Catechism of the Catholic Church

But we have Baptism, which reconciles us with God; why
then do we need a special sacrament of Reconciliation?

Baptism does snatch us from the power of sin and death and
brings us into the new life of the children of God, but it does not
free us from human weakness and the inclination to sin. That is
why we need a place where we can be reconciled with God again
and again. That place is confession.

It does not seem like a modern thing to go to confession; it can
be difficult and may cost a great deal of effort at first. But it is one
of the greatest graces that we can receive again and again in our
life, it truly renews the soul, completely unburdens it, leaving it
without the debts of the past, accepted in love, and equipped
with new strength. God is merciful, and he desires nothing more
earnestly than for us, too, to lay claim to his mercy. Someone
who has gone to confession turns a clean, new page in the book
of his life.

Who instituted the sacrament of Penance?
Jesus himself instituted the sacrament of Penance when
he showed himself to his apostles on Easter day and
commanded them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive
the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any,
they are retained.” (Jn 20:22a-23)

Nowhere did Jesus express more beautifully what happens
in the sacrament of Penance than in the parable of the
Prodigal Son: We go astray, we are lost and can no longer cope.
Yet our Father waits for us with great, indeed, infinite longing;
he forgives us when we come back; he takes us in again,
forgives our sins. Jesus himself forgave the sins of many
individuals; it was more important to him than working miracles.
He regarded this as the great sign of the dawning of the
kingdom of God, in which all wounds are healed and all
tears are wiped away. Jesus forgave sins in the power of
the Holy Spirit, and he handed that power on to his apostles.
We fall into the arms of our heavenly Father when we go to
a priest and confess.

Who can forgive sins?
God alone can forgive sins. Jesus could say “Your sins
are forgiven” (Mk 2:5) only because he is the Son of God.
And priests can forgive sins in Jesus’ place only because
Jesus has given them that authority.

Many people say, “I can go directly to God; why do I need
a priest?” God, though, wants it otherwise. We rationalize
our sins away and like to sweep things under the rug. That is
why God wants us to tell our sins and to acknowledge them
in a personal encounter. Therefore, the following words from
the Gospel are true of priests: “If you forgive the sins of any,
they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

What sins must be confessed?
Under normal circumstances, all serious sins that one remembers after
making a thorough examination of conscience and that have not yet been
confessed can be forgiven only in individual sacramental confession.
Of course there will be reluctance before making a confession. Overcoming it
is the first step toward interior healing. Often it helps to think that even the Pope
has to have the courage to confess his failings and weaknesses to another priest –
and thereby to God. Only in life-or-death emergencies (for instance, during an
airstrike in wartime or on other occasions when a group of people are in
danger of death) can a priest administer “general absolution” to a group
of people without the personal confession of sins beforehand. However,
afterwards, one must confess serious sins in a personal confession at the
first opportunity.

When is a Catholic obliged to confess his serious sins? How often should
one go to confession?

Upon reaching the age of reason, a Catholic is obliged to confess his serious sins.
The Church urgently advises the faithful to do this at least once a year. At any
rate one must go to confession before receiving Holy Communion if one has
committed a serious sin.

By “the age of reason”, the Church means the age at which one has arrived at the
use of reason and has learned to distinguish between good and bad.

Can I make a confession even if I have not committed any serious sins?
Confession is a great gift of healing that brings about closer union with the Lord,
even if, strictly speaking, you do not have to go to confession.
In Taizé, at Catholic conferences, at World Youth Day celebrations – everywhere,
you see young people being reconciled with God. Christians who take seriously
their decision to follow Jesus seek the joy that comes from a radical new beginning
with God. Even the saints went to confession regularly, if possible. They needed it
in order to grow in humility and charity, so as to allow themselves to be touched
by God’s healing light even in the inmost recesses of their souls.

Why are priests the only ones who can forgive sins?
No man can forgive sins unless he has a commission from God to do so and the
power given by him to ensure that the forgiveness he promises the penitent
really takes place. The bishop, in the first place, is appointed to do that and, then,
his helpers, the ordained priests.

Are there sins that are so serious that not even the average
priest can forgive them?

There are sins in which a man turns completely away from God and at the
same time, because of the seriousness of the deed, incurs excommunication.
When a sin results in “excommunication”, absolution can be granted only by
the bishop or a priest delegated by him, and, in a few cases, only by the Pope.
In danger of death, any priest can absolve from every sin and excommunication.
A Catholic who, for example, cooperates in an abortion automatically excludes
himself from sacramental communion; the Church simply acknowledges this fact.
The purpose of “excommunication” is to correct the sinner and to lead him
back to the right path.

May a priest later repeat something he has learned in confession?
No. Under no circumstances. The secrecy of the confessional is absolute.
Any priest who would tell another person something he had learned in the
confessional would be excommunicated. Even to the police, the priest cannot
say or suggest anything.

There is hardly anything that priests take more seriously than the seal of the
confessional. There are priests who have suffered torture for it and have gone
to their deaths. Therefore, you can speak candidly and unreservedly to a priest
and confide in him with great peace of mind, because his only job at that moment
is to be entirely “the ear of God.”

What are the positive effects of confession?
Confession reconciles the sinner with God and the Church.
The second after absolution is like a shower after playing sports, like the
fresh air after a summer storm, like waking up on a sunlit summer morning,
like the weightlessness of a diver … . Everything is contained in the word
“reconciliation” (from a Latin verb meaning “to bring back together, to restore”):
we are at peace with God again.