Forgiveness: the work of the Holy Spirit

Sunday thoughts, by Mgr John Devine

I grew up in the seminary from the age of 12. I took it for granted that passages in the Gospels about the call of the disciples were about vocations to the priesthood or religious life. Adult conversion for the cradle Catholic normally led to the seminary or novitiate. Settling for anything less meant taking your hand from the plough, adopting the ‘lay state’ and returning to life in the pews. Even the term ‘the married state’ felt like a putdown. This was not the case with sister and brother Christians from other denominations. Pre-Vatican II at least, non-Catholic Christians were more at ease with lay Christian commitment than Catholics.

In the Gospel reading from John for the Second Sunday of Easter the disciples have locked themselves in the upper room ‘for fear of the Jews’. Jesus appears to them. After his usual greeting of Peace be with you’, he pours out the Holy Spirit on them and says: ‘For those whose sins you forgive they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain they are retained.’

Wearing my priest hat, I interpret these words as the moment when Jesus institutes the Sacrament of Penance. He confers on the ordained the power to give sacramental absolution. He also grants the discretion to refuse absolution to those who, in his judgement, lack remorse or resolve; the power to ‘fast and loose’.

Over the years I have come to reread this text through the eyes of a baptised person. The Lord commands us all to forgive. The words of Jesus suggest that a refusal to forgive our brothers and sisters freezes the animosity between us forever. This is a challenge easier said than done. It is the work of the Holy Spirit.