confession? Is it because they fear the wrath of the priest? No priest is going to be mad at you because you confess mortal sins. The sins you confess are not against the priest; they are against God. Besides, you never heard of a penitent being shot in confession.
Is it shame that keeps many Catholics from going to confession? Away with such shame! Don't let human respect keep you from this Sacrament. And never let it cause you to make a bad confession. The priest will keep your secret, you can be sure of that, and he will admire you for your courage in making a good confession.
Always examine your conscience well before going into the confessional. A good confession will give you the spirit to face anew the battles of life. In the life of Father Duffy of the "Fighting 69th" it was stated that Officers who were non-Catholic were always anxious to provide opportunities for their men to go to confession; not only to help them practice their religion, but also for its distinct military value. A Captain in Father Duffy's Regiment told him before they took over their first trenches that he heard different men saying to their 1st Sergeant: "You can put me down for any kind of job out there. I've been to confession and I'm all cleaned up and I don't care what happens now."
You should love this Sacrament. The priest in confession will sympathize with you and encourage you to begin once more a good life. God might have chosen angels to have done His work; but he picked men instead. God's wisdom is manifest when you consider that a priest is made of flesh and blood the same as you and knows what temptation means.
We should be truly grateful to Our Lord when He said to His Apostles: "Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained."