My dear People of God,
The two most powerful sentences in any language are "I love you" and "I forgive you." They are perhaps so powerful that they intimidate us, and we seldom hear them or speak them. Yet, our Lord Jesus used them frequently and taught us how packed with meaning they are. The two truths they express, love and forgiveness, are the basis for the Sacraments we celebrate as Catholics.
I think of the "New Commandment" our Lord Jesus taught us in the Gospels. At the Last Supper in the Gospel of St. John, Jesus will soon enter His Passion. The Father¹s will is being carried out. At this critical moment, Jesus says to His disciples, "I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another" (John 12:34). Why is this a new commandment? Jesus had in fact already given a commandment of love. We find it, amongst other places, in the Gospel of St. Matthew, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:39). This commandment of love is universal. Anyone could embrace it as a way of living in harmony within the human family. This "new" commandment of love, to love one another as Jesus has loved us, is specifically Christian. A Christian is called to imitate the love of Jesus, and Jesus loves us to death. As St. Paul will write in Galatians, "I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me" (Galatians 2:20). This love of Jesus overflows into the sacramental life of the Church.
The overflowing merits of Jesus Christ are shown particularly in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Throughout his life and ministry, Jesus forgave and commanded us to forgive. Jesus taught it in the Sermon on the Mount. "Be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:24). Jesus exercised the Father¹s forgiveness to such an extent that many criticized him. "Who but God alone can forgive sins?" (Mark 2:7). How can a mere human forgive sin? How can anyone exercise the prerogative of God? However, not only does Jesus, as the Son of God, forgive sin, He extends the power of that forgiveness to His followers. It happens in the Gospel of St. John.
As recorded in the Gospel of St. John, Jesus appears the first time to His disciples on the night of the first Easter Sunday. His first words to them are, "Peace be with you" (John 20:19). It is an exceptional moment. Jesus then says, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you" (John 20:21). He breathes on the disciples, an obvious reference to the work of the Spirit, and says, "Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained" (John 20:22-23).
The powerful statement, "I forgive you", is intended to be heard. The woman caught in adultery and the paralytic on the mat heard the words of forgiveness. Tax collectors, sinners, and the "good thief" on the cross ¬ all heard the words of forgiveness. The power of forgiveness is not to remain imagined. If the ears of the disciples are blessed "because they hear", then we as disciples must hear as well (Matthew 13:16). Forgiveness must be expressed. For this reason, St. James exhorts us, "Confess yours sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed" (James 5:16). The Church follows that instruction. Not only must the individual Christian forgive those who give offense but also the Church must forgive in Jesus¹ name. If God forgave in Jesus Christ, then that same forgiveness of Jesus must continue through the work of Christ¹s Body, the Church. As St. Paul so eloquently writes, "He is the head of the body, the churchŠ.For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him" (Colossians 1:18-20).
And so we, as Catholics, come to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. With contrition, true sorrow for sin and a purpose of amendment, we come to the Sacrament of our encounter with a forgiving Lord. The priest is that instrument, that minister, set aside by his ordination to speak the words of forgiveness and to represent all those whom we have offended. "I absolve you," he says, and we rejoice in God¹s grace of reconciliation. We are not alone. We are reconciled within the Body of Christ, the Church. We are the lost sheep who have been found, and "Šthere will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance" (Luke 15:7).
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a sacrament of comfort and healing. It is an extension of the Lord¹s mercy to us for the sake of redemption. We should not avoid it. We need to hear those words, "I forgive you." Then, perhaps we can better speak them to one another.
During this Lent, I ask you to renew your appreciation for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Let us hear "I love you" expressed in the words, "I forgive you." Take advantage of the times offered for this beautiful Sacrament. Never hesitate to request it from your beloved priests. May that grace of forgiveness flow abundantly into you and overflow into your lives as Christians. May we both receive and communicate forgiveness.
With prayers for a blessed Lent, I remain
Devotedly yours in our Lord,
+Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles