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Pentecost Sunday and the Sacrament of Confession
Gospel Reflection for May 28, 2023, the Feast of Pentecost - John 20:19-23
Now when it was late that same day, the first of the week, and the doors were shut, where the disciples were gathered together, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them: Peace be to you.
And when he had said this, he shewed them his hands and his side. The disciples therefore were glad, when they saw the Lord.
He said therefore to them again: Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you.
When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost.
Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained. (John 20:19-23 DRA)
The Gospel reading for this great feast of Pentecost Sunday emphasizes one element of Pentecost as the birth of the Church, when the Church was filled with the Holy Ghost and given special confirmation of the graces already received in Baptism. This element is the power and authority to forgive sins. Although the Risen Lord conferred this on the twelve disciples (and only the twelve) before Pentecost, “breathing” the Holy Ghost into them prior to His Ascension, it was in a sense a foretaste of and preparation for the full charismatic gifts of the Spirit which they would receive at Pentecost. (Chrysostom, Catena Aurea) For this reason the Church appropriately gives this Gospel in connection with Pentecost, to show one of the greatest gifts of Our Lord to the apostles, a power which only God has but which, as His representatives on Earth, the apostles and their apostolic successors, the bishops and priests, are deputized to wield, just as St. Paul distinguished his disciple Apollo as a fellow apostle and minister of the Church. (1 Cor 3:5-9) While Christ’s own forgiveness of sins was itself shocking to His Jewish brethren, (Lk 5:21) the apostles, who knew His identity as the Son of God, would have found His sharing of this authority with mere men to be even more surprising, as Dr. Brant Pitre explains:
Now, in a 1st Century Jewish setting, this is a staggering bestowal of authority, because as we see from elsewhere in the gospels (like in the gospel of Mark), when Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic, they say, ‘This man speaks blasphemy. Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ It’s a divine power. It’s a divine prerogative to forgive sins. And amazingly, now Jesus gives that divine authority and that divine power to the Apostles. And so, it’s very crucial here to stress that in order for them to both forgive and to retain someone’s sins, the implication is that they would somehow know what those sins are. (“The Authority to Forgive and Retain Sins,” Catholic Productions, YouTube)
While Christ did not give a detailed description of the rites for the Sacrament of Penance, in this event He did provide the power and authority, through the Holy Ghost who proceeds from the Father through the Son, to the apostles. (St. Augustine, Catena Aurea) Christ’s words help to answer objections to this Sacrament which often arise: If we only need to confess our sins directly to God, why would Christ have said this to the apostles? Without audible, interpersonal confession, how would the apostles and their successors know which sins to forgive or retain? If Christ’s words apply to all Christians and not only the twelve disciples, why are only the twelve included in this event, whereas at Pentecost, since other disciples were also present (including the Blessed Virgin Mary - Acts 1:14), the Holy Spirit conferred His gifts to the whole Church?
From this it can be seen that the Gospel reading for today connects to Pentecost but also serves as a contrast to it, illustrating the unique role and mission of the apostles and their successors in the Church. Just as the ordained ministers of Christ act in persona Christi in the Mass, representing Christ as the High Priest offering Himself as the immaculate victim to the Father in Heaven and conferring His infinite graces onto the Church, they forgive sins in Confession not by any personal power of their own but only as instruments of Christ, as St. Thomas Aquinas clarifies: “The ministers of the Church do not by their own power cleanse from sin those who approach the sacraments, nor do they confer grace on them: it is Christ Who does this by His own power while He employs them as instruments.” (ST III, q. 64, a. 5, ad 1) Accordingly, St. John Chrysostom teaches, in answer to a common controversy during the Roman persecutions about priests who wished to return to ministry after betraying the Church,
And their incorrectness of life will not at all invalidate what they do by commission from God. For not only cannot a priest, but not even angel or archangel, do any thing of themselves; the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost do all. The priest only furnishes the tongue, and the hand. For it were not just that the salvation of those who come to the Sacraments in faith, should be endangered by another’s wickedness. (Catena Aurea)
This is a good reminder for us today that, no matter what doctrinal or moral abuses a priest or bishop may commit, when we receive absolution or any other sacramental grace from them, it is Christ, not the man, who gives it to us, and it is Christ to whom we are conformed by it. Confession is truly a gift from God, a clear and powerful assurance of the forgiveness of our sins and the restoration of baptismal sanctifying grace in our souls after we sin. May this serve as an inspiration for us to go to Confession more frequently, and for the Church to make it more available and efficacious for all.