The enumeration of this among the other Articles of the Creed is alone sufficient to satisfy us that it conveys a truth, which is not only in itself a divine mystery, but also a mystery very necessary to salvation. We have already said that, without a firm belief of all the Articles of the Creed, Christian piety is wholly unattainable. However, should that which ought to be clear in itself seem to require the support of some authority, the declaration of our Lord will suffice. A short time previous to His Ascension into heaven, when opening the understanding of His disciples that they might understand the Scriptures, He bore testimony to this Article of the Creed, in these words: It behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise again from the dead the third day, and that penance and remission of sins should be preached, in his name, unto all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
Let the pastor but weigh well these words, and he will readily perceive that the Lord has placed him under a most sacred obligation, not only of making known to the faithful whatever regards religion in general, but also of explaining with particular care this Article of the Creed.
On this point of doctrine, then, it is the duty of the pastor to teach that, not only is forgiveness of sins to be found in the Catholic Church, as Isaias had foretold in these words: The people that dwell therein shall have their iniquity taken away from them; but also that in her resides the power of forgiving sins; and furthermore that we are bound to believe that this power, if exercised duly, and according to the laws prescribed by our Lord, is such as truly to pardon and remit sins.
When we first make a profession of faith and are cleansed in holy Baptism, we receive this pardon entire and unqualified; so that no sin, original or actual, of commission or omission, re mains to be expiated, no punishment to be endured. The grace of Baptism, however, does not give exemption from all the infirmities of nature. On the contrary, contending, as each of us has to contend, against the motions of concupiscence, which ever tempts us to the commission of sin, there is scarcely one to be found among us, who opposes so vigorous a resistance to its assaults, or who guards his salvation so vigilantly, as to escape all wounds.
It being necessary, therefore, that a power of forgiving sins, distinct from that of Baptism, should exist in the Church, to her were entrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven, by which each one, if penitent, may obtain the remission of his sins, even though he were a sinner to the last day of his life. This truth is vouched for by the most unquestionable authority of the Sacred Scriptures. In St. Matthew the Lord says to Peter: I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, shall be loosed also in heaven; and again: Whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose on earth, shall be loosed also in heaven.' Further, the testimony of St. John assures us that the Lord, breathing on the Apostles, said: Receive ye the Holy Ghost, whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained. '
Nor is the exercise of this power restricted to particular sins. No crime, however heinous, can be committed or even conceived which the Church has not power to forgive, just as there is no sinner, however abandoned, however depraved, who should not confidently hope for pardon, provided he sincerely repent of his past transgressions.
Furthermore, the exercise of this power is not restricted to particular times. Whenever the sinner turns from his evil ways he is not to be rejected, as we learn from the reply of our Saviour to the Prince of the Apostles. When St. Peter asked how often we should pardon an offending brother, whether seven times, Not only seven times, said the Redeemer, but till seventy times seven.
But if we look to its ministers, or to the manner in which it is to be exercised, the extent of this divine power will not appear so great; for our Lord gave not the power of so sacred a ministry to all, but to Bishops and priests only. The same must be said regarding the manner in which this power is to be exercised; for sins can be forgiven only through the Sacraments, when duly administered. The Church has received no power otherwise to remit sin. Hence it follows that in the forgiveness of sins both priests and Sacraments are, so to speak, the instruments which Christ our Lord, the author and giver of salvation, makes use of, to accomplish in us the pardon of sin and the grace of justification.
To raise the admiration of the faithful for this heavenly gift, bestowed on the Church by God's singular mercy towards us, and to make them approach its use with the more lively sentiments of devotion the pastor should endeavour to point out the dignity and the extent of the grace which it imparts. If there be any one means better calculated than another to accomplish this end, it is carefully to show how great must be the efficacy of that which absolves from sin and restores the unjust to a state of justification.
This is manifestly an effect of the infinite power of God, of that same power which we believe to have been necessary to raise the dead to life and to summon creation into existence. But if it be true, as the authority of St. Augustine assures us it is, that to recall a sinner from the state of sin to that of righteousness is even a greater work than to create the heavens and the earth from nothing, though their creation can be no other than the effect of infinite power, it follows that we have still stronger reason to consider the remission of sins as an effect proceeding from the exercise of this same infinite power.
