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Confession varies among world's major religions

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McClatchy Newspapers (MCT) - "Confession is good for the soul," says a Scottish proverb from the mid-1600s. Most religions would agree. Verses from the Torah, the Bible and the Quran speak of the importance of confessing our sins and receiving forgiveness from a God who is merciful.


By Sue Nowicki
McClatchy Newspapers (
1/7/2009 (1 decade ago)

Published in Living Faith

But there are many differences in the process. Some faiths distinguish between major and minor sins. Some faiths say you should confess to God through a priest, while others admonish the faithful to take their confessions directly to God. And the definition of sin varies across the board. The subject gets more complicated because there are multiple denominations or branches within many faiths that disagree over sins and confession.

Here's a general look at how five faith traditions _ Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Protestant, Orthodox Judaism and Islam _ live out their beliefs on confession.


"We go to confession first of all because we are sinners," said the Rev. Ramon Bejarano, pastor of St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Modesto, Cailf. "We recognize that God is merciful and holy, and he is the only one who can forgive us for our sins.

"For us as Catholics, to come to the sacrament is a gift that Christ has given to the church for us to experience God's forgiveness."

Catholics go to a priest for confession and can either do it face to face, or with a screen between them.

"We have to do it before a priest because we believe Jesus left the apostles the power to do that," Bejarano said. "Not because the priest forgives the sins, but because God, through the ministry he has left to the priests, forgives our sin. When we come before the priest, which, yes, is another human being, we are coming before Christ and we are coming before the presence of God.

"In the first centuries, the confessions were actually in public because when we sin, we not only lose our friendship with God, but we lose our friendship in the community of faith. So they had to confess in public and receive penance. That's why they were called penitents. They couldn't receive Communion and they had to stand outside the church or at the entrance. So while the rest of the community were celebrating the Eucharist, the penitents had to be outside kneeling down. It's like, 'I'm really sorry for my sins and I'm asking the whole community to pray for me to lift me up.' Once he was lifted up, he was welcomed back."

That changed, Bejarano said, in about the sixth century when Irish monks began hearing confessions one on one. That practice spread, eliminating the shame of a public confession and instituting the seal of the confessional, "so the priest could not reveal what was confessed."

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Confession, according to church commandments, must be done at least once a year, Bejarano said. But Pope John Paul II recommended confession at least once a month.

"The catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that we have mortal sins _ sins that bring death to our soul. Then we have venial sins _ those are the ones that don't break our friendship to God. Most people call those the little sins.

"All the sins that are against the Ten Commandments, we consider those mortal sins. They take away the life of grace God has given to our soul."

After confession, a priest will give a penance that fits the sin, such as a prayer to say, or perhaps giving back something that has been stolen or apologizing to a spouse or children for angry words.

"The penance is not a punishment for the sins," Bejarano said "It's a restitution for the sins I have committed. It is expressing my willingness to restore the wrongdoing I have done."

He said confession "is reconciliation with God and one another. God wants a contrite heart, a heart that is sorrowful, one that says, even though I have failed you, I am back here with you because your love is greater than all my failures and sin."

Confession of mortal sins is extremely important in the Catholic faith.

"If I die without having confessed my mortal sins, if our soul is stained by sin, we cannot enter into the presence of God, clean and holy," Bejarano said. "We believe in purgatory, so our soul is going to be in this state of purification before I enter the presence of God. Or, if my life was an evil life and I never repented, that means eternal death, hell. God is ultimately the only judge for that. We cannot say who goes to heaven or hell.

"We offer prayers for those who have died. We believe God hears our prayers on behalf of those who have died with a mortal sin, those in purgatory."



As in the Catholic Church, confession is a sacrament heard by a priest. But it is encouraged rather than mandatory, and it can be heard by a priest from a different parish.

"From Scripture, the Greek word (for sin) is 'amartia,' which means missing the mark, like an arrow that misses the target," said Father Jon Magoulias of Modesto's Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. "For us, the mark is Christ. We set our lives to journey to Christ. When we stray from that focus, we miss the mark; we sin. So confession, in the Orthodox practice, is the ultimate expression of love. It's not seen as a means to punish people, to demean or humiliate anyone. It's recognizing that Christ entrusted this care to his apostles, and through his apostles to his priests, and that forgiveness of sin is important.

