Can't I Just Confess To God Directly?
Why must I confess my sins to a priest? Why not confess directly to God since God has already forgiven me anyway? Because we human beings are not God, we are subject to some important limitations. One is that we have a tendency to excuse ourselves rather than repent. Don't we often try to apologize by saying, "I'm sorry I hurt you, but you did thus and so…" One role of the priest is to discern the sincerity of our repentance. Jesus said to the apostles, "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained." [John 20:23] Because Jesus gave to the apostles the power to decide whether to forgive or to retain sins, it is clear then that that the sins have to be revealed to them so the priest can decide. For example, I may confess that I am living in an adulterous situation. The priest may ask me if I am willing to stop this illicit behavior. If I refuse, then he will not absolve my sin; not because he is mean, but because I am not truly repentant. The prodigal son did not make excuses but repented wholeheartedly: "His son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.' " [Luke 15:21]
There is no such thing as a private sin. All sin is communal and inflicts injury on the body of Christ, His Church. Therefore, our repentance must extend to the Church as well. And so it does in confession where the priest acts both as the representative of Christ and of the Church community.
Also, as human beings who do not live in our minds alone, we need to externalize bodily with words, signs and gestures what is in our minds and hearts. It helps us to see, hear and feel forgiveness not just think it. We need other human beings to help us externalize what is within and open our hearts before the Lord, which puts confessors in a new light. The priest is not a faceless impersonal judge. As our confessor he guides us in our discernment, compassionately helping us experience and proclaim the mercy of God in our lives. As the Introduction to the Rite puts it, the confessor "fulfills a parental function… reveals the heart of the Father and shows the image of the Good Shepherd." Another role of the priest is to say the prayer of absolution: "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. Amen."
Contrary to what we may have thought in the past, this prayer which completes or seals the penitent's change of heart, is not a prayer asking for forgiveness. It is a prayer signifying God's forgiveness of us and our reconciliation with His Church. Jesus, through the ministry of the priest tells us directly and lovingly that our sins are forgiven and that is certainly something to celebrate.
For more information, on the Sacrament of Penance, follow these links for a survey of the opinions expressed by the Early Church Fathers, and more discussion on the Forgiveness of Sins.