During Holy Week we commemorated the institution of the Blessed Sacrament and the Priesthood on the Thursday before our Lord died. In today’s Gospel, we read about the institution of the Sacrament of Penance. This actually took place on Easter Sunday night, while the Apostles were hiding from the crowd in the Upper Room of the Last Supper. Presumably, the Church defers this reading a full week so that it can be read on a Sunday, when all of Her people will be at Mass—the establishment of this Sacrament is too important to read about it when only a few people are present, as is often the case with weekday Masses.
Three nights after they were made priests, the Apostles were given the awesome power of forgiving sins—or of not forgiving them, according to their own best judgment. Implicit in this grant of power is the concept of the penitent's Confession of his sins. By our Lord’s words, the priests are to make a determination as to whether or not forgiveness is appropriate—something they can do only if they have been given some idea of the nature and the magnitude of the penitent's sins—something they can do only if they have been able to hear from the penitent that he is sorry for his sins and will attempt to correct his future behavior. In case of necessity, the priest is able to absolve without hearing individual Confessions—for example, to absolve the sins of one who is dying, or to absolve a large number of soldiers going into battle—but such a procedure is unusual, and the unconfessed sins ought to be confessed if a future opportunity presents itself (i.e. if the dying man recovers; if the soldiers return from battle).
I used the word “awesome” to refer to the power of forgiving sins; a word that is often misused in our modern way of speaking. But the ability to forgive sins is truly “awesome” in that it is so great that it actually transcends normal human abilities—it is a supernatural gift. The priests of the old law could not forgive sins—they might offer sacrifices on behalf of their people, requesting that God forgive their sins—but they had no ability to pronounce forgiveness on their own authority. In fact, one of the things that drew the ire of the Jews, was precisely that Jesus declared the forgiveness of sins on His own authority. For example, in both Saint Matthew’s and Saint Mark’s Gospel we read that when a paralyzed man was brought to our Lord, He said to the sick man: “Be of good heart, son, thy sins are forgiven thee.” And, immediately, the scribes murmured that “He has blasphemed”: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus demonstrated that He had the power of God to forgive sins by raising up the paralyzed man and sending him on his way, able to walk again. In any event, it was clear to the Jewish lawyers, that only God could forgive sins.
Jesus demonstrated that He had that power, and we know that He was God; the Son of God. But it was something quite unusual when He gave the same power to His priests. Unusual, perhaps, but not exactly unique—for in sharing His priesthood with them at the Last Supper, He made them co-offerers of His Holy Sacrifice. Acting in His stead, they would emulate the perfect Priest, offering the perfect Victim to God the Father— together with Him they would offer the Sacrifice that redeemed all of humanity; together with Him they would pour out the precious blood, the “blood of the new covenant, which is being shed for many unto the forgiveness of sins.” In both the offering of Mass, and in the granting of Sacramental Absolution, the priest acts “in persona Christi-in the person of Christ”—“This is MY body.... I absolve you....”—the priest does what Christ does, taking His place; not narrating a story; not simply asking Christ to do it.
The power to forgive sins—the power to forgive the sins of specific individuals and specific offenses—is an extension of this power to co-offer the “once and for all” Sacrifice of the Cross. One might think of it is a sort “narrowing the field of view,” as the priest decides which one of these “many” will be forgiven in the current moment. Apparently it was our Lord’s motive in separately giving this power to the Apostles, to distinguish between these two aspects of priestly forgiveness—it would be clear for all times that those sharing His priesthood brought about the forgiveness of many, as well as the forgiveness of individuals.
We see the same thing in the traditional rite of priestly ordination. A few moments after the matter and form of the sacrament are conferred by the bishop, he hands the new priests a chalice of wine and a paten with a host, saying: “Receive the power to offer sacrifice to God and to celebrate Mass for the living as well as for the dead in the name of the Lord.” Then, after the new priest has celebrated Mass with the bishop, there is a second laying on of hands, while the bishop says to the new priest: “Receive the Holy Ghost: whose sins thou shalt forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins thou shalt retain, they are retained.” Just as with the Apostles, in priestly ordination, these two aspects of forgiveness are distinguished because of their great importance.
In dying on the Cross, our Lord redeemed humanity. He made it possible for individual men and women to be raised up to the state of grace in Baptism; He made it possible for men and women to “eat His flesh and drink His blood, so that they might have eternal life in them.” But He knew that the descendants of Adam and Eve shared their weaknesses. When they fell from that state of grace (as they often would), He would allow His priests to do what only God can do, and forgive their sins.
Let me conclude by reminding you that this Sacrament of Confession is a tool of perfection. One does not have to be a hardened sinner to make use of its graces—indeed, its graces, and those of Holy Communion, are the God given means to avoid becoming a great sinner. The most terrible of sins can be forgiven for those who are repentant, but it is far more prudent to make a regular Confession of ones minor faults, simply so that one does not become a great sinner.
Do not be embarrassed in making your regular Confession. Don’t stay away because you don’t have a well polished vocabulary to describe the things you have done. Sin is rarely original or unique, and our Lord is willing (indeed, anxious) to forgive you through the ministrations of His priests.
“This is the victory that overcomes the world: our Faith.... Jesus is the Son of God.” And the Son of God awaits us, both in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, and in the Holy Sacrament of Penance. In both of these cases it is Jesus Christ who offers Himself to the Father for forgiveness—on one hand for the forgiveness of many—on the other hand, for the forgiveness of you and me.
 Gospel: John xx: 19-31.
 http://www.stmaryscathedral.ca/gallery/images/stained_glass/window_n/panel3.jpg Saint Mary’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Kingston, Ontario, Canada
 Matthew ix:2-5
 Mark ii: 5-11.
 Pontificale Romanum.
 Cf. Matthew xxviii: 16-20; John vi.
 Epistle: 1 John v: 4-10.