"Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven them; whose sins you retain, they are retained."1
The event in today's Gospel took place on Easter Sunday Evening. The Apostles were gathered in the room of the Last Supper, hiding out from the authorities, the doors were locked, and all of a sudden Jesus was standing in their midst. "Receive the Holy Ghost," He said to them, and gave to them a share in the divine power to forgive sins. «Those whom you forgive are forgiven, those whom you refuse to forgive are not.» More than any other aspect of modern Catholicism, perhaps this is the most ignored: the reality of sin, and its forgiveness through the Sacrament of Confession.
Modern Catholics have all sorts of excuses. On one hand, many claim that their sins are not significant enough to warrant the trouble of a regular confession; forgiveness is unnecessary. On the other hand, some claim that modern life is so filled with temptations that God cannot possibly expect them to keep the Commandments; forgiveness is sort of implied. Both are wrong.
If we are trying to live the spiritual life, we should be continually striving for improvement. That means that every evening we should be making an examination of our conscience, and every few weeks to a month, we should be making a confession of the sins that we discover in that examination -- even if the sins are relatively minor.
And certainly, if we have some major habit of sinful behavior, we need to be taking steps to correct it. No temptation is so great that it cannot be overcome by cooperating with God's graces. And the graces to surmount temptation come particularly in the Sacrament of Confession.
We have the obligation to confess all of our serious sins, but venial sins and even sins previously confessed are adequate matter for Confession and for the reception of the Sacrament. We don't have to wait until we have done something seriously wrong. Indeed, the object is to remain in God's graces with such a degree of enthusiasm about the spiritual life that we never do something seriously wrong.
Frequent Confession and reception of Holy Communion are an essential part of what St. John is talking about in today's Epistle.2 Even though we must live "in the world," as Christians we are expected not to be "of the world"; not to have a worldly and materialistic outlook. John speaks of "the victory that overcomes the world, our faith."3
In the narrow sense, faith is simply believing what God has chosen to reveal to us: "He who believes in the Son of God has the testimony of God in Himself."4 Our Lord tells us elsewhere that "he who believes and is baptized will be saved, but he who does not believe shall be condemned."5 God gives us the grace to believe, and we are expected to respond. But this "faith that overcomes the world" is more than mere belief; more than just a passive response to God's graces. To overcome the world, our faith must be what is often called a "practical faith."
By a "practical faith," I mean one that we try to nourish and develop, and one that guides the actions of our lives. We nourish and develop our faith by cooperating with God's grace, and by receiving additional graces regularly in the Sacraments, the Mass, and our prayers. We do so also by learning the truths of our faith. God might excuse some ignorance on the part of those who have had no opportunity to know Him, but there is surely no excuse for those who profess the Catholic Faith. Ignorance is not bliss; we will be held accountable for what we should have known and could have known.
A "practical faith" is also one that overcomes the world by responding to the world in a Christian fashion. That is why things like examinations of conscience, frequent Confession, and frequent Communion are important. They keep us on the right course, and give us the strength to continue on that course. Without them we find ourselves subtly pulled off course; attracted by the various seductions of our age.
Faith is not always easy, and what I have been calling a "practical faith" is even more difficult. But the reward of faith is eternal life. Most of us go through life without the tangible experience of our Lord that the Apostles had; we don't get to put our fingers and our hands into the wounds of His crucifixion as did the doubting Saint Thomas in today's Gospel. But we do have the things that were written in sacred scripture, we do have the teachings of the Church, we do have the Mass, and prayer, and the Sacraments. We have all these things "that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing we may have life in His name."6
"This is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith."