How do these conversations get started? My seatmate on the flight was a sixteen year old cowboy named Cody. The flight attendant had come around handing out wine which I accepted with delight. Traveling stresses me out. Cody, who looked twenty-five, said no thanks. “I don’t drink,” he told me. “I’m a Christian.” “I do,” I said. “I’m a Catholic. Cheers!” He said nothing but his wheels began turning. I could see them oiling round and round behind the significant pause. I braced myself to be evangelized. “All I wanna know,” he opened, “is how you can confess your sins to a man.”
Okay, this was not going to be about booze after all. I realized that the subject of Confession was, to him, foolproof against Catholicism and he was going for the gold. I decided to help him out.
“You mean because only God can forgive sins?” I said.
“Yeah!” he said. She walked right into it!
So I told him about how Jesus had actually given the power to forgive sins to men. Mere men!
Normally, they wouldn’t have the power but He up and went and gave it to them. And anything He says, goes. It was right there in the gospel somewhere… Of course, being Catholic, I couldn’t cite chapter and verse but I could give him a pretty close paraphrase of Jesus’ actual words: Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them. Whose sins you shall retain, they are retained. John 20: 23 (I looked it up just now.)
Then I explained that it wouldn’t do for the rest of us to miss out on having our sins forgiven just because we were born too late to meet the apostles, so they passed on the power of the priesthood to others. Then those people passed it to others and they passed it to others right down to this day.
“Like from father to son?” he said.
“Yeah!” I said. He walked right into it!
“But…” he said, scratching his head, “I just wanna know how you can confess your sins to a man.”
It was then that I realized that catechism – even Bible based catechism – would get me no where.
But why let that stop me?
“I am a sinner,” I said. “I am too,” he said. For a brief moment, we shared something.
We bonded. We were both in the same club. It gave us a warm, friendly feeling until I asked: “So what exactly are your sins?” He seemed confused by the question.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘I am a sinner; I’m no saint; I’m not perfect.’ It kinda makes you feel good. It’s like saying, ‘Hey, I’m a regular guy. I’m not stuck up. I’m cool!’ It’s quite another to get down and dirty in the specifics*: ‘I told someone I love that I hated them; I threw a fit and spoiled the party; I pushed my way past a blind guy to get in line first.’ How cool am I now?”
That is one reason why Jesus wanted us to confess our sins to a man. Jesus knew that human beings are masters of self deception. Without specifics, we might never know how ugly sin is. At best, we might think it makes us down to earth. At worst, we might think it’s just something that makes us feel unpleasant, something that embarrasses us. We might blame it on other people. We might have some abstract notion that it offends God but we would hardly get riled up about that. God can take it, right? We only get riled up when we are offended. Jesus wanted us to get riled up about sin, our own sin, and to know exactly how it offends God and other people and then to receive His forgiveness through the ears and lips and hands of a fellow human being.
“Father, forgive me, for I have sinned. I’m ashamed to tell you but these are all my sins…”
“I absolve you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Go, and sin no more.”
*Specifics are fictional and bear no resemblance to sins of persons living in my house and using my toothbrush.
This article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register.