Confessing sins to the Pope or to Fr. Joe Sixpack?

In another entry I wrote that the Pope will hear the confessions of young people on 29 March at the Basilica of St. Peter.  Commenting on that news item, someone said:

I wouldn’t like to go to confession with the Pope…
It’s just so embarassing!

Not go to confession to the Pope?  Embarrassing?

Let’s keep in mind some of Fr. Z’s 20 Tips for making a good confession:

We should…

11) …never be afraid to say something "embarrassing"… just say it;
12) …never worry that the priest thinks we are jerks…. he is usually impressed by our courage;
20) …remember that priests must go to confession too … they know what we are going through.

Let’s think about this a little.

Consider that on earth there is no person alive who has his same authority to bind and to loose like the Pope has.  Benedict XVI exercises precisely the same fullness of the authority Jesus Christ gave to Peter. 

At the same time, if you go to the Pope for your confession, and confess all your mortal sins in kind and number to the best of your ability and with sincere sorrow with a firm purpose of amendment, your sins will not be more forgiven by the Pope than they would be by the humble priest at your local parish. 

When you receive Communion from the Pope, you are not getting "more Jesus" than you would at your parish church.  If you are baptized by him, you are not more baptized.  If you are ordained by the Pope, as I was, you are not more ordained than any other priest in the world.  The impact the experience may have on you may admittedly be greater and God may work through that according to His plan for you.  Remember: honors and privileges are about God, finally, not about you.

Going back to confession, when exercising this ministry the Pope forgives sins because Jesus Christ acts through him.  This is the way it is with everything the Pope does in and for the Church.  When Fr. Joe Sixpack at St. Ipsidipsy of Tall Tree Circle forgives your sins, they are forgiven because Jesus Christ is acting in him.  Both he and the Pope act in persona Christi.  They are both alter Christus.  The difference between them lies especially in the Pope’s ability to bind and loose censures and to grant indulgences.  Also, the Holy Father has the grace of his office to aid him in insight and counseling.

It would be a great consolation to make a confession to the Vicar of Christ, especially if you were burdened by some truly heavy, or a censure of some sort.

However, every single one of you out there can receive from your local priests precisely the same absolution as the Pope would give you. 

There is nothing so bad that you, a little finite human being, can do that the humblest, most obscure priest cannot entirely lift from your soul through the infinite power and mercy of God.

Run, walk or crawl if you have to.  Seek that absolution often.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. RBrown says:

    I think many laici tend to think that priests who are faithful to Catholic doctrine have no patience with sinners in the confessional.

    It seems to me that many priests mistakenly think that the choice is between the Church and people, that it is a matter of Justice vs Mercy, as in old Protestant concept that they are mutually exclusive. To put it another way: Liberal priest = gentle confessor; Doctrinally sound priest = hard-line, merciless confessor.

  2. RBrown: I have only had two really bad experiences with priest/confessors who left me angry and shaken. They were both without question “liberals”.

    On the other hand, some of the very best confessors I have found are those who are the most “conservative” in their leanings. They seem to understand better how to use the law and the Church’s doctrines, which they embrace, to make the proper distinctions and help to put penitents at ease, counsel well, and see the larger picture. They probably also go to confession more often!

  3. phaley says:

    Father Zuhlsdorf,

    Would you explain the differences in the form of absolution in the new rite vs the old. It seems to me that the new rite is much shorter and doesn’t include words such as “according to my power and your need”, etc. Why would they want to change the form for this sacrament?

  4. John Naugle says:

    That confessional is at Saint Vincent Archabbey Basilica in Latrobe, PA! (Saint Vincent College is my alma mater, a college which may I add is an up-and-comer in the ranks of “real” Catholic colleges.)

  5. David N. says:

    I was just about to comment on the confessional, but I took a moment to run from my dorm room at St. Vincent into the Basilica to double check. Thanks for the confirmation, John.

    And yes, St. Vincent is making great strides in becoming a truly vibrant CATHOLIC college. One such bit of evidence is how often a priest is available in that very confessional, or one of the many others on campus.

  6. Seumas says:

    Bring back the boxes! Save the confessionals, save the world!

  7. frival says:

    One thing you made me think of is the converse of what you stated. Just as because of their acting in persona Christi they are able to forgive sins, neither Fr. Sixpack nor the Pope can do so of their own will and power. The priest and Pope are both able to forgive sins as alter Christus but aside from that the Pope has no more capacity to forgive sins than the parish priest – the only thing capacitating either of them, and therefore the same thing that capacitates both of them, is the action of Christ working through them.

    It’s rather humbling to think about it – that two people who seem to have such different levels of power (ability, capacity, what have you) – that difference is imperceptible (if not non-existent) when they act in persona Christi. It makes me think of Luke 5:18-26 (“Who can forgive sins but God alone?”). Humbling, indeed.

  8. swmichigancatholic says:

    Moving post, Fr. I converted to Catholicism over 20 years ago and I’m still in awe of what confession can do. I’ve had my share of “experiences” in confessionals just like everyone else here, but that doesn’t take away from what it fundamentally is–my accusation of myself as a sinner before God and his incredible mercy in making my soul whole again.

    I went to confession with a very holy old Franciscan friar years ago in Grand Rapids, who waited til we were completely finished before making a personal comment. He patted me and said gruffly with a silly old semi-toothed grin, “There ya go. Good as the day you were born, kiddo.” [He’s gone now, but there still is such a thing, but you have to look hard => they have put up with a whole lot.]

    When I have been hampered in confession, it’s been precisely because the priest, human that he is, has interjected himself overly into the sacrament by wanting to visit during confession or believing that he could give extensive practical advice outside his role. I’ve been told some bum theological opinions in confession too, unfortunately. [I recall a particularly charming but theologically off-the-wall priest at UND, South Bend. I didn’t need to hear allllll that nonsense.] Laypeople are a tad inhibited in confession because we want the absolution, and some priests play with that a bit, unfortunately.

    Priests are not coaches or behavior modificationists. They’re priests. There’s a lot of role confusion nowdays, when we give short shrift to the sacramental role in contrast to a coaching/teaching or psychological or social role, I suppose and that’s the reason this happens. When it happens, one just has to walk away from that and understand that confession is an encounter, through the priest, with God and his mercy.

  9. swmichigancatholic says:

    I understood the Franciscan friar exactly. While not being exactly correct in the literal sense (ie. the existence of my baptism), he was enjoying the mercy of God as much as I was–and that was the essence & intent of his remark. He was a conduit of God’s mercy to me and I never forgot it. That’s exactly what his role was & he was fully aware of it, as was I. This sort of thing can do more to keep me out of trouble than any amount of amateur pseudo-psychological loitering on the priest’s part. =) I wish more priests knew that which is why I bring it up here.

  10. danphunter1 says:

    Father Zuhlsdorf,
    Thank you for all the holy work you do as a priest and on this site.
    I have a question for you pertaining to confession.I am sorry that this question is not in keeping with the train of thought of The Holy Father,and Father sixpack,but to me this is a very important query,here goes.
    I committed a mortal sin about 6years ago which has just recently come into my mind.
    For the life of me I cannot remember if I confessed it or not.I am extremely sorry for it.
    Father,should I reconfess it,if I haven’t already?
    God bless you.

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