The Sacrament of Confession: Instrument of Divine Mercy
Gospel Reflection for April 16, 2023, Divine Mercy Sunday - John 20:19-31
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.
Now Thomas, one of the twelve, who is called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.
The other disciples therefore said to him: We have seen the Lord. But he said to them: Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.
And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them. Jesus cometh, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said: Peace be to you.
Then he saith to Thomas: Put in thy finger hither, and see my hands; and bring hither thy hand, and put it into my side; and be not faithless, but believing.
Thomas answered, and said to him: My Lord, and my God.
Jesus saith to him: Because thou hast seen me, Thomas, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed.
Many other signs also did Jesus in the sight of his disciples, which are not written in this book.
But these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God: and that believing, you may have life in his name. (Jn 20:19-31 DRA)
I have been Catholic for almost 15 years, having been baptized and confirmed when I was 18 in 2008. I grew up in the Protestant South, where many people (including some in my family) were anti-Catholic, but for the most part I knew nothing about Catholicism for most of my childhood. I was raised with some concept of Christianity, but for various reasons in my teens I became an atheist. Although my first encounter with the Faith came through the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien in my early teens, I did not truly convert until going through a long journey of studying philosophy and the different religions of the world, as well as struggling to overcome my own sinful habits. In the end, it was the support of my father, who converted with me, and the final realization that, without an infallible, objective authority, there is no intelligible meaning or moral standard in life, which finally brought me home.
I give this brief biography of my conversion story to illuminate a theme of Divine Mercy Sunday and the story of Doubting Thomas in this reflection. This theme is the Sacrament of Penance as an instrument of God’s mercy. Throughout my life, both before and after my conversion, I desired a definite Truth which could answer all questions and an objective Good which could dispel all the evils of the world. I discovered this Truth and Good to be Christ, but only through the Catholic Church which He established. Unlike St. Thomas, whose doubts were mercifully answered by the physical evidence of Christ’s resurrected Body, Christians ever since have needed to trust in the authoritative tradition of the Church, like the Ethiopian taught by St. Philip (Acts 8:31) – not our private feelings, preferences or presumed guidance from the Holy Spirit, all of which lead only to a new denomination for each Christian and the possibility of couching practically any idea in Christian terms.
Since childhood, I have also always felt a sometimes-overwhelming sense of the vast darkness of sin prevailing in the world, in my life and in myself. Although St. Paul taught us to focus on the good, (Philip 4:8) the Scriptures are full of lamentations for the world corrupted by the Fall. Simply take a moment to imagine all the instances of pride, hatred, pornography, adultery, abortion, slavery, prejudice, genocide, greed, indifference to God and hatred of His Church, as a very small sample of sins, rampant in the world today, perhaps more than ever before. Anything good is seen as evil while evil is promoted and the good is brought to ruin. How many people, in their daily life choices, stop to weigh the morality of their actions, or to ask if their beliefs and desires are in accordance with God’s will? How many, including Christians, simply live however they wish, excusing or avoiding the consequences for their sins, and presume God’s mercy? Is it any wonder that so many doubt the Divine Mercy of God? How could God, who is infinitely perfect and has no need of us, forgive those to whom He has given everything, even the death and Resurrection of His Son, and yet who consistently offend, mock and ignore Him, even those claiming to be Christians?
Nevertheless, we know through Christ that God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should return to penance”. (2 Pt 3:9) On the other hand, God does not forgive everyone in a direct and personal way, as did Christ in His earthly ministry, nor does He forgive those who are not open to His mercy. And, as the Jews rightfully observed, “Who can forgive sins, but God only?” (Mk 2:7) So, then, what is the ordinary means He has established for our forgiveness? The reading for this Sunday shows us: “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” This pronouncement of Christ, giving the apostles and their appointed heirs the power of the Holy Spirit to forgive sins in His name, is far profounder and more mysterious than anyone can know, yet it is taken for granted by the Church today, with most parishes having few times for Confession and many Catholics simply neglecting it altogether.
All my sins were washed away in Baptism and I was filled with the Holy Spirit and united to the Church in Confirmation. Now, each time I go to Confession, I continually know and feel the liberation of Divine Mercy and its restoration of the sanctifying grace of Baptism through the ministration of the priest acting in persona Christi, and I am reminded that the Church is the true instrument of Divine Mercy in the world, as the Body of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit. Distraction, hedonism, self-justification and erroneous beliefs are not enough to conquer sin – they only leave us in a comfortable complacency which, like walking a tightrope over a chasm while wearing a blindfold, will inevitably lead to our destruction. Only the Divine Mercy of Jesus Christ can illuminate the darkness and carry us to safety. This is the heart of the Gospel and the cure to indifference and corruption in the modern world, as Pope St. John Paul II knew when he established this feast day and as Our Lord knew when He commanded it be done to St. Faustina. May its message of hope, joy and peace inspire us this Easter to evangelize the world and alleviate the burden of sin through the Divine Mercy of Christ, inspiring us to confess our faith in Christ, like St. Thomas: “My Lord, and my God.”
As part of the Church that is empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are to be individually empowered by the Holy Spirit. There are many spiritual practices that are now offered in the Church. Until I found the specific instruction in Scripture on how to get inner peace and strength from God after having drifted away from my Catholic upbringing, I was a weak and agnostic cradle Catholic. When I was faced with a choice of where to start looking for answers, I ended up starting with Scripture. The thought of wading through thousands of years of later teaching did not appeal to me. It was the best decision that I have ever made in my entire life.
Kaleb, I enjoyed your conversion story, and how Tolkien, and your Father were instrumental in returning you to the faith. Thank you for this message today, and for expanding on God's mercy which indeed this day celebrates. Also I was not aware St. John Paul established this feast day. May God continue to guide your steps my friend.