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"Orthodox doesn't really give degrees of sin. Separation from God is separation from God. There are two characteristics to confession. One is private, which a person should make every day in his or her prayer life. We all make mistakes every day, and obviously a priest can't hear 1,000 confessions a day.

"The second one is the sacrament of confession. God has entrusted this care to us (priests), not to make us a judge, but as the vehicle of the Holy Spirit to the people. When a person makes an appointment for confession, it takes place in the church. There's an icon of Jesus Christ before the altar that reminds the person the confession he is making is to Jesus Christ himself and not to the priest. There is a service that is done, prayers offered on behalf of the individual. If the priest feels it's necessary to give a penance, he does so, reminding the person it's an act of love. The most extreme is a penance when a person could not receive Holy Communion for a period of time. There's nothing more precious than receiving the body and blood of Christ. To have a separation now rather than in eternity, that's an act of love."

Although confession "is an integral part of our church," Magoulias said, "I'm not going to say it's mandatory because one thing we protect and support is free will. It's not confession if it's forced on them. It's an act of humility for an individual who wants to be reconciled with God."

And unlike the Catholic faith, "there are no last rites in the Orthodox Church," he said. "It's not necessary for confession before you die. It's a good thing, but not necessary."

He believes the sacrament of confession is neglected "mostly because people don't understand it. And they don't understand it because they don't understand sin, especially in the American culture. We'd like to take that word, 'sin,' out of the dictionary."

Why go to a priest for confession when some sins can be confessed in private?

"The problem with confessing at home is this: You hope in the mercy of God that you're forgiven. Christ didn't say that. He said to the apostles: 'If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven by your father in heaven.'"

The benefits of confession are numerous, he said. "When people repress things they've done wrong, it affects them. Not just religiously, but physically, emotionally. Confession releases the burden the person may be holding in himself. It could improve relations with other people. It makes a person humble.

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"The ultimate benefit is that we believe there is a book of life with the names of people who will live forever in heaven. The things I confess aren't going to be there. I'm going to be held accountable for those things I didn't confess. So it has an eternal benefit. The fewer things I have to face on judgment day, the happier I'm going to be."



Unlike the Catholic and Orthodox faiths, confession in Protestant denominations is done directly to God rather than through a priest.

"Certainly a person is free to discuss his struggles, weaknesses and sins with his pastor, but it is not required to receive forgiveness from God," said the Rev. Wade Estes, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Modesto, a nondenominational congregation. "In the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), Jesus directs us to ask for forgiveness from God the father: 'And forgive us our sins, just as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us.'"

Estes said the biblical Greek word translated as confess "means to say the same thing. So when we confess our sins to God, we are saying the same thing about them that God says, that we have violated his holy standard, that we have missed the bull's-eye of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. ...

"God expects us to confess our sins in order to receive his forgiveness and live in a right relationship with him."

What happens if you die with unconfessed sin?

"There are variations among the various branches of the Protestant faith," Estes said. Some believe if you've committed a major, unconfessed sin, you'll go to hell. Some say there's nothing you can do to undo the finished work of Christ in salvation _ once saved, always saved. Of course, Estes said, some then take advantage of that and say, "If I've been saved, I can do anything I want." That does not at all reflect that doctrine, he said. Other Prostestants believe if you are truly saved, you no longer will live in the ongoing practice of sin.

"My understanding is that if a person dies knowingly holding back confession of sin to God, he dies as a disobedient child of God. He will face God and deal with it after death. His salvation is not in jeopardy."

That's different than Catholics, who believe that "dealing with it" takes place in purgatory. In the Protestant faith, there is only heaven and hell. And some Protestant denominations believe they are symbolic; they don't believe anyone will end up in eternal flames.

What are the benefits of confession to Protestants?

"Confession brings forgiveness for our sins. God remembers them no more!" Estes said. "They are wiped away. This brings a freshness of spirit, restores fellowship with God, fills our hearts with gratitude. We don't have to flinch when we think of God or wonder how he is feeling toward us. We are free!"



