PART I: The Human Face of Divine Forgiveness
by Father Paul K. Raftery, O.P.
Part I of III
The Kindness of God enters our Lives with each Passing Moment, but the One (1)
Greatest Act of God's 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 (Penance). 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 (70)-times-Seven (7) 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 Lord's 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"
The next Three (3) 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.
Wonder of the Incarnation
(A Unity (1) of Body and Soul)
Heart includes the Rational Thought Process
(Intellect/Will) of the Soul and the Bodily
Emotions that influence the Will.
Mind = Understanding, Intellect, Will, Reason
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 God's Great Scheme
for winning Man's 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
Saint 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 ..." (1John 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" (John 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.
The Latin Incarnatio (in: Caro, Flesh) corresponds to John 1:14 "And the Word became Flesh".
The Incarnation implies Three (3) facts:
(1) The Divine Person of Jesus Christ;
(2) The Human Nature of Jesus Christ;
(3) The Hypostatic Union of the Human with the Divine Nature, in the Divine Person of Jesus Christ.
Extension of the Incarnation
This is the all-important Background for us to Understand, 'Why' we have the Seven (7)
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.
Sacramental Presence of Jesus
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.
Five External Senses -
Internal Senses -
Sentient Consciousness/ Imagination/ Sentient Memory/Estimation
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/Bodily
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-on of the Bishop's 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
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 Saint 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.
Comfort for the Sinner
(Resides in the Essence of the Soul)
(A Unity (1) of Body and Soul)
Supernatural Grace/Infused Virtues and Gifts of the Holy Spirit
Man is born a Rational Creature, with Body and Soul,
into the Natural Order.
God first elevates Man to the Supernatural Order via
the Sacrament of Baptism, which infuses Sanctifying Grace into the
Essence of the Soul. The other Six (6) Sacraments
can then elevate the Soul even Higher.
The Supernatural Order is the Ensemble of Effects exceeding the Powers of the Created
Universe and Gratuitously produced directly by God for the purpose of raising the Rational Creature
above its Natural Sphere to a God-like Life and Destiny.
Mortal Sin destroys/kills Man's entire
Supernatural Order/Life. Man is no-longer a Temple of God.
God is gone & resides no-longer in the Soul.
Only God can raise the Soul back-to-life from the
Dead, via the Sacrament of Penance.
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 Devastating his
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 Man's
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.
The Sacrament Begins
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" (John 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.
Jesus appears before the Eleven Faithful Apostles,
in the Upper Room, after His Resurrection
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 was 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:
"... as 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 One (1) 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" (Matthew 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 John's Gospel, we have been looking at demonstrates.
The Priestly Mediator
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:
The words Bind and Loose mean: whomever you Exclude from your Communion, will be Excluded from Communion with God; whomever
you Receive anew into your Communion, God will welcome back into His. Reconciliation with the Church, is inseparable from Reconciliation with
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 One's 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.