May 13, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

Forgiveness is possible by power of Holy Spirit

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

According to the Gospel of St. John, when the risen Lord appeared to his disciples who were hiding behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews,” he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them and those sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:19–23). On the Solemnity of Pentecost, during this Holy Year of Mercy, it’s important to understand the connection between the power of the Holy Spirit and the great gift of God’s forgiveness.

In 1711, Alexander Pope wrote, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” Mercy is an attribute of God. It is only exercised by us narrow-minded and vengeful human beings by the grace of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s why when Jesus appears to his cowardly disciples, he first gives them his peace. Then he breathes on them and offers them the great gift of his Spirit.

With this gift comes the power to exercise mercy and forgive sins. This is something no Christian should take for granted. Not only does our merciful God forgive us, he shares with us the divine power of forgiving the sins of others. If you think about it, this gift of the Holy Spirit is truly amazing. To err is human, and so is the tendency to seek vengeance and retribution for the sins committed against us. But to show mercy—no matter how grievous the wrongs done to us—is divine.

Without forgiveness, we are stuck in our sins. We are impossibly weighed down and unable to experience the peace and joy that are our true inheritance as daughters and sons of God. But when the Holy Spirit is breathed into our minds and hearts, we truly are free to live as Jesus did with love and compassion for all.

And when we extend that same loving forgiveness to others, we become instruments of the Holy Spirit and, as Pope Francis would say, missionaries of mercy to all God’s people.

“Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them and those sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:19-23).

But what about the “retaining” of sins? Jesus gives his disciples the power to do that as well. Under what circumstances is it appropriate to retain sins rather than forgive them?

This is a tough question. As Christians, we believe that very few sins (if any) are unforgivable, and that no sinner is so depraved that he or she cannot repent and receive God’s total forgiveness.

The Church does identify “sins against the Holy Spirit,” calling them unpardonable. Traditionally these include: 1) the presumption of God’s mercy; 2) despair; 3) impugning the known truth; 4) envy of another’s spiritual good; 5) obstinacy in sin; and 6) final impenitence.

However, none of these sins against the Holy Spirit are incapable of being forgiven by God. No sin is stronger than God’s infinite love and mercy. We call these sins unpardonable because they represent the kind of arrogance that refuses to acknowledge God’s mercy, or accept the fact that we have been saved by the ultimate act of divine forgiveness, Christ’s death on the cross. With great reluctance, the Church “retains” the sins of those who refuse to accept the Holy Spirit’s power of love and forgiveness, but she remains hopeful—even confident—that God’s mercy will ultimately prevail.

The solemn feast of Pentecost calls us to rejoice in the supreme gifts of love and mercy that we have each received by the power of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost also serves as a vivid reminder that we must not take these gifts for granted, but are invited, and challenged, to share them with others as missionary disciples called to preach the Good News of our salvation to all nations and peoples.

The magnificent sequence, Veni, Sancte Spiritus (“Come, Holy Spirit”), which is sung before the Gospel on Pentecost Sunday, implores the Holy Spirit to:

Come, Holy Spirit, Come!
And from your celestial home
Shed a ray of light divine!

Wash the stains of sin away;
Bend the stubborn heart and will;
Melt the frozen, warm the chill;
Guide the steps that go astray.

May the Holy Spirit of God come into our minds and hearts once again this Pentecost. May the gift of God’s love and mercy empower us to confess our own sins, seek God’s mercy and then forgive the sins of others. May we never be so obstinate that we refuse to acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s power to forgive sins. May we never hesitate to seek God’s forgiveness, or to ask for the grace to pardon those who have sinned against us. †

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