The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 55, No 6, Nov.-Dec. 2002

Theology for the Laity

Part I: The Human Face of Divine Forgiveness

By Father Paul K. Raftery, O.P.

The kindness of God enters our lives with each passing moment, but the one greatest act of Godís kindness will always be the forgiveness of our sins. This is the kindness that moved Him to atone for our sins on the Cross, and to establish the Sacrament of Baptism through which that atonement is applied to us individually and we are raised up to eternal life. But it is also the kindness that established a constant outpouring of forgiveness after Baptism in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Once our souls have been cleansed through Baptism, whenever we depart from our baptismal purity, God does not hesitate to offer forgiveness once again to the truly repentant. He who said that we must forgive seventy-times-seven times, as often as someone asks for our forgiveness, has backed up His words through His own establishment of a sacrament where His forgiveness is constantly available.

Unfortunately, we are in a time that greatly misunderstands this particular outpouring of divine forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or Confession. For this reason Pope John Paul has made it one of the main objectives of his pontificate to revive the use of the confessional. In his recent letter for the beginning of the new millennium, the Holy Father has laid special emphasis on continuing to address the crisis in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Referring to the Synod of Bishops that met in 1983 to address the problem, he says that at that time, "...the crisis of the Sacrament was there for all to see, especially in some parts of the world." However, "...the causes of the crisis have not disappeared in the brief span of time since then." Thus, "Pastors should arm themselves with more confidence, creativity and perseverance in presenting it and leading people to appreciate it. Dear brothers in the priesthood, we must not give in to passing crises! The Lordís gifts - and the Sacraments are among the most precious - come from the One who well knows the human heart and is the Lord of history" (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 37).

The next three issues of Light and Life will deal with this great Sacrament of divine forgiveness given to us by the Lord who knows well our hearts, what ails them and what restores them.


It was certainly the knowledge of the human heart, what the heart responds to and is inspired by, that moved the Divine Word to take on human nature. The incarnation and redemption was Godís great scheme for winning manís love. Man, who is part spirit and part body, and whose vision is limited to material reality, requires communication through finite material forms. Even direct communication of God with the intellect through infused knowledge must come in a way that is comprehensible by man. As stated in the axiom often used by St. Thomas: "Whatever is received into something is received according to the condition of the recipient." God must approach man on his own "frequency," so to speak, if the human mind is to receive the divine message.

Due to this human limitation, the Old Testament is laden with different and astounding forms of communication used by God. Each material manifestation was chosen in Godís infinite wisdom to achieve some effect, to stir the human heart in some particular way, to give enlightenment of some truth to the mind. But each was also a transitory communication. The divine epiphany came and went. The material form was used for a moment, or even for many years (as in the pillar of cloud of the Exodus), but then eventually left behind.

God in the Old Testament did partially and in a passing way what He would do fully and permanently in the incarnation. He would come fully into the human condition. Not just using earthly forms, but becoming an earthly form, in fact, the earthly form that would most completely appeal to the human heart, and most readily speak to the human mind - a human being! "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life - the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you..." (1 Jn. 1:1-2). "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father" (Jn. 1:14). In Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, assumed the human nature that He will have for all eternity, and that serves as an eternal sign of His desire to unite men to Himself in love.


This is the all important background for us to understand why we have the seven sacraments of the Church, in particular, the Sacrament of Penance we are discussing here. The sacraments are extensions of the incarnation. As Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, He did not forget why He had come in the flesh. He did not at that point decide that the human heart no longer needed earthly, tangible forms that could reveal His presence. His great knowledge of man and His desire to do all that was necessary for our salvation would not allow Him to suddenly withdraw the great benefits already had through the incarnation. This incarnation had to continue, though in a different mode.


The lines of our thought here are uniquely Catholic. Our Protestant brethren do not generally share this understanding of a continued incarnational presence of Our Blessed Lord in the sacraments. For them, the activity of God on man after the ascension of Jesus is not through earthly instruments, but through direct, spiritual contact of God with the soul. Their outlook tends to hold that the only truly incarnational contact of God with man was while Jesus was walking on this earth.

The question can certainly be raised as to why this should be so. On the most basic level, we can certainly agree that Our Lord would not have done anything without purpose. As we shall see below in Our Lord's granting the Apostles the power to forgive sins, there is no doubt that He intended divine power to be working through human agents.

But to what purpose? The benefits of the first disciples having before them the Son of God made man should be clear. We all long for this. We all long to see, hear, and touch God at our side in a real and physical way. And although He is truly present with us, and even within us when we are in the state of grace, we would much rather have Him present tangibly, to see and talk to. Who would deny that this lack of a physical presence of Jesus is a major drawback of life in this world?

We can thus reflect on the sacramental system of the Church as Our Blessed Lord meeting us halfway, so to speak. He must ascend into heaven, and take up His position of authority and dominion at the Father's right hand, necessitating that He depart physically from this world. But at the same time He knows the longings we have for Him to be physically present. What He devises, then, in His love, is a way for us to have some form of physical contact with Him, without inhibiting His necessary ascent to heaven. This is what we have in the waters of Baptism, the laying of the Bishopís hand and the sacred chrism of Confirmation, and the forms of bread and wine for the Most Blessed Eucharist. These Our Lord uses to replace the actual physical touch of His sacred hand, and the tangible presence of His very flesh.