"There are two kinds of sin _ one against your fellow man and one against God," said Rabbi Avremel Brod of the Chabad of Stockton, Calif., an Orthodox Jewish congregation. "If I hurt someone, I can't just go ahead and say, 'I did it,' and then move on. We have to do something to fix that problem. We have to go to them and say, 'I have insulted you and hope we can make it up.'

"And then there are sins against God. God gave the Jewish people 613 commandments. Quite a few still apply today. When we make a mistake, when we slip and don't follow one of the commandments, we have to fix it. We say, 'I've done this and I don't want to do it again, so I'm going to do something to prevent it,' such as give to charity or study the Torah. Aside from asking for an apology, you take a gift to someone; it builds up the relationship. The same thing with God _ we're going to do something extra. That doesn't just fix what we've done, but it strengthens our relationship with God."

Confession is included in the prayers Orthodox Jews recite three times a day directly to God rather than to a rabbi, Brod said. But there is no set time for confession, he added.

"In the prayer book, there are different times when we are asking forgiveness from God. God doesn't have open or closed hours in heaven, so a person can pray at any time. What God always likes is action: Do something to fix it."

What happens if someone dies with a big sin in life?

"The Jewish faith has an interesting perspective," Brod said. "We don't look at purgatory or hell as a punishment. It's a cleaning process. If you have, for instance, a shirt that gets stained, there's only one way to remove it _ you have to put it in a washing machine or take it to the cleaners. In Judaism, everyone has a place in heaven. We're God's children; therefore, we all have a place in heaven."

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There's no clear teaching on how that cleansing happens, however.

"There's a lot of talk and literature about it, but basically the soul sometimes has to go through a process until it's ready to face the Creator and spend time in paradise."

What about people who do great harm to others, such as Adolf Hitler? Will they also end up in heaven?

"There are some people who go so low that sometimes we can't even call them human. They're inhuman, not part of the human race. I don't know what happens, but they won't get to heaven. Such a sin, killing 6 million people, you can't really fix that. God is a true judge. He will decide."



Unlike other religions, Islam does not believe man is born a sinner, said Ahmad Kayello, imam of the Islamic Center of Modesto, Calif.

"We believe the great sinner was Satan, when God ordered him to prostrate (himself) to Adam and he refused. That was the first sin after God created creation. From Satan, he came to Eve and Adam in paradise and whispered to them to eat from the tree, and they did. So we believe sin was from Satan, and he carried it to Adam and Eve."

There are sins against God and sins against creation in Islam, Kayello said. Both need to be confessed to God with true repentance, but there also needs to be reconciliation and/or restitution in the second case, he said.

"If I steal a car, I must make a supplication to God that I won't do it again," he said. "If you go to a person and say, 'I've taken your car; please forgive me,' you can't keep the car. You must give it back."

There are three conditions for true repentance, he added:

Stop doing the wrong immediately.

Regret doing the sin.

Give God the confidence and promise that you're not going to do it again.

The fourth condition, if the sin is between a person and creation, like the stolen car example, is to make restitution.

"One of God's 99 names is 'Most Forgiving,'" Kayello said. "That means that if anyone wants to repent, he should ask for repentance from God only. Not from a prophet or angel or pious man or imam. He must only ask God. We don't have a middle man or a mediator in Islam."

In Islam, there are five prayer times a day. But the Islamic Center does not post times for confession, as often is done in the Catholic faith.

"We say the gates of heaven are always open," Kayello said. "God said in the Quran, 'Oh, my slaves, who have wronged themselves, do not be hopeless from God's forgiveness.' In this verse, God is calling all sinners to repent to him."

There are major and minor sins in Islam, he said. Major sins include polytheism _ to worship anything or anyone other than God. Other major sins include drinking alcohol, using other stimulants, being disobedient to parents, committing adultery and killing the innocent. Minor ones would include "looking at women or men in the wrong way or minor cheating, such as on an exam," Kayello said.

What happens if you die with an unconfessed major sin? Will you end up in paradise or in the eternal flames spoken of in the Quran?

"We are not the ones who would make a decision as to where the abode will be," Kayello said. "We believe he is under the will of God. If God will, he will punish him. If God will, he will forgive him. Except the biggest major sin, if he commits polytheism. The one who insists on doing it and dies while doing it, our God will never forgive him, as stated in the Quran."


© 2009, The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.).

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