A Dominican friar is approached by Bill, a non-practicing Catholic with a question on his mind.
Bill: Hey, what do they call you guys anyway? Are you a Franciscan?
Dominican: Close—we’re called Dominicans, but you got the general Catholic religious idea right.
Bill: So you’re Catholic then? I was brought up Catholic, but I just felt it wasn’t fitting my spirituality type. Too much discipline and too many rules. Take confession, for example—why would you need to go to a man to have your sins heard and forgiven? Why not just pray straight to God? That’s what’s worked for me, anyway.
Dominican: Let me get this straight. Are you saying that you would start practicing the Catholic faith if you were okay with going to confession?
Bill: Well, no. But I just don’t see the point in confessing your sins to another man who is also a sinner. Does that really make sense?
Dominican: Well there are good reasons for going to confession. Just speaking practically, don’t we enjoy getting things off our chests when we feel guilty?
Bill: That might be true. But the big hang up for me is that it’s necessary for Catholics to go to confession. I just don’t see why confessing your sins has to be so ruled-based and mandatory. Shouldn’t we focus on love and mercy instead? Isn’t that what Jesus was all about?
Dominican: Ah, I see—you want the first principles! Well, you’ve come to the right place.
Bill: What do you mean by “first principles”?
Dominican: What I mean is that we have to start from the beginning.
Bill: The beginning? What beginning?
Dominican: The Incarnation.
Bill: Wait a minute. That seems kind of distant from the idea of going to confession.
Dominican: It might seem so, but let’s tie it together. The incarnation means God became man, right?
Bill: Yep, that’s right.
Dominican: Not an angel or a platypus or a dinosaur?
Bill: Of course not. The nuns in my grade school made sure I knew that much. But what does confessing sins to a priest have to do with God becoming a man?
Dominican: My point is that when God does things for us he does it in a way that relates to us. When he fully revealed himself to us, he did this in a way that was the best and most fitting for us to hear him. Jesus, the eternal Son of the Father, became one of us. He was born within Palestine, where he had sent prophets and patriarchs before him to point to his eventual coming. When he came in the flesh, he told us of his salvation face to face. He spoke in Aramaic, the language of the people who encountered him, so that they could understand his saving message.
Bill: If that’s true, then shouldn’t we adapt the faith to be more relevant to today’s modern world? Isn’t that your whole point about the faith being relative to us?
Dominican: God wants to relate to the modern world, too, of course, but we’re not necessarily that different from people of Jesus’ time. No matter what century we live in God realizes that we want to speak to him. When Jesus preached and performed his daily ministry, men and women approached him for physical and spiritual healing. They confessed their belief in his saving power as well as their faults. In return, Jesus told them, “Go, your faith has saved you” (Mk 10:52). Jesus was reconciling people to himself by their vocal confessions from the beginning.
Bill: Alright, that may be true, but there’s also a big difference from what Jesus did and what the priests are doing. Jesus called himself God, and none of his followers, not even you, Brother, can claim that kind of authority on your own. Do you really suppose that every priest who hears your confession is God?
Dominican: No, I’m not saying that. But this is precisely where the part about God wanting to relate to people of all times comes in. When Christ lived on earth he knew he would not stay here for long. That’s why he called his apostles to himself, and told them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20:23).
Bill: But isn’t this action of the apostles still essentially different from what Jesus did in his earthly ministry?
Dominican: No, it’s actually not, because Jesus wanted the apostles to carry on the same work that he himself accomplished. Jesus gave his apostles the Holy Spirit so they could perform the same ministry of reconciliation he had done, albeit in a different way. While the apostles and their successors are not God, they are still sent by Jesus, and therefore sent by the Father. That’s why Jesus told them, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (Jn 20:21). God wants to hear your confession, and he wants to hear it through those he’s sent to continue offering his forgiveness of sins. God became incarnate in Jesus in order to save us in a human way, and that’s why we make a vocal confession of our sins to a priest, whom Jesus has sent to continue his human presence among us.
Bill: Okay, you have some reasons for why confession is legitimate, but I still have more questions, especially about Pope Francis. Do you think he would hear my confession?
Dominican: Given his record so far, something tells me that if you actually did ask, he would probably do it.
Image: The Return of the Prodigal Son, Anonymous