Today Catholic Christians celebrate the Second Sunday of Easter. Since the year 2000, this Sunday has also been known as Divine Mercy Sunday.
In the Gospel reading we have today, we hear how Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection. Jesus told them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20: 22-23).
From the earliest days of Christianity, Catholic Christians have celebrated these words of Jesus as the institution of the sacrament of Reconciliation. Through the centuries, priests and bishops have received this apostolic gift by virtue of their priestly ordination. In other words, God uses ordained priests and bishops as instruments through which he forgives our sins.
Unfortunately, many people don’t grasp the wild love and power of this sacrament. Sometimes they fear it or don’t understand it. That is what happened to the woman in the following story.
There was once a woman named Susan who grew up Protestant – Southern Baptist to be exact. As the years went by, however, she began to think more and more about being a Catholic Christian. One day, therefore, she went to visit a small Catholic parish near where she lived and talked with the pastor.
The journey into the Catholic Church was not easy for Susan, for her family was quite against her converting from Baptist to Catholic. None of her relatives were Catholic, and her relatives did not Catholic friends.
Finally, after three years of exploring the Catholic faith, Susan entered the RCIA ministry at St. Matthew Church in Jacksonville, Florida. She loved the priest who conducted the RCIA, and she loved what she was learning. RCIA stands for “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.” Though it is designed for catechumens (unbaptized persons), baptized persons like Susan often receive basic education in the faith in these ministries.
In the spring of 1990, Susan’s RCIA prepared for their first Reconciliation. She was incredibly nervous about the whole experience. As she was standing in line waiting to enter the confessional, she felt twenty-three years worth of sins burning in her brain. She was convinced that she was one of the worst sinners of all time, and that after hearing of all her sins, the priest would probably give her a stiff penance – such as doing the Stations of the Cross seventeen times!
When Susan entered the confessional, through, the priest greeted her warmly. She was shocked and delighted that it was the priest who she had met three years earlier at the little parish church she had visited.
After making her first Reconciliation, stepped out of the confessional crying from relief. She felt as though the weight of the world had been lifted from her shoulders. She felt so clean and light. Susan’s RCIA sponsor was waiting for her.
Susan, who thought of how her family had tried to discourage her from becoming a Catholic Christian, burst out, “After this, I can’t understand why everybody doesn’t want to be Catholic!”
Years have passed since Susan experienced her first Reconciliation, and she still can’t help but say, “What a beautiful gift God has given us in confession!”
Millions of people through the ages have experienced the same emotions as Susan did at her first Reconciliation.
From Susan’s story, and that of the Scripture passage of today, we can glean many things. Here are just three.
First, the sacrament of Reconciliation is a pure gift from Jesus to us. This gift, given to the first leaders of the Church, has been passed down through the centuries to ordained bishops and priests of the Church.
Now all of us have received gifts from time to time that we did not really appreciate, for we had no need of them. But the gift of Reconciliation is not only a thoughtful gift, it is one that we can always use. Jesus knew human nature very well, for his Father created it. Jesus knew that we would stumble into sin from time to time, and he wanted us to know that God loves us and forgives us. He reminds of this fact every time we celebrate this sacrament.
Second, whenever we receive a gift, we are expected to say “thank you.” Now Jesus could have left us on our own, always wondering if God actually forgave our sins. He did not want us to live in doubt, however. He wanted to give us assurance that indeed, his love and forgiveness is infinite. Therefore he gave us this wonderful sacrament. And for this we should always give thanks.
And third, the sacrament of Reconciliation, like all sacraments, is supposed to be joyful. Now many people through the ages have had the misfortune of encountered a priest or bishop who has been very non-pastoral. When that happened, the sacrament was painful, not joyful. I apologize for all of those priests and bishops. Remember that priests and bishops are merely God’s instruments; they are not the sacrament. And like all human instruments through which God works, they can be flawed.
As we continue our life journey this week, it would be good to reflect on our own views of Reconciliation. Do we celebrate it often? Do we give thanks to God for it?
And that is the good news I have for you on this Second Sunday of Easter, 2017.
Story source: Susan M. Barber, “What a Beautiful Gift,” in Sr. Patricia Proctor, OSC (Ed.), 101
Inspirational Stories of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Spokane, WA: Franciscan Monastery of Saint Clare/A Called by Joy Book, pp. 26-27.