Importance Of This Article
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.
The Church Has the Power of Forgiving Sins
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.
Extent of this Power:
All Sins That Precede Baptism
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.
All Sins Committed After Baptism
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. '
Limitation of this Power:
It Is Not Limited As To Sins, Persons, Or Time
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
It Is Limited As To Its Ministers And Exercise
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.
Greatness of this Power
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.
Sin Can Be Forgiven Only By The Power Of God
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
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 Power Communicated To None Before Christ
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.
Sin Remitted Through The Blood Of Christ
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.
The Great Evil From Which Forgiveness Delivers Man
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 !
This Remedy To Be Used
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.
Abuse To Be Guarded Against
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.