It is also a question that was asked of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI when he visited the Rebibbia District Prison in Rome last December 18th. Given this season of Lent and its emphasis on penance and reconciliation I thought I would give you the Pope's answer, but first the question posed to him by Gianni:
I was taught that the Lord sees and reads inside us. I wonder why is absolution delegated to priests? If I asked for it on my knees alone in my room, turning to the Lord, would he absolve me? Or would it be another kind of absolution? What would be the difference?And now, the Pope's answer, transcribed from my print edition of the 21 December 2011 issue of L'Osservatore Romano, since the link is broken on the web site of the Holy See:
Yes, you are asking me an important and true question. I would say two things. The first: naturally, if you kneel down and with true love for God pray that God forgives you, he forgives you. It has always been the teaching of the Church that one, with true repentance - that is not only in order to avoid punishment, difficulty, but for love of the good, for love of God - asks for forgiveness, he is pardoned by God. This is the first part. If I honestly know that I have done evil, and if love for goodness, a desire for goodness is reborn within me, repentance for not having responded to this love, and I ask forgiveness of God, who is the Good, he gives it to me. But there is a second element: sin is not only a "personal", individual thing between myself and God. Sin always has a social dimension, a horizontal one. With my personal sin, even if perhaps no one knows it, I have damaged the communion of the Church, I have sullied humanity. And therefore this social, horizontal dimension of sin requires that it be absolved also at the local level of the human community, of the community of the Church, almost physically. Thus, this second dimension of sin, which is not only against God but concerns the community too, demands the Sacrament, and the Sacrament is the great gift in which through confession, we can free ourselves from this thing and we can really receive forgivness in the sense of a full readmission to the community of the living Church, of the Body of Christ. And so, in this sense, the necessary absolution by the priest, the Sacrament, is not an imposition - let us say - on the limits of God's goodness, but, on the contrary, it is an expression of the goodness of God because it shows me concretely, in the communion of the Church, I have received pardon and can start anew. Thus, I would say, hold on to these two dimensions: the vertical one, with God, and the horizontal one, with the community of the Church and humanity. The absolution of the priest, sacramental absolution, is necessary to really absolve me of this link with evil and to full reintegrate me into the will of God, into the vision of God, into his Church and to give me sacramental, almost bodily, certitude: God forgives me, he receives me into the community of his children. I think that we must learn how to understand the Sacrament of Penance in this sense: as a possibility of finding again, almost physically, the goodness of the Lord, the certainty of reconciliation.