Dear Father Angelo,
I have recently been reading the Bible and some doubts came to my mind that I would like to share with you. (…).
According to the Catholic Church, we receive the Holy Spirit with Confirmation, is this correct? Hence, don’t we receive that when we are born in the Spirit, that is when we believe in Jesus? However, in one way or in another we all receive the Spirit. Thus, we also receive the gifts that the Spirit brings, as it is explained in the Gospel.
John 20:22-23 says: “And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, «Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld».”
The Catholic Church interprets these verses as the institution of Confession.
After this long introduction, this is my question: if we all receive the Holy Spirit, why is the authority of forgiving sins given (by the Holy Spirit) only to the priests and not to all the Catholics? Are there a “first class” Holy Spirit for the priests and a “second class” Holy Spirit for the others? I’m sorry for the inadequate metaphor, but I think it makes the question clear.
Looking forward with Faith to your answer,
Thanks for your kind attention.
1. It is because of Christ’s will and not of the Catholic Church that the power to forgive sins is given only to some. We might wonder why God wanted this and why He did not give this power to everyone.
2. In the Holy Bible it is clearly stated that sins can be forgiven only by God. We learn this mainly by what St. Luke writes: “When Jesus saw their faith, He said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5: 20-21).
After all, if sins are an offense to God, only God can forgive them.
3. But Jesus, with a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit, gave this divine power of forgiving sins to the Apostles and only to them. He did this in the evening of the day of his Resurrection: “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, «Peace be with you!». After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, «Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you». And with that he breathed on them and said, «Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.»”
St. John Chrysostom points out that here “the Holy Spirit was then given to the disciples, not universally for all tasks, but for a specific purpose, forgiving sins”. (In Joannem, Hom. 87,3.28).
St. Ambrosius comments: “This office of tying up and untying is given only to priests” (De poenitentia. 1,2).
Thus, this outpouring of the Holy Spirit is different from the one give to the whole Church in Pentecost day.
4. We might wonder why God gave this only to priests and not to everyone. Here is St. Thomas’ thought: “With the power of the keys, one is set as an intermediary between the people and God. But this power is given only to the priest, who, as you read in the Bible: “is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” (Hebrews 5:1). Hence, only ministers have the power of the keys” (Supplement to the Somma Teologica, 19:3, sed contra 2).
The power of the keys is the power to bind and to loose, to forgive or not to forgive sins.
5. However, this does not exclude the possibility that some faithful people may have a greater outpouring of the Holy Spirit than some ministers. So many Saints in the past have been more saintly than the normal priests who were confessing them. And so many are still, even today!
These Saints had a higher Fullness of Holy Spirit, but not the power to forgive sins.
The Virgin Mary herself had the greatest fullness of Holy Spirit that could be given to a human being, but she did not receive from Christ the power to forgive sins.
6. Having this power (that is a service) does not make anyone a “first class” Christian. Think about the fact that also priests confess. And in general they confess their sins more often than others because the Church asks them a frequent confession (cf. Concilium Vaticanum II, Presbyterorum ordinis 18) that has to be done at least twice per month.
In that moment they don’t become “second class” Christians.
I thank you for your question, I include you in my prayers to the Lord and I bless you.
Translated by Jolanda Beraldi
Revised by Tom Dore