“I absolve thee in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
Thus is the penitent sinner assured by the Lord and Savior Himself, acting and speaking through His minister, at His tribunal of his release from bondage to the devil through his sins.
“…Our thoughts hitherto have been full of sharpness and severity. We have been dwelling upon sin… we now enter upon another region – the realm of peace, of grace, of pardon and healing….
It was late in the evening of the first day of the week when the Lord and Savior rose from the dead that His disciples were gathered together, and the doors were shut for fear of the Jews. When they least expected it, unawares, and by His divine power, He came – though the doors were closed – and stood in the midst of them; and His first words were, Peace be unto you. And when He had assured them that it was He Himself, their fears were dispelled. He then said, Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained (Jn. 20.22-23). That is, He gave them the proof of His Godhead in the power of absolution. He gave them the proof of His Godhead – for the Pharisees were right when they asked, “Who shall forgive sins but God only?” (Mk. 2.7).
God alone can absolve, and God alone can give the power of absolution. When the power of absolution is exercised by any man, he is but an instrument in the hand of God: the absolver is always God Himself. Our Lord exercised, among many other attributes of His Godhead upon earth, these three special powers of divinity: He raised the dead; He multiplied the bread in the wilderness; and He cleansed the lepers – and these three works of almighty power, which are altogether divine, He has committed in a spiritual form to His Church forever. When He said, Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them [in Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti], in that power of Baptism He gave to His Apostles and their successors [cf., Acts 1.25-26] the power of raising from spiritual death to spiritual life. Those who are born dead in sin are raised by a new birth to spiritual life. When He instituted the Most Holy sacrament of His Body and Blood, and gave to His [ministers of the Christian altar, cf. Heb 13.10] the authority to say, This is My Body, He gave the power to feed His people with the Bread of Life, and to multiply that Bread forever. When He said, Whose sins ye shall forgive, they are forgiven unto them, He gave the power of cleansing the leprosy of the soul.
Sometimes, incoherent – or, what is worse, controversial – minds imagine, or at least say, that this power was confined to the Apostles. The very words are enough to prove the contrary; but there is an intrinsic reason to the thing which, to any Christian mind, must be sufficient to show that these three powers are perpetual; for what are these three powers, but the authority to apply to the souls of men forever the benefits of the most Precious Blood of Jesus Christ [most generously shed upon the Cross]? The Precious Blood would have been shed in vain, if it were not applied to the souls of men one by one. The most potent medicines work no cures, save in those to whom they are applied; and the Precious Blood, which is the remedy of sin [without shedding of Blood there is no remission (Heb. 9.22)], works the healing of the soul only by its application. Baptism, the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, and the Sacrament of Penance are three divine channels whereby the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ is applied to the soul.
Penance is both a virtue and a Sacrament. From the beginning of the world the grace of penance has been poured out upon men. It is an interior disposition of the soul before God; and from the beginning of the world the Holy Ghost, Whose office it is to convince the world of sin, has convinced sinners of their transgressions, has converted them to penance, and from penance has made them Saints. But penance, in the Christian law, is also a Sacrament; and I have to explain the meaning of the grace and the action of the Sacrament, and how they are united.
First, penance is a grace or inward disposition of the soul, and I need to go far to find an explanation. I need not frame any explanation of my own, for we have a divine delineation of what penance is, drawn as it were, by a pencil of light of our Divine Savior Himself in the parable of the Prodigal Son. There we have a revelation of what the grace of penance is.
Let us take the main features of [it]. First, the son who, under the roof of a loving father, had need of nothing – for his father was rich – chafed and was fretful because the authority of a superior will was upon him. He could not bear the yoke of living under a paternal rule, and his imagination was all on fire with the thought of liberty. He looked at the horizon – it may be the mountains that bounded the lands and fields of his father – and pictured to himself the valleys and plains and cities full of youth and happiness and life and freedom – a happy land, if only he could break away from the restraints of home. He came to his father, and with a cold-hearted insolence said that which being translated is, “Give me what I shall have when you are dead.” There was the a spirit of undutifulness and of ingratitude in that demand – but the father gave it; and the parable says that not many days after – that is, with all speed, in fact – gathering all things together, all he had and all he could get, he went off into a far country, and there he spent all he had in living riotously.
Then there came a mighty famine, and he having spent all things, was reduced to that miserable condition – he was fain to fill his hunger with the husks, not only with the husks which the swine did eat, but the husks which the swine had left, the husks which fell, as it were, from the trough of a herd of swine – which portrays the degradation of a sinner – a soul in mortal sin. He came to himself – the word is, he returned to himself. He not only had left his father, but had forsaken himself – he was out of himself, beside himself; for sin is madness. When he returned to himself, he said: “How many hired servants of my father have bread in abundance, and I here perished for hunger. I will rise and go to my father, and I will say unto Him: Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son; make me as one of thy hired servants.”
Here was the consciousness of unworthiness. He did not aspire to be a son again; that, he thought, was lost forever. And he arose and went to his father. And as he was coming, before he caught sight of his father, his father saw him afar off, for love gives keenness of sight to a father’s eye: he saw his son returning, and he ran towards him. He was as eager to forgive as the son was to be forgiven – ay, more; he fell upon his neck, and the Prodigal Son began his confession. But before he could finish – the words “make me as one of thy hired servants” never came out of his mouth – his father fell upon his neck and kissed him, and forgave him all. He was perfectly absolved. And the father said: “Bring forth quickly” – that is, make haste, no delay – “the first robe.” The robe he had before, and put it on him. Put shoes on his feet and a ring on his hand. Restore him not only to the state of pardon, but to the full possession of all he had before his fall; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.
We see here in the Prodigal Son the grace of penance – that is, self-knowledge, self-condemnation, sorrow for the past, conversion, self-accusation, and the will to amend one’s life. We have here then, I say, a divine delineation of what it is. Let us take another example.
There was in Jerusalem one who was rich, and abounded in all things. She possessed also the fatal gift of beauty, which has been eternal death to tens of thousands. She was living in wealth and luxury and enjoyment, and, as the Apostle said, was dead while she lived. She decked herself out in gold and in fine apparel, like the daughters of Jerusalem of whom the Prophet Isaias says, that they were haughty, and walked with their necks stretched out, with wanton glances in their eyes, and making a noise with their feet, and walking with mincing step, with the affectation of an immodest and luxurious life. She was known to be a sinner and was notorious in the city. On a day – we know not when, we know not where, for it is not written – she chanced, as we say, to light upon the presence and to hear the voice of our Divine Redeemer. It may be that it was in the Temple where He daily taught. It may she had gone up to the Temple in all the bravery and all the ostentation of her apparel, not to worship the Holy One of Israel, but from curiosity, and to be seen, and to show herself to men. But she found herself in the presence of One Whose calm dignity abashed her.
At first, it may be, she resisted the sound of the voice; but there was something in it which thrilled to the depth of the heart. There was something in the still steady gaze of that divine eye which she could not escape. A shaft of light cut her heart asunder, and an illumination showed her to herself, even as God saw her, covered with sins red as scarlet, and, as the leper, white as snow. She went her way with the wound deep in the heart – a wound which could never be healed save only by the hand that made it. The gaze that had been fixed upon her and the sound of that voice were still in her memory. She could escape them nowhere. No doubt, there was a conflict going on day after day, and her old companion, her evil friends, and the manifold dangers of life came thick about her as before; but she had no soul for them.
At last, laying aside her finery and ostentation, unclasping the jewels from her head, and with her hair all loose about her – with an alabaster box of ointment, she walked through the streets of Jerusalem before the eyes of men, caring for no one, thinking of no one but of God and her own sins. Hearing that Jesus of Nazareth sat at meat in the house of Simon the Pharisee, she broke into the midst of the banquet, under the scornful, piercing, indignant eyes that were fixed upon her; without shame, because her only shame was before the eye of God; without fear, knowing what she was, because she had come to know the love and tenderness of Him Who had spoken to her. She stood silent before Him, weeping. She had the courage even to kiss His feet, to wash them with her tears, to wipe them with the hair of her head; while the Pharisee secretly rebuked our Divine Lord, and asked himself in his heart: “If this man had been a prophet, would He not have known what manner of woman this is? She is a sinner, and He would not have allowed her to touch His feet.”
But those feet had in them the healing of sin. The touch of those feet, powerful as the touch upon the hem of His garment, cleansed the poor sinner. He turned, and in the hearing of them all, He said: Her sins, which are many, are forgiven her, because she has loved much. Here is an example of the grace of penance; and an example not of penance only, but of perfect and full absolution given in a moment; more than this, of a complete restoration of purity given to the most fallen. In token of that absolution and of that restoration, privileges were granted to Mary Magdalen beyond others. She, out of whom Jesus cast seven devils, was the one who stood at the foot of the Cross with the Immaculate Mother of God. It was she who had kissed His feet at that supper who afterwards anointed them, and wound them in the fine linen for His burial. It was she, the greatest of sinners, who, next after His Immaculate Mother, saw Him before all others when He arose from the dead; and these tokens of the love of Jesus to penitents, and to the greatest of penitents, have been followed in the kingdom of Heaven with a glory proportioned to her sorrow and to her love. Mary Magdalen is set forth forever as an example of the grace of penitence, and of the perfect absolution of the Most Precious Blood.
But perhaps you will say, she had never known our Savior. She committed all her sins before she came to the knowledge of His love. I have known Him, and therefore the sins I have committed I have committed against the light; and my sins are more ungrateful than hers, and are therefore guiltier, and I have less hope of pardon. Let us see, then, if there be another example. Is there an example of any friend, who had been highly privileged, greatly blessed, who had known everything, who had received all the light and grace which came from the presence and the words of our Divine Savior in those three years of His public life – is there any such who afterwards sinned against Him?
There was one to whom the light of the knowledge of the Son of God was first revealed by the Father in Heaven. There was one who was First of all the Apostles, because of this illumination of faith, and to whom our Divine Lord would built His Church and gave the keys of the kingdom of Heaven. This friend, preferred above all others, dignified above all others, protested to his Master: Though all men should forsake Thee, yet will not I. I am ready to go with Thee to prison and to death. Though all men shall deny Thee, I will never deny Thee (Lk. 22.33). He had the courage to draw his sword in the garden, and cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest; yet this man three times denied his Master. He denied Him utterly: I never knew the Man. I am not of His disciples. And with cursing and swearing he renounced his Lord.
Here, then, is the ingratitude and the sin of a cherished friend. But on that night he went out, and he wept bitterly; and his bitter tears upon that night of sin obtained for him not only perfect absolution in the evening of the first day of the week, but the power of absolving the sins of others, sinners like himself. Peter received his own absolution, his own forgiveness, and in that moment, he was restored to his dignity as Prince of the Apostles. Though he was upbraided in the gray of the morning on the Sea of Tiberias by the three questions of tender reproof: Simon, son of John, lovest thou Me more than these? to remind him of his three falls, Peter was restored to more than he had before. He was made head on earth of the Mystical Body of Christ; he died a martyr for His Lord, and he reigns in Heaven by his Master’s side.
We have here again an example of the grace of penance; and what do we see in it? Just the same sorrow, self-accusation, reparation as before. Here is the virtue and grace of penance….” (from a sermon of Henry Edward Cardinal Manning)
A blessed Easter!
Related post: “The Resurrection of Jesus: Victory Over Sin and Death“