By Adrian Mascarenhas –
Where in the Bible does it say that one has to Confess one’s sins? Many of my non-Catholic Friends keep asking this question, whenever I bring up the topic of Confession. How can I answer them?
In the first place, the formulation of this question is misleading: it would lead us to imagine that all answers are to be found from the Bible alone. The Bible does not claim any such universal and comprehensive authority for itself. Though it is a beautiful love letter from God, it would be a mistake to presume that Jesus came to give us the Bible as a rule book that could be applied apart from one’s participation in the rest of what the Church teaches.
What we see, in fact, is that Jesus did not pay much attention to the necessity of writing down his teachings. He taught people orally. But more importantly, he built his disciples into a community that would be led into all truth by the Holy Spirit.
This is an important point that you may need to share with your non-Catholic friends in detail. “Sola Scriptura” (Bible alone) is a recent invention; the Church managed without a New Testament for several generations, but the teachings of Christ were transmitted orally, the sacraments forming an important part of them. Hence, confession has existed in both the Eastern and the Western Church; it would be impossible to try to find a person or community which began this practice; rather, one is forced to admit that like Baptism and the Eucharist, Confession and Absolution have also existed since apostolic times. The obvious implication is that the apostles themselves encouraged confession, at least for grave sins.
In the community that he established, Jesus clearly gave the leaders the authority to make binding decisions on the flock with regard to the forgiveness of sins (Jn 20:21-23). This would normally imply confession, though confession is not mentioned. A further reason to believe that confession was involved, is the fact that those who received the Baptism of John used to confess their sins (Matthew 3:6).
In the early Church, confession was public, and a serious sinner might have to undertake a demanding penance such as a pilgrimage for example. Reconciliation might take place in the Easter season, in the presence of the Bishop. Later, under the influence of the monasteries, confession came to be regarded as a private act of humility or piety, to help with spiritual growth. Confession to one’s superior in the monastery clearly expressed the communal dimension of sin: since our sins hurt the community, a leader of the community needs to absolve them. In the parish situation, this leader was the parish priest in general.
Hence, though confession has changed its form over the centuries, the basic concept has remained the same: humility and transparency before the Lord, and an acknowledgement that our sins have hurt ourselves, the community, and our relationship with God. True contrition has always involved sincere repentance, admission of guilt (confession) and a desire to lead a new life and to set right the wrong that has been done.
Rev. Fr. Adrian Mascarenhas has served as the Assistant Parish Priest of St. Patrick’s Church and Ascension Church, and has completed two years of ministry at St. Peter’s Church, Bangalore, India. He received his licentiate in sacred theology from Dharmaram Vidya Kshethram and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Fundamental Theology at the Pontifical Lateran University, Rome.