Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”
With these words, Jesus grants the Church the authority to carry out her most urgent and fundamental mission in the world, which is to reconcile sinners to the Father. On the evening of His Resurrection, Jesus appears to the Apostles and tells them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” So if we want to know why Christ sent the Apostles (and why God sent us the Church) we must know why God the Father sent His Son into the world.
The scriptures are abundantly clear on this point. From the beginning of the incarnation narrative, the angel who announced the coming of Christ to Joseph said, “and you shall call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). Jesus in His own words said, “I have come to call sinners” (Mt 9:13) and, “For the Son of Man came to save what was lost” (Mt 28:11). In so many of Christ’s parables, including the story of the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, and the Good Shepherd, our Lord describes His mission to call sinners to repentance and to grant forgiveness. And on many occasions we see Christ granting that very forgiveness to individuals including Mary Magdalene, Zacchaeus, the thief crucified next to our Lord, and the Samaritan woman at the well.
Very plainly, when Jesus heals the lame man who had been lowered through the roof, He says He did so, “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mt 9:2-8). This was Christ’s chief mission, without a doubt. It was the purpose of all that He suffered through on Good Friday, and here on the eve of the Resurrection we find Christ passing that divine authority on to the Apostles.
In our gospel, we read, “When He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” We must remember that it was the breath of God that gave life to Adam in the beginning (Gen 2:7). The word spirit itself derives from the Latin word for breath. This also anticipates the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, 50 days later (Acts 2:1-4). In fact, Christ expressly says, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” while breathing on them.
The purpose of Christ transmitting the Holy Spirit to them at this moment was to empower them – to grant them the divine authority – to fulfill their mission. And what was that mission? “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” Christ says quite plainly that the mission of the Apostles, and by extension the Apostolic Church, is to forgive sins. He has granted them God’s authority to do so. He has instituted the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or what we commonly call Confession.
How do we know this authority continues on in today’s bishops and priests? We know this because Christ intended that the mission of His Church would continue until the end of time. If the Apostles did not have the ability to transfer that authority to others, then Christ’s mission of forgiveness would have ended with that first generation of Christians, and extended only to those with personal contact with the Apostles themselves. Forgiveness of sin would have come to an end with the death of St. John. The forgiveness of sin must continue to be available to us for as long as there is sin in the world, which will be until the end of time. And so the Church’s divinely instituted mission continues on.
But why confess out loud to a priest? Can’t the Church just universally grant forgiveness without us having to go through the act of confessing? Note that Christ grants the Apostles the authority both to forgive and to retain sins. How are they supposed to know when to grant and when to withhold forgiveness? They have to know what it is they are forgiving, the disposition of the sinner, his or her resolutions for the future, their willingness to make amends for any harm done by their sins, and so forth. All of this requires that the penitent sinner actually confess those sins, and his or her repentance, to the minister of the Church.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a great mercy of God. Through it the sinner is brought into renewed friendship with God. Your sins are forgiven. You receive sanctifying grace. The everlasting punishment due because of your sins is remitted and God’s grace will strengthen you to help you avoid future sin. Plus, you get the chance to receive spiritual advice and instruction – all freely given!
Christ will come at the end of days as the Just Judge. But when He came to us in the Incarnation it was as the Divine Physician; it was as the Good Shepherd searching for His lost sheep. The prescription for our ailment is repentance and forgiveness. The Shepherd’s voice is a voice of mercy. The greatest tragedy in our lives would be to not take advantage of Christ’s abundant mercy.
The Divine Mercy devotion is based on the writings of an uneducated Polish nun, St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, who kept a diary of some 600 pages in the 1930s. In one passage of her diary, she has Jesus saying, “He who refuses to pass through the door of My mercy must pass through the door of My justice” (Diary 1146).
The door of Christ’s mercy is the door of the Confessional. The key to unlocking that door is our own repentance. The only cost of entry is to trust in His mercy and love.
WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374 | POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723