One of Jesus’ key ministries was the forgiveness of sins, something He often associated with simultaneous miracles of physical healing. See Lk 5:17-26, where Jesus forgives the paralytic his sins, and then heals his paralysis. Every time He forgave, Jesus personally, intimately, and life-changingly encountered the person suffering from their sins, and this is something He wants to do for us as well! By His death and resurrection, Christ has redeemed us, conquering sin and death, and He wanted this healing and forgiving ministry to continue, so he entrusted it to the Apostles and consequently, to the Church.
One Scripture basis for the sacrament of penance is John 20:19-23, when on Easter night, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on the Disciples and told them, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” The words of absolution said by the priest in the sacrament are rooted in this Scripture. “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Rite of Penance, 46.)
The priest in the confessional, in the sacrament of penance, is in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, as in all sacraments. It is Christ who absolves. It is Christ who baptizes. It is Christ who offers himself on the altar at Mass. So, when penitents come to the sacrament, they are in fact confessing to God, Christ Jesus, in and through the person of the priest. This is going directly to God, as you say in your question.
Why is this manner of confessing helpful? Here we return to the bedrock truth of the Christian faith. God became one with us in the flesh, in His incarnation. God did not just will our redemption and accomplish it by thinking it. He sent his Son, in the flesh, to personally encounter us, to save us by his death and resurrection.
So, think of it in terms of your marriage. You did not become married just by thinking it. You said your intentions publicly, out loud to your spouse. Your words, your consent, your two-become-one, make the sacrament. It is incarnational; you are husband and wife in the flesh. When there is a rift in your marriage, when you wronged your spouse, you need to say, “I am sorry.” Sure, you can think of how sorrowful or remorseful you are, and you can presume your spouse’s forgiveness, but the rift is not really healed until words of sorrow are expressed and you hear the words, “I accept your apology and forgive you.” It is a personal, direct encounter. It is sorrow incarnated.
The way that God created our humanity — body, soul, mind, and strength — means that we need to outwardly, verbally express both our love and our sorrow. I encourage you to go to confession so you can name your sins and express sorrow to Jesus in the person of the priest and hear his healing words of mercy.
Father Joe Ring is pastor at Our Saviour Parish in Jacksonville. This originally appeared in Catholic Times in 2019.