The Church speaks the deepest truth about sin. It refuses to explain it away or make excuses for it or call it by another name. This is one reason for the Church’s deep unpopularity throughout the ages.
Do you remember that terrible story from the fall of 2006 in which a mad man made his way into an Amish school house in Pennsylvania and killed, in cold blood, five little girls and then himself? It would be hard to imagine a more heinous crime.
Yet, in the immediate wake of that terrible event, the families of the slain children went to visit the family of the man who had killed their little girls—and they pronounced their forgiveness of him. Their wounds, psychological and emotional, must have been as evident as the physical wounds on their kids.
And yet, they pronounced forgiveness. Mind you, it was not so much their own peace that they were offering; it was Christ’s peace, the peace beyond all understanding. But they were vehicles of it, the means by which it rushed into the world.
Can I suggest a reading of Christ’s words to the disciples that might be a tad surprising? “If you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound” (John 20:23). This does indeed have a juridical sense; Christ is indeed commissioning his priests to be the instruments of sacramental forgiveness.
But I think that there is a broader sense here as well, a sense in which these words apply to all Christians, priests and laity alike. Jesus is giving his Church the enormous privilege and responsibility of bearing the divine forgiveness to a fallen world.
And see how the words of the Lord apply precisely: if you (my followers) forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven; and if you don’t, they are still held bound by them.
The Church’s great mission is the pronouncement of the forgiveness of sins, the letting-free of a sin-bound world.
Have you accepted that mission?