One of the two most grace-filled moments for a priest is hearing confession. The other is celebrating Mass. While God’s love, mercy and compassion come to us through varying experiences, these moments carry special graces.
Every time I hear confession—or, more appropriately, celebrate the sacrament of confession—I can’t help but be in awe of God’s presence in that moment. I always feel what the Lord promised: “For where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst.” (Matthew 18: 20)
The commission of the Risen Lord in this Sunday’s Gospel beautifully shows us how love, mercy and compassion are a community celebration: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
The “you” in this commission refers to the Christian community or the church. It’s interesting to note that individual confession, as we know it now, started only in the 11th century. Prior to this, as early as the Old Testament period, the confession of one’s transgressions and the reconciliation were performed in a communal ritual.
This is in part based on the mindset that any transgression causes a break in the community, thus, the reconciliation and healing take place in the community.
The latter form of individual confession, likewise, is premised on community with the priest as representative, plus the scriptural promise that where two or more are gathered in Christ’s name, the Lord is present. Thus, it is a Christian community.
The graces of this commission are: one, the gift stems from the spirit of the Risen Lord; two, the community as the steward of God’s love, mercy and compassion; and three, the freedom that this commission gives us.
The Risen Lord giving us the spirit entrusts to the community the divine love, mercy and compassion, and the mission to proclaim it to the world. Core to this mission is the forgiveness of sins—sin as a break in our relationship with God and the community.
What gives this forgiveness greater power is that it has been won for all of us through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. Our life as Christians is animated by this grace and power of the spirit of the Risen Lord. This is how intimately connected we are to Christ as we live out our Christian faith, identity and mission.
Being stewards of God’s love, mercy and compassion are not only about forgiving sins. Rather, viewing it from a proactive, missionary stance, it is also about inspiring everyone to love one another, and to be merciful and compassionate toward one another.
The final point—“whose sins you retain are retained”—I wish to reflect on from the perspective of freedom that this commission gives. At the same time, I do not deny the community or church’s authority to not grant the absolution or even to excommunicate, but this is for another reflection altogether.
I believe that the retention of sins is not so much a punishment meted out on another person, but rather the consequence of that person’s choice. Yes, it is an action the community takes, but one prompted by that choice.
This shows God’s respect for a person’s freedom to choose to reconcile with or to continue to separate oneself from the community, and God’s sense of justice on behalf of the community or the greater good.
The latter reminds us that our choices have consequences. This is justice, and it is meaningful because we have the freedom to choose.
The Feast of the Divine Mercy is a great community celebration. It is in choosing to be a member of this community that we draw the grace of the spirit of the Risen Lord. It is in community that we draw our identity and mission as a Christian.
The divine presence is what we celebrate today, a presence that is always lovingly providential. —CONTRIBUTED