Theological Reflection - Pierre-Marie Dumont
The Effective andIndubitable Sign of Forgiveness: Reflections on John 20:21-23
by Pierre-Marie Dumont
What is Catechism if not the memory of God's loving mercy? And what is a catechist if not a witness to the peace and joy of his forgiveness through the Sacrament of Reconciliation?
On Easter evening, Christ restored peace and joy to his apostles (Jn 20:21-23), conferring on them and their successors the power, through the Holy Spirit, to forgive sins: thus was instituted the Sacrament of Penance. Though we have received new life through Baptism, we remain sinners, ever in need of absolution. But only as we forgive are we forgiven. It is a catechist's duty to awaken in a child a hunger for that same healing peace and joy of forgiveness—theirs to others, and God's to them.
[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." (Jn 20:21-23)
The scene is Jerusalem, on the Sunday evening of Passover (see Jn 20:19). Jesus' Apostles, with the exception of doubting Thomas (see Jn 20:24), are gathered in the place that tradition identifies as the Cenacle, the setting of the Last Supper as well as the forthcoming Pentecost. Terrified at the prospect of undergoing the same fate as their Master, the Apostles have hidden and carefully locked the doors behind them. Suddenly, Jesus stands in their midst. The Lord begins by restoring peace to the frightened hearts of his Apostles: "Peace be with you!"—the traditional Jewish greeting, Shalom alekhem. Yet, in the mouth of the Risen Jesus, this is not just a kindly salutation; it is an immediately effective word: peace is literally given to the Apostles. Jesus had said as much in his farewell discourse: "My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives it do I give it to you" (Jn 14:27). The peace of Jesus is a divine gift: it is his presence—dwelling for ever among his own—that gives it.
The Masterworks of God
This peace is not some magical materialization of a pious wish: it has been won, after an almighty struggle at the end of a deadly war, through the final victory over sin and its ultimate consequence, death. The fruit of this peace, this divine gift, is joy: "The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord" (Jn 20:20). But there are two conditions to receiving this peace, the source of true joy (Jn 16:22-24): first, to acknowledge the Risen Lord in the fullness of faith, and second, to fight the good fight along with him.
In Luke 24:37-39, as he does a week later in the presence of Thomas (Jn 20:26), Jesus appears amid his Apostles to show his pierced hands and side in order that they might no longer be unbelieving but believe, and that, no disciple being greater than his master, they might understand the sacrifice to which they are called in the war against sin. However, specifically in John 20:21-23, Jesus appears to his Apostles bearing the marks of his Passion with a particular aim: to reveal to them the source of the stream of living water destined to refresh the hearts of men and women of good will until the end of time. By showing his stigmata, Jesus indicates the source of sacramental life. "'Powers that come forth' from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving . . . are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church. They are 'the masterworks of God' in the new and everlasting covenant" (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 2nd ed. [Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV)–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 2000], no. 1116). And, indeed, immediately after showing them his stigmata, Jesus sends his Apostles out to dispense the sacramental grace of his presence: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." More specifically, Jesus appoints them as ministers of the sacrament of the mercy of the Father: "Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained."
The Institution of the Sacrament
"Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained." The authenticity of this verse has been debated, and yet all of scriptural tradition attests to it. Should we read here a direct institution of the Sacrament of Penance? Some exegetes oppose this view, arguing that the Sacrament of Penance, as it later began to be practiced by the Church in the sixth and seventh centuries, and as definitively formulated by the Council of Trent in 1551, finds no scriptural basis in John 20:21-23. However, we should remain humble before the Word of God and be ever wary of learned interpretations that purport, "The Gospel says this, but that's not what it really means." The obvious meaning of John 20:21-23, with its specific mention of the effusion of the Holy Spirit, clearly attests that the Savior communicated to his Apostles the power, received from his Father, to remit sins through Baptism as well as after it. Further, by "breathing on them," by saying, "Receive the holy Spirit," by sending them out as his Father had sent him, Jesus very clearly confers on the Apostles and their successors the inspired authority to appoint, for all times and in every context, ministers of this power, as well as to establish the rules and practical expression of its exercise.
"Your sins are forgiven you!"
