(If you're interested in a direct answer to the above question, though, I'd recommend reading this article, which explains things a lot more clearly than I can.)
To these Twelve Apostles Jesus gave special authority. It was they who were told "Do this in memory of Me" at the Last Supper, they who were told "Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them." Catholics believe that these Apostles were the first priests - the first to be given the authority to perform sacraments like Mass and Reconciliation.
These Twelve Apostles, under the leadership of St. Peter, took command of the Church after Jesus' ascension into Heaven. Actually - the Twelve Apostles didn't take command. The Holy Spirit did, working through them.
The Apostles led the early Church, taking a position above the ordinary Christians just as they had occupied a position above the first disciples.
Not only did the Twelve Apostles have a leadership role in the early Christian community - they considered their position something which must be passed down. That's why they drew lots to decide who would replace Judas. If Jesus' ministry was going to continue - if His Church was going to go on - there would have to be leaders to carry it out.
Eventually, the Apostles ordained deacons and presbyters to help them with their duties and act as their successors.
This ordination, which was performed through the laying on of hands, continued from the earliest years of the Church through the ages and is still performed today.
That means that every Catholic priest has been touched by someone who has been touched by someone who has been touched by someone who has been touched by someone (and so on through two thousand years) who has been touched by Jesus.
There is literally a physical line drawn from present-day priests to Jesus!
I don't know about you, but that strikes me as incredibly powerful. We can trace back the "spiritual lineage" of priests, so to speak, all the way back to Jesus in a powerful, tangible, physical way.
Now, that's not the reason priests are so important, but it does point to their importance. The laying on of hands is an outward sign of what's really going on when a man is ordained a priest.
And what is really going on is just this: the authority - the power - which Jesus handed on to His Twelve Apostles and which they passed on to Matthias and Stephen and Timothy and the rest, the authority which set them apart from all of Jesus' other followers, is being passed on in our present day.
That power is here. Among us. Now.
Every priest stands in the place of Jesus. He has the authority to hear confessions and speak the words of absolution, to say Mass and transform bread and wine into Jesus' body and blood, to anoint the sick, to join a man and a woman in marriage.
It isn't the priest who is doing all of these things - it's Jesus.
So when we walk into the confessional and kneel to confess our sins, we shouldn't imagine Fr. John or Fr. Smith or Fr. Brown behind that screen. We should imagine Jesus, for it is Him whom we've really come to. It is He whose Sacred Heart is open to embrace us. It is He who turns a loving ear to our contrition.
Why Not Just Confess in Private?
To be quite emotional instead of strictly reasonable, confessing my sins to Jesus only in private wouldn't feel right. It wouldn't feel - real.
Now on to the reasoned, logical explanation. :
I'm not saying there isn't value in confessing one's sins to Jesus privately. We should do that. We should do it regularly. And internal, spiritual repentance is the meat and potatoes of sacramental confession - without true inner contrition, any confession is worthless.
Sacramental confession isn't the only way sins can be forgiven. Of course God understands if someone can't make it to or doesn't understand sacramental confession and makes an act of perfect contrition privately.
But sacramental confession is ideal. The article I gave you a link to at the beginning of this post puts it this way:
"As Christ well knew, confession of sins to a priest requires humility, trust in God and the Church, and contrition of heart. Confession of sins to a priest gives us the assurance that our sins are forgiven, even though we may not be perfectly penitent. For that is what God requires outside the bounds of sacramental confession: a man who goes directly to God for forgiveness of sin can be forgiven, but only if he is perfectly contrite and resolved to sin no more. Those who are outside the Church by birth and circumstance can still be saved and forgiven of sins, but only if they are perfectly penitent and are unaware of the divine institution of the Church. A Catholic who will not consent to a sacramental confession, is the man the Church grieves for the most. He has all the instruments of salvation laid out at his feet, but he will not lay his pride down at the foot of the Cross to pick them up."
Personally, I think sacramental confession - and this goes for all sacraments - is so important partly because we humans have bodies. We aren't just spiritual creatures; we're physical, too. And if we want to belong completely to God, we can't just give Him our souls - we also have to give Him our bodies.
Praying in private and thinking about God is a crucial part of the Christian faith, an indispensable part without which our faith would be nothing. But hand in hand with interior spirituality comes outward spirituality, living out what we believe in works and rituals as well as in thoughts and words.
There were several other very good questions after last week's post which I didn't get into here. I suppose we could discuss them in the comments? Or continue this topic in next week's post?
As always, feel free to comment with any questions or concerns! And do please forgive the lateness and lameness of this post.