The Divine Mercy
On the evening of Easter, Jesus appeared to His Apostles and said, Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I send you. And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (Jn 20:21-23). In this moment Jesus conferred upon the Apostles His own ability to forgive sins. The Apostles now shared Jesus ability to apply divine mercy to souls like doctors applying medicine to patients bodies.
The ability to forgive sins passes down through history from the Apostles to their successors the bishops. From the bishops it passes to todays priests through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. By giving His Apostles the ability to forgive sins, Jesus established the Sacrament of Penance (also called Confession or Reconciliation). But why did Jesus give us this sacrament? It seems He could have told us all just to go into our rooms, shut the door, ask God for forgiveness, and be done with it. Why did He not set things up that way? It would have been less personally revealing and less embarrassing. Why make it so that I have to go to a priest? Why cant I go directly to Jesus?
Jesus said I am the vine, you are the branches (Jn 15:5). Jesus fashioned all the sacraments so that by them we might receive a share in His life like a branch living off of a vine. In baptism, we receive the life of Christ for the first time. This life of Christ is a life in the Spirit, a life of intimacy with the Trinity, and a life of sharing in the Church. Jesus knew, however, that through sin people would damage or even forfeit the life they had received in baptism. The main point of the Sacrament of Confession is to receive the divine mercy. Divine mercy strengthens the life of Christ damaged by (venial) sin and gives back the life lost by (mortal) sin.
The Chosen Instrument
To see the wisdom of Jesus in establishing the sacrament, it helps to think of Jesus like a doctor. Just as doctors use instruments to perform their healing work, so too Jesus uses instruments to perform His healing work. Just as doctors choose to use some kinds of instruments and avoid others, so too it helps to think of Jesus as wanting to use one kind of instrument in particular for the work of applying divine mercy to us. He wants to use a sacrament as His instrument.
By a sacrament I mean a sign that signifies what it causes and causes what it signifies. For example, the words I love you signify love that is their meaning. But they also cause in the listening person the love that they signify. The listener receives the love signified by receiving the sign that signifies the love. Jesus intended to make the reception of divine mercy the same way.
In the Sacrament of Penance, the priest represents or signifies Jesus. The words I absolve you signify the word of mercy that Jesus utters. When the priest says I absolve you, the priests action of saying those words is a sign signifying Jesus speaking His word of mercy at that moment. Like the action of saying I love you, the priests action both signifies Jesus own forgiving and also causes what it signifies. The priests action causes Jesus own forgiveness and Jesus own soul-healing in the recipient. In this way, Jesus uses the priest and his words as an instrument by which to breathe upon us the Holy Spirit, to strengthen His life within us if it was weakened, and to revive His life in us if it was lost. Thinking of it this way, it is easy to see the main reason why Jesus chose to use a sacrament as His instrument of mercy.
The main reason is that a sacrament of mercy provides a concrete and physical way for us to meet Jesus Himself as friend to friend and as patient to physician. If we think of the Sacrament of Penance without the faith of the Church (as Protestants do), then we do not think of the sacrament as Jesus coming to touch us with His instrument of mercy. We instead think of ourselves merely as our going to a man the priest. But if a doctor touches us with a stethoscope, truly it is the doctor who touches us and not merely the stethoscope. Likewise, if we remember from our Catholic faith that Jesus uses the priests and their words as His instruments of mercy, we realize that in the sacrament it is Jesus who touches us with His soul-healing love. It is Jesus who floods us with His spirit and life. Unless we think in terms of the Churchs faith that the sacrament is Christs instrument, we do not realize that in this wonderful sacrament we have a concrete and physical way of turning to Jesus Himself, being touched by Jesus Himself, and hence encountering Jesus for ourselves. Now there are several reasons why Jesus wants us to meet Him in the concrete and physical way that we do in the Sacrament of Penance.
First, a sacrament makes intangible things to be tangible. Our customary way of knowing things is through our senses. Unless something is conveyed to our senses, we have a hard time accepting its reality. Sacraments use tangible things to signify intangible realities. In Confession, for example, the tangible priest and tangible words signify the presence of intangible divine mercy. By bestowing His mercy upon us in a sacrament, Jesus makes His mercy real to us real to our senses.
Second, a sacrament provides a way for one to be reconciled with the whole community of the faithful. Personal sin wounds the Church. It causes all Christians to look bad, it makes it hard for others to find Christ in us, it weakens our confidence in our mission, weakens our response to our vocation, and tempts other people into sin. We owe the whole community of the faithful an apology for our sins. A personal encounter between priests and penitents in the sacrament provides the way for the apology to happen.
Third, a sacrament provides a way for sinners to acknowledge their sins in front of another person in the flesh, to name their sins to another, and to renounce their sins before another. Doing each of these things powerfully contributes to conversion and strengthens our resolve to change our way of living.
Fourth, a sacrament of mercy provides a great way for one to become humble. Jesus foresaw that requiring the confession of secret sins would cause us some embarrassment. But He saw too that the embarrassment does us no real harm and may actually be helpful. It damages nothing but ones over-inflated ego. It may be helpful because the short-term embarrassment of confession cultivates the long-term virtue of humility. For the embarrassment tends to diminish the arrogance to which we all are prone.
Finally, a sacrament of mercy has many wonderful side effects (depending on how it is ministered practices vary throughout history). It provides a forum for counsel about sensitive moral matters, encouragement in the quest for holiness, and therapeutic conversation about ones flaws. Each of these beneficial side effects is possible only because Jesus decided to use other human beings as His instruments for conferring His mercy upon sinners after their baptism.
The main reason Jesus established the Sacrament of Penance was to provide a concrete and physical way for us to meet Him for ourselves to obtain divine mercy. He wanted the way to be a concrete and physical because of the five reasons just given. Now each of these five reasons is a good thing. They make us happy in the long run even though they may sting a little for a moment. But these things would all be missing if the way to obtain divine mercy were simply going to ones room, shutting the door, and asking God for forgiveness in private. In order to make His mercy overflow with all these good things, Jesus chose to use a certain instrument for applying His mercy to us. Only one particular instrument brings with it all the good things spelled out above. And that instrument is the Sacrament of Penance. That is why Jesus wants us to meet Him in the confessional.
© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange
Br. James Brent, O.P. is a Dominican Friar living at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. He is a student brother in formation for the Priesthood and is a member of the Province of St. Joseph (Eastern Province). Please visit the Dominican Student Brothers website at www.dominicanstudents.org.