We often hear this question among our non-Catholic friends. Sometimes it’s even from some of our Catholic friends. You probably asked this yourself. I know I did.
“Why can’t I just confess directly to God?” I said aloud. But at the back of my mind I continued “– so I don’t have to humiliate myself before a man who is probably more sinful than I am.”
Okay. I know how you feel, buddy.
Let me explain by slicing (to irrelevance, hehe) that quoted statement above.
First of all, confessing “to a priest” is confessing directly to God. Not that the priest is God, but that Christ wanted his minister, the priest, to act in his name and person. “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Mt 16:19),” Christ told his apostles, whose ‘descendants’ are our bishops and priests. Confessors — that is, priests and bishops who hear Confessions — are mere instruments of God’s mercy shown in Confession. Jesus Christ wants us to actually hear him forgiving us!
As for that second part of the statement — “so I don’t have to humiliate myself before a man who is probably more sinful than I am.” Well, we are probably right that our confessor is more sinful. But can we please let God judge him instead? Who are we to judge the priest? Besides, the effectiveness of the Sacrament doesn’t depend on the holiness (or lack of it) of the priest, but on the mercy of God alone.
For now let us look at ourselves, who feel the need of a sincere acknowledgement that we are miserable sinners, thirsty for God’s forgiveness. Believe it or not, we need to be humiliated in order to repent deeply. Look at the prodigal son. On his return to his father, he humiliated himself, saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” The boy faced his father! He didn’t write a letter or thought to himself that his father had already forgiven him just because he knew his father was such a good man. He actually returned home!
So that shame or embarrassment we feel when going to Confession — that’s natural. We worry if we don’t have it; it could mean we’re not really sorry about sinning. Pope Francis said, “Even embarrassment is good. It’s healthy to have a bit of shame… it does us good, because it makes us more humble.”
In the end, then, confessing to a priest helps us to become humble. And then — wonder of wonders — the priest, too, is helped to become humble. I heard it from some priest friends that they are indeed humbled by their penitents (of course, they said it in a very general way, lest they toe the line of their secrecy vow). Oh, the amount of humble trust that penitents gave them! And the even greater trust that God gives them in order to carry out his continuous act of forgiving!