I sat there in the confessional booth wondering if I was committing blasphemy. I was a priest, yes but I was also a man and I was doing something which the Bible says only God should be doing–forgiving sins. The only people I should be forgiving are those who have wronged me. That’s what it says in the prayer Jesus taught His disciples and us. After finishing the prayer, He added, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Only God has the authority to forgive everyone. And as God, the Son, Jesus has that authority too. He was accused of blasphemy when He told the paralyzed man, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” The scribes were offended and exclaimed, “This Man blasphemes!”
Why did they accuse Jesus of blasphemy? They believed Him to be a Man and as a Man, He had no right to forgive sins. Only God and God alone had the right to do so. Jesus, in forgiving the man’s sins was making Himself to be God which was blasphemy. And here, I am, a man, making myself to be God by forgiving the sins of these people who are confessing their sins to me. How could I, a fallible human being forgive sins? I wasn’t holy like God or sinless like Jesus. I’m a sinner like these people who were coming to me for forgiveness. Instead of coming to me, they should be going to God. It says in 1 John 9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We go to directly to God, confess our sins and He is more than willing to forgive us.
Whenever I raise the question about priests forgiving sins, I am reminded of John 20:23 which says, “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Father Christensen assured me that God gave the apostles the authority to forgive sins and that authority was passed on to the successors of the apostles who are the bishops and priests of the Roman Catholic Church. “As priests, we stand between God and the people. We hold His office here on earth.” He also pointed to Matthew 16:9 and 18:18 as further evidence which supported the church’s teaching that sins are to be confessed to and be forgiven by priests.
I have read Matthew 16:9 and 18:18 but couldn’t come to the same conclusion as he and the church have. I saw it as the disciples sharing the Words which were given to them. These were not their words and they weren’t the ones forgiving confessed sins. I was impressed to read 2 Corinthians 5:18, 19 which say, “God was in Christ personally reconciling the world to himself—not counting their sins against them—and has commissioned us with the message of reconciliation. We are now Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were appealing direct to you through us.” These verses helped to explain Matthew 16:9 and 18:18. We are Christ ambassadors, representing Him just as He was here, representing the Father. Jesus, as God forgave sins but as His ambassadors, we encourage others to be reconciled to the Father by confessing their sins and He will forgive them.
No where in the Bible does it show that the disciples were acting as priests, forgiving sins. Even in the days of Aaron, the High Priest, he didn’t forgive the people’s sins but he offered a sacrifice for them. And, he himself had to offer a sacrifice for himself. Jesus, on the other hand, who is our High Priest, didn’t have offer any sacrifice because He was sinless but offered Himself once and for all for us. And it was the apostle Paul who said, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins.” In other words, Paul, like the other disciples were preaching about forgiveness of sins, not forgiving sins. Peter told the people when they asked him what to do after they heard his sermon on the day of Pentecost and were convicted, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Peter told them what to do for their sins to be forgiven.
As I sat there listening to a man confessing that he was having adulterous thoughts about his new secretary, I asked myself, how could I mediator between God and him? What right did I have? My cassock and my office of priest didn’t give me that right. Peter wasn’t a priest although we are made to believe that he was the first pope. The Bible tells us that he was an elder, not a Bishop. He was one of Christ’s inner circle, yet he didn’t have the authority to forgive men’s sins anymore than I do. Yet, the church teaches that priests stand in the name of Christ and the Church.
What should I do? I wondered. Should I offer him penance, absolve him after he has said the prayer of Act of Contrition and after I have absolved him, send him on his merry way? What good would any of this do for this man? Would completing the penance I assign him really help him to stop having adulterous thoughts? I sat there wrestling with my thoughts and convictions.
When the time came for me to assign a penance, I heard myself say, “The Good Book promises us that ‘But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.'”
There was silence and then, the man asked, “Father, what act of penance should I perform for my forgiveness?”
“There’s no act of penance here, just go directly to God and confess your sin to Him and He will hear and forgive you. And He will help you to overcome your sin. Forgiveness comes by the grace of God.”
“But what do I pray?”
“God already knows your sins because you have sinned against Him. Just confess them. If you don’t know what to pray, say something simple like the tax collector who went into the temple and cried, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ He went away justified before God. Let your prayer be from the heart. Those are the kinds of prayers which God hears and answers.”
There was a moment’s silence, then, “Thank you, Father. I will do as you say.”
“Go in peace and may God be with you,” I said to him. And, he was gone. He was the last one for confession, so I sat there for a while, thinking about what I had just done and knowing in my heart that it was the right thing to do.