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Retreat on the Credo

Faith in the Forgiveness of Sins

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The article itself is plain enough: "I believe in the forgiveness of sin." But note carefully this is an article of our Catholic faith. We might well ask, “Does not everyone who has any faith in God believe in the forgiveness of sins?” Yes, of course. The very notion of an unforgiving God would be blasphemy. And so we find in every religion in history, from the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians through the Hindus, Buddists and Muslims, without exception they believe in a merciful deity, in a god or even in gods who need to be propitiated sometimes in strange ways, but who are willing to forgive provided the people repent of their sins.

What then do we as Catholics mean when we say that we believe in the forgiveness of sins? What we mean is that we believe that Christ came into the world to save us from our sins; His very name Jesus means Savior. And we believe that this Jesus not only forgave His contemporaries, but that He instituted the Church for this precise reason. He therefore instituted especially three sacraments in order that from the Church through the sacraments we might obtain divine mercy.

We further believe that provided these sacraments are received in faith and according to the conditions set down by Christ our sins are indeed forgiven and although we have offended a Just God we can look forward to heaven.

What are these sacraments of mercy? The three sacraments of forgiveness instituted by Christ are baptism, penance and anointing. Each has its own function and each its own distinct power of reconciling a sinful world with God. Baptism removes sin, as to guilt and entire punishment. One who is baptized say in adult years no matter what crimes or what record of sin the person may have been guilty of it is all removed in the waters of regeneration. The only condition is that either the one being baptized, for a person who has reached the age of reason, or someone else who is responsible for the baptism of an infant have the faith and have at least the fear of God's just punishments for having sinned.

Anointing also removes sin even mortal sin from the soul of a baptized person provided the individual have at least what we call imperfect contrition at any point after sinning and the time of receiving the sacrament of anointing. It is well to note that this sacrament of anointing takes effect even when the person being anointed is unconscious and could not even confess his sins or give any external sign of sorrow for the sins committed. I try to anoint even when the person is unconscious because unlike confession which requires the manifestation of one's sins, a person who is no longer able to show sorrow because he is unconscious nevertheless receives the removal of guilt and penalty even for mortal sins.

Finally the sacrament of penance. This is the third and most frequently received sacrament of God's mercy. Given its practical importance in the spiritual life, I think it is worth asking a few questions, and answering them in sequence.

When did Christ institute the sacrament of penance? Christ instituted the sacrament of penance on Easter Sunday night, the occasion is recorded by St. John in his twentieth chapter. "In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them. He said to them, 'Peace be with you,' and showed them His hands and side. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw the Lord, and He said to them again, 'Peace be with you. As the Father sent Me, so am I sending you.' After saying this He breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.'"

Notice how clearly Christ told the apostles and their successors that they had the power which He had received. Remember the occasion sometime before, when in a crowded room they opened the roof and dropped a paralytic down in front of Christ? Everybody made room then. It was perfectly obvious what the paralytic wanted. So what did Christ proceed to tell him? "Your sins are forgiven. "Under his breath the paralytic might have said, "Thanks, Lord; that's not why I came down through the roof." Leave it to the Pharisees, they were always cooperating with Christ to bring out the full revelation. "Who does He think He is? Doesn't He know that only God can forgive sins?" Then the question - Christ's. "Gentlemen, which is easy to say 'Your sins are forgiven' or 'Pick up your mat and walk?'" A long dramatic pause. They all knew it's much easier to say your sins are forgiven, because nothing seems to happen. But if you tell a paralytic to pick up his mat and walk and he doesn't pick up his mat and walk you'd better run! "At which point the man picked up his mat." He must have smiled a thank you and maybe took a sharp look at the Pharisees. They made room for him to get out.

Sure, no one but God can forgive sins except the one on whom God confers the power delegated from God to forgive sins.

Who alone has the power to give sacramental absolution? Only a duly authorized bishop or priest of the Catholic Church. No one else? No one else. The most serious penalties imposed on anyone, whose absolution is removal only specially and personally by the Pope, is anyone who is not a priest who pretends to give absolution.

Sometime ago I was teaching a course in sacramental theology at a Protestant seminary. Every so often the president of the seminary, Dr. Robinson, would sit in on the class. I happened to be lecturing that day on the sacrament of penance. At one point Dr. Robinson interrupted me and he said, "Father, would you mind? I would like to make a few comments to the class." He told the students, "What Father Hardon is telling you about the power of a Catholic priest to absolve sinners from their sins is really true. How many times when I've comforted people estranged from God, trying to reassure them of God's mercy, how I wished I had the power to absolve them." And then he added, "Never forget, when a Catholic is absolved in the sacrament of penance he really believes, really believes that his sins are removed." Naturally I thanked Dr. Robinson for that profession of faith by a Baptist.

What are the conditions for obtaining valid absolution? The, conditions on the part of the penitent are first of all faith - and what faith it takes to kneel down before another sinner like myself! - faith in Christ's power to absolve through His priest. The penitent must confess all mortal sins with their species - the kind of sin and their number; in the case of venial sins at least some of them either since one's last confession or from one's past life. Again, and most importantly, the penitent must be sorry for his sins either out of love for God, having offended a Good God Who has been so gracious to me, or at least out of fear of God, because I'm afraid if I don't repent, God help me! Then receiving absolution.

One of my most dramatic experiences, again with a Protestant on a plane. Sitting next to a young woman, I introduced myself and for over an hour, out loud, for the whole plane to hear, she made a general confession. I told her to shush, to hush. She hadn't sat next to a priest ever before and she was going to tell her sins. At one point I wanted to put my hand over her mouth. I couldn't give her absolution, but I did tell her how to prepare herself to enter the Church and get absolution. I hope she did.

Performing one's penance, which is assigned by the priest, is binding under sin: we must perform that penance; although it is not a condition for receiving absolution.

What is actually forgiven in the sacrament of penance? Two things are remitted by the sacrament. First the guilt, that means the estrangement from God that we incur whenever we sin. I offend another human being, depending on the gravity of the offence there is set up a barrier between that person and myself. So when we sin there is a barrier between God and me. Guilt is that barrier. The loss of love of God for me in greater or less measure, depending on how gravely I've offended Him, is the first thing removed by absolution - the barrier otherwise known as guilt. But also punishment due to sin is removed. When mortal sin is remitted as to guilt, eternal punishment is also always removed. Then depending on my dispositions of faith, sorrow and firm purpose of amendment, more or less of the temporal punishment also incurred for sin is removed.

One of the main reasons for the Church encouraging us to gain indulgences is to remove more or less of the temporal punishment still due after receiving sacramental absolution. Because it would be rare indeed that the absolution of the sacrament of penance would remove all the temporal punishment even though the guilt of sin had been removed.

What are some other effects or benefits of the sacrament of penance? Every reception of the sacrament of penance increases our sanctifying grace. Every reception of the sacrament gives us a title to actual graces. The sacrament enables us to cope with the bad effects of our past even forgiven sins. And, with emphasis, why Christ when He appeared to the apostles Easter Sunday evening and He told them, "Peace be to you," that's why this sacrament is called more than ever nowadays the sacrament of peace. This is one of the blessed effects of sacramental absolution. On receiving this sacrament I am not only forgiven my sins but I am aware of my having been forgiven, I am conscious of God's mercy, in a word I am at peace.

Why has the sacrament of penance fallen off so drastically in countries like the United States? I wish I knew the whole answer. Let me suggest a few. The secularization of American culture. One of the terrifying effects of sin is that it makes the sinner oblivious of his sinfulness: sin dulls the conscience. Needless to say America is a very sinful nation. Again, the prevalence of sin in today's world makes a lot of people, including Catholics, wonder and ask themselves, "Can it really be so bad?" You watch sin on television hours a day; you read about sin in the tens of thousands of pages of print published every day; what people used to call sin sinners begin to wonder maybe is not sin after all. Then the laziness of priests. I speak as one who knows them and loves them and taught over five hundred of them. When I preach to priests this is what I tell them. One result has been the infrequency of priests preaching on the sacrament of penance and failing to teach the people the need of the sacrament and the great benefits it confers.

Let's burrow a little more deeply into this very important subject. There are prevalent today in the theological world some very erroneous ideas about sin that have penetrated among the masses. The first is the erroneous idea about general absolution. General absolution is centuries in the Church, to be given and is valid ONLY under what the Church calls emergency conditions, and they had better be emergency conditions and not contrived conditions. And the second error is the so-called theory of the fundamental option. The Holy See has officially condemned the theory; so it goes right on as though the Pope had never spoken. According to this theory, born in Germany, the only mortal sin is the one in which the person wants to totally reject God. And so these clever immoralists have come up with three kinds of sin: venial, grave and mortal. Venial sin as we've always understood. Grave sin: adultery, fornication, murder, perjury. But, listen, no grave sin is mortal unless besides wanting to commit the sin I want to totally reject God; in a word unless the sinner hates God he or she does not commit a mortal sin. No wonder confessions have all but disappeared in some parts of the country!

Our Holy Father on October 5, 1979 when he visited the United States and spoke to the American hierarchy, told them the following. "In the face of a widespread phenomenon in our time, namely that many of our people who are among the great numbers who receive communion make little use of confession. We must emphasize Christ's basic call to conversion. We must also stress that the personal encounter with the forgiving Jesus in the sacrament of reconciliation is a divine means which keeps alive in our hearts and in our communities a consciousness of sin in its perennial and tragic reality, and which actually brings forth by the action of Jesus and the power of His Spirit fruits of conversion in justice and holiness of life. By this sacrament we are renewed in fervor, strengthened in our resolves, and buoyed up by divine encouragement." He was talking to bishops. Pray that the bishops will put the Pope's words into practice.

What are the benefits of frequent reception of the sacrament of penance even in the absence of grave sins? The two principal benefits as taught us especially by the modern Popes including the present Vicar of Christ, are first, a constant infusion of divine light that sensitizes his conscious to the least disobedience of God's law, and through this sacrament a person receives an infusion of strength not only to avoid the sins confessed but to grow in the very virtues of which he stands in greatest need.

Merciful Savior, give us the light we need to recognize our need of your sacrament of reconciliation to draw closer to the throne of grace and grow in that divine life which You came into the world to give us. Lord Jesus, grant me the grace to so trust in Your mercy that I may never again worry about my past sins, but commend them through Your Mother to Your Sacred Heart. Grant me the strength to avoid offending You again. Let me die rather than ever lose Your friendship. And above all, like Magdalene, grant me the gift of loving You with all my heart because I have sinned so much. My Jesus, mercy!

Conference transcription from a retreat
that Father Hardon gave in December, 1980 to the
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica
No reproductions shall be made without prior written permission.

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