In its fourteenth session, the Council of Trent definitively settled the matter: "The Lord then principally instituted the sacrament of penance, when, being raised from the dead, he breathed upon his apostles, saying Receive ye the Holy Ghost, whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained." The Council devoted the second chapter of this session to establishing "the difference between the Sacrament of Penance and that of Baptism." In the same vein, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the fruit of Vatican II, thus explains the basis of the Sacrament of Reconciliation after Baptism: "The new life received in Christian initiation has not abolished the frailty and weakness of human nature, nor the inclination to sin . . . which remains in the baptized such that with the help of the grace of Christ they may prove themselves in the struggle of Christian life" (CCC, no. 1426). And finally, the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church reaffirms the Council of Trent: "The risen Lord instituted this sacrament [of penance] on the evening of Easter when he showed himself to his 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'" (Compendium, 2nd ed. [LEV–USCCB, 2000], no. 298).
Thus, "the Lord Jesus Christ, physician of our souls and bodies, who forgave the sins of the paralytic and restored him to bodily health, has willed that his Church continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit, his work of healing and salvation, even among her own members" (CCC, no. 1421). It would be incomprehensible to deny this work of healing to newly initiated children entrusted to the Church by their parents precisely to receive the knowledge necessary to salvation. It is therefore an essential duty of catechists to explain to children that, though through Baptism they have certainly received the new life of Christ, they "hold this treasure in earthen vessels " (2 Cor 4:7), and that their "new life as a child of God can be weakened and even lost by sin" (CCC, no. 1420). Further, it is not enough to explain to them that they may fall ill or away; it is appropriate, as soon as they reach the age of reason, and after serious initiation, to offer them access to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
A Redoubtable Precondition
"What is the Catechism itself, if not the memory of God, the memory of his works in history and his drawing near to us in Christ present in his word, in the sacraments, in his Church, in his love?""The catechist, then, is a Christian who is mindful of God, who is guided by the memory of God . . . and who is able to awaken that memory in the hearts of others" (Pope Francis, Homily on the "Day for Catechists," www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/homilies/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130929_giornata-catechisti_en.html). In this most eminent ecclesial task, which consists in the remembrance of Divine Mercy at work in the history of humanity, as in each of our own personal histories, there seems to me an all-too-often neglected aspect: the condition sine qua non that God places on his forgiveness. And yet, we beg God daily to impose this condition on us! For what else do we mean when, as we recite the Our Father, we dare to say: "Our Father, . . . forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us"? A literal translation is perhaps even more eloquent: "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Mt 6:12). Jesus never tired of insisting upon this forcefully and repeatedly: "If you remit other's debts to you, your heavenly Father will remit your debts. But if you do not grant remission to others, neither will your Father remit your debts" (Mt 6:14-15, author's translation). And Jesus does not ask us to forgive vaguely, "sometimes," those who have wronged us; he calls upon us to remit their debts right down to the last penny, as many as seventy times seven—in other words, endlessly (see Mt 18:21-35).
He who wishes to be reconciled with the God he does not see, but does not reconcile first with his brother he does see, is a liar (see 1 Jn 4:20, CCC, no. 2840). He lies to himself, he lies to others and to God; for, in that person, it is not true that love is stronger than sin. It is of prime importance that we teach this truth to our children in order that their initiation in the Sacrament of Reconciliation may be well grounded in the unity of Christian life. And this unity comes through the unconditional practice of the new commandment. "As we forgive" is the corollary of "as I have loved you": this is the sole criterion. For all that remains in eternal life is the work of Christ's love; and we participate in it only if we too love to the end—we in him and he in us—those who are our own in the world. In the same way, if we fail to love those who are our own in this world, down to the remission of the wrongs they do us, however admirable our confessions, they will be in vain (see 1 Cor 13:1-13). So, don't forget: if, on the way to the confessional, you recall that your brother has anything against you, skip your turn and go first to be reconciled with your brother (see Mt 5:23-24). To this end, along with the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32), the parable to bear in mind in preparing for the Sacrament of Reconciliation is that of the Unforgiving Servant (Mt 18:23-35).
Go in Peace
In conclusion, let us return to that joy that rejoiced the hearts of the disciples when the living Jesus said to them: "Peace be with you!" Who among us has never found himself locked within the doors of his own sin, heart bereft of all joy, tormented by the past and anguished by the future? And who, getting to their knees in the confessional, receiving absolution after the purifying admission of sin, and hearing the priest say, "Go in peace!" has not felt his heart burning with a joy that is not of this world? In the end, is it not the hunger for this joy that catechists, through their own witness, must awaken in others?
Husband and father of
twelve, Pierre-Marie Dumont is the creator and founding publisher of the
monthly liturgical magazine Magnificat, with a readership of 500,000 in the United
States, and editions in five other languages throughout the world.
Copyright © 2014, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.
Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
Excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, copyright © 2000, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV)–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Excerpt from Pope Francis, Homily, September 29, 2013, copyright © 2013, LEV. Used with permission. All rights reserved.