With great truth, therefore, have the ancient Fathers declared that God alone can forgive sins, and that to His infinite goodness and power alone is so wonderful a work to be referred. I am he, says the Lord Himself, by the mouth of His Prophet, I am he who blotteth out your iniquities.
The remission of sins seems to bear an exact analogy to the cancelling of a pecuniary debt. None but the creditor can forgive a pecuniary debt. Hence, since by sin we contract a debt to God alone wherefore we daily pray: forgive us our debts sin, it is clear, can be forgiven by Him alone, and by none else.
This wonderful and divine power was never communicated to creatures, until God became man. Christ our Saviour, although true God, was the first one who, as man, received this high prerogative from His heavenly Father. That you may know that the son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins (then said he to the man sick of the palsy), rise. take up thy bed, and go into thy house. As, therefore, He became man, in order to bestow on man this forgiveness of sins, He communicated this power to Bishops and priests in the Church, previous to His Ascension into heaven, where He sits forever at the right hand of God. Christ, however, as we have already said, remits sin by virtue of His own authority; all others, by virtue of His authority delegated to them as His ministers.
If, therefore, whatever is the effect of infinite power claims our highest admiration and reverence, we must readily perceive that this gift, bestowed on the Church by the bounteous hand of Christ our Lord, is one of inestimable value.
The manner too, in which God, in the fullness of His paternal clemency resolved to cancel the sins of the world must powerfully move the faithful to contemplate the greatness of this blessing. It was His will that our offences should be expiated by the blood of His Onlybegotten Son; that His Son should voluntarily assume the imputability of our sins, and suffer a most cruel death, the just for the unjust, the innocent for the guilty.
When, therefore, we reflect that we were not redeemed with corruptible things, as gold or silver, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb unspotted and undefiled, we are naturally led to conclude that we could have received no gift more salutary than this power of forgiving sins, which proclaims the ineffable Providence of God and the excess of His love towards us. This reflection must produce in all the most abundant spiritual fruit.
For whoever offends God, even by one mortal sin, instantly forfeits whatever merits he may have previously acquired through the sufferings and death of Christ, and is entirely shut out from the gate of heaven which, when already closed, was thrown open to all by the Redeemer's Passion. When we reflect on this, the thought of our misery must fill us with deep anxiety. But if we turn our attention to this admirable power with which God has invested His Church; and, in the firm belief of this Article, feel convinced that to every sinner is offered the means of recovering, with the assistance of divine grace, his former dignity, we must exult with exceeding joy and gladness, and must offer immortal thanks to God.
If, when we are seriously ill, the medicines prepared for us by the art and industry of the physician are wont to be welcome and agreeable to us, how much more welcome and agreeable should those remedies prove which the wisdom of God has established to heal our souls and restore us to the life of grace, especially since they bring with them, not, indeed, uncertain hope of recovery, like the medicines that are applied to the body, but assured health to such as desire to be cured !
The faithful, therefore, having formed a just conception of the dignity of so excellent and exalted a blessing, should be exhorted to profit by it to the best of their ability. For he who makes no use of what is really useful and necessary must be supposed to despise it; particularly since, in communicating to the Church the power of forgiving sin, the Lord did so with the view that all should have recourse to this healing remedy. As without Baptism no one can be cleansed, so in order to recover the grace of Baptism, forfeited by actual mortal guilt, recourse must be had to another means of expiation, namely, the Sacrament of Penance.
But here the faithful are to be admonished to guard against the danger of becoming more prone to sin, or slow to repentance, from a presumption that they can have recourse to this power of forgiving sins which is so complete and, as we saw, unrestricted as to time. For, as such a propensity to sin would manifestly convict them of acting injuriously and contumaciously to this divine power, and would therefore render them unworthy of the divine mercy; so this slowness to repentance gives great reason to fear that, overtaken by death, they may in vain confess their belief in the remission of sins, which by their tardiness and procrastination they deservedly forfeited.