And we must remember that these forms He Himself chose. They were not from some apostolic liturgical committee who decided it would be best to have a ritual washing in the name of the Trinity for Baptism, or confession of sin and priestly absolution for Reconciliation. The sacraments Jesus Himself took charge of; He was the One to decide their number and to provide their basic structure. Why? Because they are uniquely His own. They carry the very power He released through His passion and death. As St. Thomas points out, "It was in sign of this that from the side of Christ hanging on the Cross there flowed water and blood, the former of which belongs to Baptism, the latter to the Eucharist, which are the principle sacraments" (III, 62, 5). The sacraments are a part of Him, an extension of His divine power communicated physically, incarnationally, through time and place.


This is where the beauty of the Sacrament of Reconciliation shows forth. The tragedy of sin strikes very deep. In truth, it is the deepest of all human wounds. It strikes man where the effects can be most devastatingóhis spirit, which is the very core of his being. The tragic results can be anything from eternal separation from God, the worst possible human misery, to deep dissatisfaction with life and depression, to debilitating addictions that strip the victim of his freedom. Serious sin, mortal sin, will never afflict manís spirit without leaving major inner harm in its wake.

This, of all times, is the moment for a person to know that the Blessed Lord is close, and to have His presence represented in the most assuring form possible. The depth of the injury makes the penitent in desperate need of confidence that the Lord is near. For the healing to be complete, there cannot be lingering doubts: "Was I truly forgiven? Did the Lord accept my sorrow and hear my acknowledgment of my sin? Am I free from my sin, or do I continue to bear it within me?" This is where Jesus knew so well that we must have some concrete sign from Him that He has heard us and taken our sins away, if our hearts are to rest at ease.


And so on the very evening after His resurrection, appearing in His risen glory before the disciples, He breathed on the Apostles and said to them: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (Jn. 20:22). His followers were not to be deprived of the comfort of His physical presence. Jesus would put His own Divine Spirit within the Apostles, so that through them, He would continue to have a voice to speak words of forgiveness, and hands to bless.

What is key in this post-resurrectional account is instrumentality. The Apostles were to be a conduit of divine power, acting in relationship to the Holy Spirit as a wire to its power source. Indeed, if the whole intent of bringing the divine presence to bear on the wound of sin was to be fulfilled, they could not be acting in any other way. The Pharisees were right in the Gospels when they insisted, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" Jesus certainly not implying anything different when he said to the Apostles, "if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven." Those words were completely dependent on His breathing the Holy Spirit upon them the moment before. Without that bestowal of the Spirit, the words He spoke would have been meaningless. Men themselves simply cannot forgive sins. Their only possible contribution to the healing of sin is instrumental, allowing divine power to act through them.

Still, as has been pointed out, this instrumentality is not without great value. The sound of the voice, the touch of the hand, the feel of the baptismal water, etc. all originate in the human instrument and in various material signs that God has intended to console and strengthen man on the bodily level. Through such means God works to support man in both soul and body: " the water of baptism, by washing the body according to its proper function, cleanses the soul insofar as it is an instrument of divine power: for soul and body are one. And this is what Augustine says, that what 'touches the body also cleanses the heart'" (III, 62, 1, ad 2).

But another point that needs to be stressed regarding this Gospel passage is that the power to forgive sins implies the forgiveness of individuals not acting in isolation, but through the intervention of another. In the broadest sense, this intervention is on the part of the Church. We can see this wider reference to the Church in the powers Christ imparts to Peter and his successors, the Bishops of Rome. In this office Christ chose to concentrate all the powers given to the Church. Thus, it was to Peter, and to the Church, that Jesus said: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Mt. 16:19). But more specifically, it was the Apostles, and their successors, the Bishops, that Jesus was setting in place as the channels for his divine forgiveness, as the passage from Johnís Gospel we have been looking at demonstrates.


The upshot of this closer look at the scriptural passages regarding forgiveness of sins is that it reveals a particular line of thinking among many Catholics today as in desperate need of reform. Dispensing with use of the confessional and being satisfied with simply making a "good act of contrition" for serious sin is not at all in conformity with the teaching of Jesus. Many Catholics have the impression that such a direct appeal to God for forgiveness, without the use of His priestly instruments, is all that Our Lord really expects. Precisely the contrary is shown. The particular language Jesus uses of binding and loosing is especially noteworthy in this regard. As the Catechism points out:

For this reason it is necessary for a Catholic to confess to a priest, the representative of the Church, each occasion of mortal sin before receiving Holy Communion. There is no option of confessing privately to God in such a case (as one can do with venial sin) because of the nature of the sin - it has caused one to fall out of communion with God and the Church. The way back to communion can only be, apart from emergency situations, in the way established by Christ. One cannot make oneís own way back into union. In effect, this is what so many do in avoiding the confessional. They are making their own way back to Christ, rather than following His way. They are putting themselves in the place of Christ, and determining what it is they must do to be reconciled. A futile practice. Forgiveness comes not from oneself, but from God. His are the steps to reconciliation we must follow, in as much as with Him ultimately resides the power to reconcile.

Yes, indeed, God can do as He wishes. In exceptional circumstances He may choose to act without sacramental mediation, as when a penitent is in danger of death. But such are the exceptions. When the exceptions become the rule, as is happening now in all too infrequent use of the confessional, it is time we turn our minds and hearts to the teaching of Jesus as handed on by Holy Mother Church.

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