Imagine that you were born in a primitive part of the world that had no access to technology. Imagine that you had never seen a cell phone or a television or a radio. Then one day, a stranger showed up in your land. Somehow, this stranger knew your language, and he told you about the place he was from and some of the people he knew. Intrigued, you said to the stranger, “I would like to meet some of those other people, too.” “Of course,” said the stranger, “I will ask them to come join us.” Then, the stranger pulled out a little, square, black object from his pocket and began to speak to it. After putting the object back into his pocket, the stranger said, “They will be here tomorrow morning to meet you.”
Confused, and thinking this person might have a screw loose, you said to the stranger, “I thought you were going to talk to your friends about coming to visit.” “Yes,” said the stranger, “I just spoke to them.” “No, you didn’t, you spoke to that thing in your pocket.” “Well, that is a phone. It allows me to communicate with my friends.” “You mean you don’t have to speak directly to your friends? You can speak to that little phone and it does everything for you?” Well, no,” explains the stranger, “I was actually speaking to my friends through the phone. The phone is an instrument through which I speak directly to my friends.”
After a crash course in basic technology you begin to understand how the phone operates. Once you understand about radio waves and electronic speakers, transmitters and receivers, you can see just how much sense it makes. At first it seemed like the stranger was a confused, crazy person talking to a little black box. Now it seems like a good idea.
In a similar way, non-Catholics (and even some Catholics) think it is unnecessary and even silly to confess one’s sins to a priest rather than going “directly to God.” What is misunderstood is that Catholics are going “directly to God” when they confess to a priest. The priest is merely God’s chosen instrument. God realizes that we, being physical and spiritual creations, benefit from actually speaking our sins out loud to another and hearing the words of absolution audibly spoken back to us.
When Jesus walked the earth 2000 years ago, His followers got to use their physical mouths to speak to Him and their physical ears to hear Him say, “Your sins are forgiven.” Jesus did not communicate to them strictly through telepathic or “spiritual” means. He spoke and listened like a man to other men and women. 2000 years later, Catholics still have access to this gift through the priest. Jesus is right there the whole time. Jesus listens and Jesus forgives through His instrument, the Priest. This is the system established by Christ. It is the way Christians are to find forgiveness (especially for mortal sins) apart from “emergency” situations that I will not cover here. Suffice it to say that the normal way to drive a two lane highway is to not cross the solid, center line. In certain emergencies, crossing the center line might be necessary. The normal or “ordinary” way for Christians to find forgiveness for sins (particularly mortal sins) is through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But there is no reason to avoid the Sacrament for venial sins as well (even though these can be forgiven apart from the Sacrament of Reconciliation).
In a sort of reversal of the phone analogy, people today see the Sacrament of Reconciliation as “obsolete technology.” In other words, why pick up the “phone” to call someone when you can just instantly “be” with that person (i.e. Jesus in spirit). “We can talk directly to Jesus anywhere! Why do we need this ancient, “go-between” priest nonsense?” This attitude is an outgrowth of the “Jesus and me” theology that is so prevalent today. This theology emphasizes a one-on-one relationship with Christ at the expense of the corporate, familial, sacramental reality of the Church. This can be seen in the attitude that says, “As long as I’m not hurting anyone else, it’s ok.” But sin is not just between the sinner and God. Sin hurts the entire Body. If one member of the Body is sick, the whole Body suffers.
We humans tend to deceive ourselves and justify our sins. It’s too easy to “talk to Jesus” about things and not be truly honest with ourselves. We can too readily fashion Jesus into who we want Him to be. We don’t like to confront and admit sin. The priest can help us discern if we are being too hard or too easy on ourselves. So then, why not just talk to a trusted friend or a therapist? We can derive some psychological benefit from doing so, but Christ did not give the authority to “bind and loose” to your friends or to therapists. Christ did not say to your friends or your therapist, “Whosoever sins you forgive are forgiven and whosoever sins you retain are retained.” Christ gave that authority to specific men in His Church and to their successors.
It is one thing to “be sorry” and another thing to “say you are sorry” (despite what the Movie Love Story might want us to believe). I see this frequently in my counseling office. People tend to be defensive and avoid admitting their faults. Getting an apology from some folks is like pulling teeth. So many marriages would be a lot happier if both partners knew how to apologize and how to graciously accept an apology. As earlier stated, sin affects not only the sinner, but the entire Church, His Body. Therefore, Christ wants us to make our apology and find healing through the Church, His Body. He wants us to do the real work of humility and actually speak our sins out loud to the Church. He wants us to make a full apology through His Church.
When Jesus healed the blind man, He made mud with spit and dirt, put it on the man’s eyes and then told him, “Go wash in the pool.” Imagine the blind man saying, “Forget all this mud and washing nonsense, just heal me now, Jesus!” No, the blind man did as Jesus instructed and was healed. Jesus often gave specific instructions to those He healed. Jesus told His disciples, “Whoever hears you hears me,” and “Whosoever sins you forgive are forgiven, whosoever sins you retain are retained.” Yet, we often say to Jesus, “No, I don’t want to go through that process to call upon your Name, express my personal belief in You and find healing for my soul. It’s too humiliating, too inconvenient, too old fashioned, too complicated, too messy. I want to do it my way. Just forgive me now, Jesus. I don’t need Your apostles or their successors or any of Your Church getting in the way of my relationship with You.”