Latent spiritual authority shared by all: synodal reflection

Jesus designated the 12 apostles to his ministry with specific spiritual powers but ordinary disciples also partake in them

Don’t worry! If he gets mauled by the lion, I can hear his last confession

“Don’t worry! If he gets mauled by the lion, I can hear his last confession.” (Illustration: Tom Adcock)

Updated: March 20, 2023 03:15 AM

Jesus said to the Apostle John: “Do not stop the man who is casting out devils in my name!! For the one who is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9,49-50)

In 1991 I visited Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in the context of video production. We were filming a story that would become part of the "WALKING ON WATER" series of videos for adult faith formation.

I was staying in a monastery. There I met a religious sister whom I shall call ‘Amelia’. She ministered as a hospital chaplain and she talked to me about her work.

“At times I hear a patient’s confession and forgive their sins”, she told me.

“Great!”, I said. “But — what does your bishop think about it?”

“He agrees”, she said. “Well, it started like this. One day I was in the emergency ward of a large hospital when a young man was carried in. His motorbike had collided with a car. He had broken both legs and, apparently, he also suffered from internal bleeding in the stomach area. A nurse told me they did not expect him to last long ...”

“I approached his bed. When he saw me, he clenched my hand and whispered: ‘I need to go to confession’.”

“I was in shock. I realized that I would never be able to call a priest in time. What should I do? Then I remembered that in the past even ordinary Christians had heard the confession of other people … So I took a bold decision. ‘I can hear your confession’, I told him. He trusted me. I heard his confession and gave him absolution. Then I handed him Holy Communion which I always carry with me.”

“Marvellous!”, I said. “And what about your bishop?”

“Yes, that was my worry too. Had I done the right thing? So I explained to our local auxiliary bishop what I had done. He is an elderly man with a lot of experience. ‘Leave it to me’, he said. ‘I must consult some people’. When I met him again after a few days, he said: ‘You’ve done the right thing. Go ahead. Hear your patients’ confessions when there is an urgent need.’ And that is what I am doing.”

Spiritual power of the non-ordained?

The practice of the sacrament of penance has gone through a long and convoluted history. During the first few centuries after Christ, the forgiveness of sins was not restricted to bishops or priests. “Confess your sins one to another”, the Apostle James prescribed (Letter of James).

Tradition recounts that Christians locked up in prison during the Roman persecutions would hear each other’s confession. And even though by the early Middle Ages, absolution of sins was generally reserved to priests, knights wounded in battle during the crusades would confess their sins to comrades when no priest was present. The formula of absolution used was: “I absolve you from your sins with such power as God has given me”.

Outside, cultural factors muddled the picture. The problem is that, according to the Roman mindset, sins were not so much considered an offense against God, but an offense against law. This was reinforced by feudal thinking in the Middle Ages.

What did Jesus think about it? 

Did Jesus restrict authority to ordained ministers?

There is no doubt about the fact that Jesus designated the twelve apostles to a special ministry with specific spiritual powers. Right from Jesus’ death and resurrection, the early Church followed his example. They established ‘elders’ in each community, ‘presbyters’ = ‘priests’, and overseers, ‘episcopoi’ = ‘bishops’, to coordinate larger areas. These ministers exercised spiritual authority. But was that authority restricted to them alone? Had that been Jesus’ intention?

No, it had not. For instance, the first power Jesus gave to the Twelve was to drive out demons. “He gave them authority over unclean demons, to cast them out and heal every disease” (Matthew 10,1). But when the Apostle John complains to Jesus that an ordinary disciple is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, Jesus replies: “Do not stop him!! For the one who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9,49-50). In other words: the fact that the casting out of demons was a power specifically entrusted to the Twelve did not imply that other disciples did not inherently have that same power.

With regard to the forgiveness of sins, notice that when Jesus after the resurrection explicitly conferred that power, ordinary disciples were present too. After mentioning Mary Magdalene explicitly (John 20,18), the text says: “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!’.” (John 20,19) It is not stated that his following words: “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven” was only spoken to the twelve (John 20,21-23). Everyone was somehow included.  In the special passage that follows, Thomas is indicated as “also known as Didymus, one of the twelve, who had not been with the disciples when Jesus came” (John 20,24).

The same applies to presiding at the Eucharist. When Jesus at the Last Supper said “Do this in memory of me”, other disciples were present. For it was his paschal meal when close family and friends, also women, had to take part (Luke 22,15).  It is also implied in the fact that “Eat this!” – “Drink this!” has always been understood to be addressed to all the faithful. St Paul too links consecration and communion in the command ‘Do this in memory of me’. “The Lord Jesus broke the bread and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me’. In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me’.” (1 Corinthians 11,24-25)

This means: Jesus addressed “Do this in memory of me” to all disciples. In principle, all are empowered to preside at the eucharist. Yes, normally ‘elders’ or ‘overseers’ will preside, but if they are not present, any competent member of the community can, and should, fulfill that function.


  • Why do Church leaders not inform the faithful that, in special circumstances when no priest is present, any competent member of the community can preside at the Eucharist?
  • Why are chaplains in hospitals and prisons not routinely taught that, in special circumstances, they too can hear confessions and absolve people from their sins?

Published by arrangement with the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia