Dominica in albis
Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them: and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained (Jn. 20.22-23, from the Holy Gospel for today).
Penance as a Sacrament
In our post “Sin and its malice” (I), the grace of penance is as old as the world: it is to be found everywhere where the Holy Ghost works in the hearts of men, if they are faithful and correspond with it.
“Our Lord has instituted a divine Sacrament, in which He gives the absolution of His Most Precious Blood [but] to those who accuse themselves. He instituted it on that night, when He spoke the words: 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, from the Holy Gospel for the day – Dominica in albis); and the reason for which He instituted it is this – that we may have something more than our self-assurance on which to depend for the hope of our absolution. The Pharisee in the Temple, who stood afar off and said, “God, I thank Thee that I am not as other men are – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican” (Lk. 18.11) – that Pharisee absolved himself; but his absolution was not ratified in Heaven [– had he heard only the voice of the Savior].
There are men who absolve themselves all the day long. They forget the sins of their childhood, boyhood, youth, and manhood – ay, the sins of last year, the sins of yesterday; and, having a slippery treacherous memory of their own sins, though retentive and tenacious of the sins of other men, they are perpetually absolving themselves, and assuring themselves that they are pardoned and forgiven before God. There cannot be a state more dangerous, delusive, or fatal; and in order to guard us from this, our Lord has instituted a Sacrament, in which to assure us of our absolution, in which our absolution is a judicial act, an authoritative sentence, an act pronounced by one who is impartial, and who has authority. We are not left to absolve ourselves; we are absolved in the name and by the power of Jesus Christ by a judge [a priest who possesses the perpetual Levitical* unction].
* … The Levites, whom the Lord hath chosen… to minister unto Himself for ever (1 Par. – 1 Chron. in non-Catholic versions – 15.2). They are to judge the judgment and the cause of the Lord (2 Par. 19.8: Ezech. 44.24) – an office which the ministers of the counterfeit ‘Catholic Church’ (the Neo-Catholic “Ecclesial reality” of Vatican II), the Neo-Catholic priests who “preside” at their “tables” in Anglican liturgical trappings, deny or repudiate.
Moreover, for our preparation for that Sacrament there is actual grace given; and that grace is the grace of the Holy Ghost, having two effects: first to give us light to know ourselves more truly (cf., our post “‘Find’ and ‘Prove’ One’s Self?“), and thereby to understand, to count up, to measure, and to appreciate our sins and the gravity of them; and secondly, that same grace enables us to be contrite, and to make the act of sorrow. Our Lord instituted the Sacrament; thus He took the grace of penance which was working from the beginning of the world, and incorporated it in a visible sign: and He communicates His absolution to those who come for it, as He gives the Bread of Life to those who receive Holy Communion at the altar.
Every Sacrament, as you know, is an outward sign of inward grace. It has what is called the form and the matter. What the is the form of the Sacrament of Penance? It is these words: “I absolve thee from thy sins.” But who can forgive sins except God only? Is it the priest? Do you imagine for one moment that the Holy Catholic Church is – I will not say so superstitious, but is so dull of heart, so dark of understanding as either to believe or teach that it is the man who absolves? It is the office that absolves; and what is the office? The priesthood of Jesus Christ Himself. There are not two, there is but one Priest and one priesthood; and the priesthood that we bear is the participation of that one priesthood of Jesus Christ Himself. What we do, we do not of ourselves. It is He who does it by us. It is simply ministerial on our part. Absolution is given solely and entirely by His power. When at the altar we say, “This is My Body, this is My Blood,” do we speak in our own name? There is but one absolver, Jesus Christ Himself; but He has a number of ministers on earth, through whom He applies His Precious Blood to souls that are truly penitent. The act of absolution is His.
Such then is the form; next, what is the matter? There are two kinds of matter: there is what we call remote, and that matter we call proximate. The remote matter of the Sacrament is the sins we have committed. It is called remote for this reason – they may be the sins of our childhood, a long way off; the sins of our youth, long forgotten, but now at last remembered; the sins that we have committed, and have long hesitated to confess; all these are remote from the present moment. Proximate matter is that state of heart which we must bring with us at the moment, then and there; it is the penitent’s contrition, confession of sins, and willingness to make satisfaction.
Now the remote matter is of two kinds: First, there is the necessary matter which we are bound to confess under the pain of eternal death; and there is that voluntary matter, which it is good, wholesome, safe, and better to confess, though it is not of absolute necessity. Now the first means all the mortal sins committed after Baptism. We know of no revealed way whereby mortal actual sins committed after Baptism can be absolved, save only by the Sacrament of Penance. One mortal sin separates the soul from God. A soul separated from God is dead; and therefore it is a necessity that every mortal sin we have committed should be confessed and absolved. The voluntary matter is our venial sins.
As to venial sins, there are two reasons why it is good to confess them. The first is because, as I showed you, venial sins may easily pass into mortal sins. Sometimes, through the self-love which is in us, we do not distinguish between them; and we consider what God knows and sees to be mortal to be only venial, and in this we may make dangerous mistakes. Again, to promote humility, self-accusation, sorrow, and therefore the grace of perseverance, and to renew our peace with God, it is good to accuse ourselves of everything we know we have committed since our last confession, even in the least – even in the venial sins of omission. It is safer, better, and more wholesome to confess these sins of omission, and to ask God to forgive them; nevertheless, it is quite true that these sins, when they are venial, are not of necessary confession.
Well, the proximate matter means the state of the heart, mind and will. If any man were to kneel down in the confessional, and accuse himself without sorrow for his sins, he would commit another sin. It would be an act of sin itself. It would be a sacrilege to come and attempt to receive that Sacrament without the proper dispositions, that is, without being worthy; and the man who has no sorrow for sin is not worthy. Nevertheless, it is not necessary that this sorrow be felt with the emotions [an error of Luther]; rather, it is the resolve of the will to hate and turn away from the sins one has committed.
Next, there must be a resolve of the will to amend one’s life. If a man come and ask for pardon, even were he to accuse himself perfectly, without having a resolved purpose not to sin again – which includes the occasions of sin – that man would commit a sacrilege. Therefore, the heart and mind must be sorrowful, and the will resolved not to commit sin again. You will say, “How can a man say this, knowing his weakness and instability?” The answer is that if any man sincerely resolves not to sin, and is conscious of his own weakness, and afraid of it, that is a true and a good resolution – and God will accept it, even though afterwards through suddenness or subtlety of temptation he should be cast down. At the time, he was perfectly sincere in his resolutions, and that is all that God requires.
See also: “Absolvo te…” (I) on the grace and virtue of penance