What G.K. Chesterton and a Dear Friend Taught Me About Confession

God, the Father of mercies, through the death and the resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins.

Pope Francis goes to Confession at St. Peter's Basilica on March 28, 2014. (Credit: © L'Osservatore Romano)
Pope Francis goes to Confession at St. Peter's Basilica on March 28, 2014. (Credit: © L'Osservatore Romano) (photo: Screenshot)

“Why should I have to go to Confession?”

I was being testy. And my wife knew it.

Now, this wasn’t my first misgiving about the Catholic Church. Nor would it be my last. Having married a “cradle Catholic” while personally been raised Lutheran, I had asked terse questions about church hierarchy, the veneration of Mary and the Saints, and the exclusivity surrounding the partaking of the Eucharist. For fourteen years, as we alternated Sundays between Lutheran services and Catholic Mass, my wife mounted a steady, winsome defense of the Catholic faith against my sometimes-earnest-oftentimes-chippy questions.

And now I had come around to the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (hereafter referred to simply as Confession).

What is this Sacrament all about and why should I have to go?

My wife offered thoughtful answers - better than I ever appreciated. But beyond her considered insights, I was helped most by the brilliant pen of a Catholic convert, G.K. Chesterton, and the thoughtful comment by a dear friend.

Let me explain.

The Catholic Church is united by three primary realities: We are dignified children of God. We are fallen. We are redeemable through Christ. To find our way back from our waywardness to the true path, we must honestly recognize how we got lost, own our mistake and receive pardon. So…

First, we must recognize our sin. Chesterton offered this insight:

The great strength of Christian sanctity has always been simply this – that the worst enemies of the saints could not say of the saints anything worse than [the saints] said of themselves…Suppose the village atheist had a sudden and splendid impulse to rush into village church and denounce everybody there as miserable offenders. He might break in at the exact moment when they were saying the same thing themselves.

Second, we must humbly confess our sins and seek to mend our ways. In response to the pompous sneers of those dismissing Confession as morbid, Chesterton retorted:

The morbid thing is NOT to confess [your sins]. The morbid thing is to conceal your sins and let them eat away at your soul, which is exactly the state of most people in today’s highly civilized communities.

Third, we must recognize that the Church is charged by Christ as a minister of his Grace. As Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection, he breathed upon them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:21-23). Chesterton would observe:

The real difference between the Church and State is huge and plain. The State, in all lands and ages, has created a machinery of punishment, more bloody and brutal in some places than in others, but bloody and brutal everywhere. The Church is the only institution that ever attempted to create a machinery of pardon.

The Church is the only thing that ever attempted by system to pursue and discover crimes, not in order to avenge, but in order to forgive them…[The Church’s] specialty – or, if you like, its oddity – was this merciless mercy; the unrelenting sleuthhound who seeks to save and not slay.

Finally, once we are absolved of our sins, we are called to heed the Holy Spirit and the guidance of the Church – a Church that has surely prayed over, wrestled over and been inspired to find the true path. This is the surest way to live as fully and faithfully as possible. As Chesterton would remind:

Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes. The Catholic Church has for one of her chief duties that of preventing people from making those old mistakes; from making them over and over again forever, as people always do if they are left to themselves… There is no other case of one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years.

After my wife’s insights, the Church’s teachings and Chesterton’s wisdom, the Confession began to make more sense to me. But I didn’t truly get it until one evening after I walked out of Confession, I ran into a dear Catholic friend who simply and sincerely leveled his smiling gaze at me and said, “Well, just look at you with your spotless soul.”

That’s when it truly dawned on me.

That’s it.

A spotless soul.

That is why I should go to Confession.