“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” John 20:23
Jesus gave the Apostles the authority to forgive sins? Yes.
This authority was understood as coming from God Himself as evident from Paul:
"All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). Although, I do understand the way this belief seems to Non-Catholics. This claim seems kind of preposterous. I used to be Protestant, so I understand that viewpoint more than you know. I left the Church for a while, and during that time I came to believe I needed no mediator for forgiveness. To an extent that is true, but the Catholic teaching is not entirely understood, and to that I want to address this post. It is in misunderstandings that we can stray off the path and it can become a willful blindness if it is not corrected, and thus damaging.
Before we dive into John 20:23 I want to go back just one chapter to John 19:10-11 and just drop this passage here for reflection and I’ll point back to it later:
Pilate therefore said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above"
Now with that in mind, turn to Matthew 28:18 (emphasis added):
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
And in Matthew 9:6, Mark 2:10, and Luke 5:24 Christ is recorded saying:
“But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins […]”
The Second Person of the Trinity has been given ALL authority, and the one with ultimate authority is the one who can bestow that authority onto others if they so choose (John 19:11). So now let us return to John 20 but from a wider perspective. Let’s look at John 20:19-23:
“Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” 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; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
The Risen Lord appears to those gathered and He entrusts to them His authority to forgive sins; authority which He and He alone on earth has the power to grant. As with all things, the Apostles can only do that which Christ has committed them ability to do. Such as the “power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases (Luke 9:1) the power to bind and to loose (Matt 18:18) and the ability to baptize in the Trinitarian Form (28:19).
If the buck stops with Christ, then is He not able and allowed to bestow and delegate that authority as He sees fit? An objection could be that the Apostles are merely preaching the forgiveness of Calvary. Yes. Forgiveness in the confessional flows from the Passion of Christ, but on top of that, look to Christ’s ministry; He traveled and forgave sins all the way leading up to his Passion. Chronologically the Passion hadn’t occurred, yet Christ still forgave sins.
Therefore forgiveness of sins can happen outside of the physical Passion, but it all stems from the Passion. It is this ministry that the Apostles carry on after the Ascension, bestowing the forgiveness from Calvary onto those they preach to and are received by.
I suppose one could say “Well, fine, Christ gave the Apostles this authority for that time, but this doesn’t apply to the local parish priest.”
Ok. Let’s run with that. To say that the authority which was granted to the Apostles was a one-time thing makes no sense in light of Acts of the Apostles. If the Apostles have no ability to pass on their “power” and “authority” then the selection of Matthias as the replacement for Judas makes absolutely no sense. If the abilities stop with the Apostles that received these powers from Christ Himself, then Matthias isn't really an Apostle, and the Eleven have no right to replace Judas. Following this, nor does Acts 6:6 make sense when the Apostles laid hands so to bestow the Holy Spirit onto 7 disciples so that they could be commissioned in like manner that Christ commissioned the Apostles. And we know that the Apostle’s laying on of hands bestows the Holy Spirit because Scripture tells us so in Acts 8:17-19:
Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon of Samaria saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power, that any one on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
“But the selection of Matthias was determined by the Holy Spirit”
Now you’re getting it. You’re exactly right. The Holy Spirit is active in the Church and it guides it into all truth (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit acts through the ministers of the Church. So coupling the authority bestowed on the Apostles, their ability to pass on their authority and "powers" by laying on of hands, and the active guidance of the Holy Spirit, this is how the Church can be apostolic and holy and the abilities of the Apostles are present in every parish priest so that the Church can carry on the ministry of Christ.
The Lord says “as the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21), and He commissions the Apostles declaring “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19); and “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age (28:20). From this we clearly see that the Apostles are most definitely called to carry on Jesus Christ’s ministry by and in His Name. During His earthy life, Jesus preached, performed miracles, and forgave sins. The Apostles were to do the same, but they too were not going to have eternal earthly lives, therefore their ministry had to be passed on to successors since people would continue to be born, to live, and to sin, and would be in need of the Church and its ministers with their authority and powers granted by God.
I remember when I was outside of the Church, and when I would sin I would feel this guilt which felt inescapable because it felt as if it was all on me to reconcile. I felt isolated from God not knowing how to reconcile with Him over the big and the little sins in my life. I knew and professed Christ's sacrifice and resurrection, yet I still struggled. Even in prayer I couldn’t tell if I was contrite enough before God that it warranted His forgiveness and grace to be bestowed on me. In this sense, the confessional is a gift for us. We get to actually hear the words of absolution and receive a blessing, and be told that our sins are forgiven, partaking in the fruits of the ministry of Christ and the Apostles, and hear that we may go in peace. If Christ gave the Apostles (and in turn their successors by intercession of the Holy Spirit) these abilities, why not take them up on it?
All that to say, your local Catholic parish priest’s succession can be traced all the way back to the Apostles, and by the unbroken line of the laying on of hands, the abilities of the Apostles are present for you by the Holy Spirit within and through your priest acting In Persona Christi carrying on the ministry of our Lord. The forgiveness of sins in the confessional flows from Christ’s sacrifice, love, and mercy, and through the authority He bestowed. But in the end, it all flows from Christ. The priest does not act on his own power, only that which was given from above (John 19:11). I pray you find peace in the confessional.