The pattern for repentance is set by Jesus Christ in his parable of the prodigal son (see Luke 15:11-24). Having lived a sinful life ‘in a far country’, that is, far away from God, the prodigal son, after many tribulations, comes to himself and decides to return to his Father. Repentance begins with his conversion (‘came to himself’), which is then transformed into determination to return (‘I will arise and go’), and finishes with his return to God (‘he arose and came’). This is followed by confession (‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you’), which results in forgiveness (‘Bring quickly the best robe’), adoption (‘this my son’), and spiritual resurrection (‘was dead, and is alive again’). Repentance is therefore a dynamic process, a way towards God, rather than a mere act of recognizing one’s sins.
Every Christian has all of his sins forgiven in the sacrament of Baptism. However, ‘there is no man who shall live and sin not’. Sins committed after Baptism deprive the human person of the fulness of life in God. Hence the necessity of the ‘second Baptism’, the expression use by the church Fathers for repentance, emphasizing its purifying, renovating and sanctifying energy.
The sacrament of Penance is spiritual healing for the soul. Every sin, depending on its gravity, is for the soul either a small injury, a deep wound, sometimes a serious disease, or perhaps even a fatal illness. In order to be spiritually healthy, the human person must regularly visit his father-confessor, a spiritual doctor:
‘Have you sinned? Go to church and repent in your sin... Here is a physician, not a judge. Here nobody is condemned, but everybody receives forgiveness of sins’,says St. John Chrysostom.
From the very beginning of Christianity, it was the duty of the apostles, and then of bishops and presbyters, to hear the confessions and to give absolution. Christ said to His apostles: ‘Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’ (Matt 18:18). The power of ‘binding and loosing’, which was given to the apostles and through them to bishops and priests, is manifested in the absolution which the priest gives to the one who repents on behalf of God.
But why is it necessary to confess sins to a priest, a fellow human being? Is it not enough to tell God everything and receive absolution from Him? In order to answer this question, one should be reminded that in the Christian Church a priest is only a ‘witness’ to God’s presence and action: it is not the priest who acts in liturgical celebrations and in the sacraments, but God Himself. The confession of sins is always addressed to God, and forgiveness is also received from Him. In promoting the idea of confession before a priest, the Church has always taken into account a psychological factor: one might not feel quite as ashamed before God about one’s sins, but it is always embarrassing to reveal one’s sins before a fellow human being. Moreover, the priest is also a spiritual director, a counselor who can offer advice on how to avoid particular sins in the future. The sacrament of Penance is not limited to a mere confession of sins. It also presupposes recommendations, or sometimes epitimia (penalties) on the part of the priest. It is primarily in the sacrament of Penance that the priest acts in his capacity of spiritual father.
If the penitent deliberately conceals any of his sins, whether out of shame or for any other reason, the sacrament would not be considered valid. Thus, before the beginning of the rite, the priest warns that the confession must be sincere and complete: ‘Be not ashamed, neither be afraid, and conceal thou nothing from me... But if thou shalt conceal anything from me, thou shalt have the greater sin’. The forgiveness of sins that is granted after confession is also full and all-inclusive. It is a mistake to believe that only the sins enumerated during confession are forgiven. There are sins which we do not see in ourselves, and there are some, or many, that we simply forget. All these sins are also cleansed by God so long as our confession is sincere. Otherwise total forgiveness would never be possible for anyone, as it is not possible for the human person to know all of his sins or to be a perfect judge of himself.
The importance of frequent confession might be illustrated by the fact that those who come for confession very rarely are usually unable to see their sins and transgressions clearly. Some who come to a priest would say things such as: ‘I live like everybody else’; ‘I haven’t done anything special’; ‘I did not kill anyone’; ‘There are those who are worse than I am’; and even ‘I have no sins’. On the contrary, those who come regularly for confession always find many faults in themselves. They recognize their sins and try to be liberated from them. There is a very simple explanation for this phenomenon. As dust and dirt are seen only where there is light but not in darkness, so someone perceives his sins only when he approaches God, the unapproachable Light. The closer one is to God, the clearer he sees his sins. As long as someone’s soul continues to be a camera obscura, his sins remain unrecognized and consequently unhealed.