"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."
-Prayer of Absolution
CCC 1449 The formula of absolution used in the Latin Church expresses the essential elements of this sacrament: the Father of mercies is the source of all forgiveness. He effects the reconciliation of sinners through the Passover of his Son and the gift of his Spirit, through the prayer and ministry of the Church.
The first time I heard these words spoken to me it brought tears to my eyes. I'd read the words while studying the sacraments in RCIA, but it didn't really prepare me for the feeling of forgiveness that I felt at that moment. It's one thing to know, but another to experience God's mercy in such a tangible and profound way.
When I really started to consider converting to Catholicism, the biggest obstacle for me wasn't Marian devotions or Papal infallibility or any other thing you'd think would be a hang up for a young Protestant like myself. No, the biggest obstacle for me was the thought of sitting down and telling a priest what I'd been doing in my life and all the times I fell short of God's command "but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, " You shall be holy, for I am holy." "( 1 Peter 1:15-16).
I obsessed over this, and as we got closer to Easter Vigil I started losing sleep over it too. My sponsor suggested that I do it face to face rather than behind a screen, this put my anxiety through the roof, but he said it was to really experience the love and mercy of God being extended to me through his ordained minister, the priest.
What great advice this was. I sat down and explained this was my first time in the confessional, and then started rattling off mortal sin after mortal sin. After what seemed like an eternity of confessing, but in reality was more like 30 seconds, I noticed I hadn't burst into flames and the priest hadn't even ran out screaming, actually he didn't even look surprised! I thought these were some major league sins, but here's a priest who has a look on his face like "is that all you got", I know this was all in my mind, but I was half tempted to throw in a couple murders just to get my money's worth (a joke). Then it hit me that there really is nothing new under the sun "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said,"See, this is new"?It has been already, in the ages before us." (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10). Everything I was saying had been said before and would be said again, maybe even by me.
Then he spoke those words, the most beautiful word I've ever heard spoken, words that lifted my heart and for the first time in my life made me feel like I was truly forgiven by God. I had asked God for forgiveness many times before, but there was nobody sitting a few feet away to acknowledge my contrition and offer absolution. It was right then that I understood when some people spoke of confession why they used the term "reconciliation", because it's much more than some cathartic therapy session. You are admitting (he already knew them so don't worry, you won't get struck by lightning) your sins to Christ, through the priest, and it's all for your benefit. We are human so when we say sorry we like the other person to acknowledge our fault and forgive us.
Here I was sitting across from a priest, a priest I though only a few seconds earlier would slap me as soon as I started confessing, and I'm the one at a loss for words. It was at this moment that the entire sacrament changed in my mind and in my heart. No longer was it an obstacle to overcome on my way to communion with the Church, it was now an asset to be utilized in my spiritual life.
On Easter Sunday, nearly 2000 years ago, Jesus didn't give the apostles the power to forgive sins as a way to keep us all in line. He gave it to them as a loving way to bring us back into line. ""Jesus said to them again, " Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." " (John 20:21-23) The integral part here is the peace of Christ. "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you" how did the Father send Christ? As a sign of God's sacrificial love.
The sacrament of Reconciliation isn't some kind of divine gotcha, a way for God to rub our noses in our sinful behavior, it truly is a way to be reconciled with our loving and merciful Father. Yes, you confess your sins, and yes, there is a penance to be satisfied, but they key part is the reconciliation.
So if you've been away from the Church, or just the confessional, or are not Catholic but are considering converting, then I encourage you to get into the confessional. What a beautiful gift we have been given, what a wonderful, loving God to "reconcile the world to Himself" through the death and resurrection of His Son, and we have access to this through the sacrament of reconciliation.
"Seek the LORD while he may be found,call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way,and the unrighteous man his thoughts;let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him,and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon." (Isaiah 55:6-7)