The Altar and the Confessional: A Pastoral Letter on the Sacrament of Penance
17 March 2011 Patronal Feast of Saint Patrick
My dear friends in Christ:
On this Feast of Saint Patrick, I wish the entire Archdiocese of New York an abundance of God’s blessings. May our great patron saint intercede for us, obtaining from the Almighty Father all the graces that we need as disciples of His Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ!
Is there one particular grace which we can ask Saint Patrick to obtain for us? Might I suggest this year a return to the Sacrament of Penance? My fervent prayer for the Catholics of the Archdiocese of New York is that they will hear in the next weeks the beautiful, profound words of absolution pronounced in the confessional:
God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to Himself, and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you of yours sins, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
How easily those words come to the lips of every priest; how ingrained they are in his mind; how deeply do they reside in his heart! The consoling, simple words of absolution are powerful beyond imagining!
To pronounce the sacramental absolution by which our sins are forgiven is one of primary reasons the Church and the priesthood exist. The Church is an instrument of mercy and reconciliation, for Christ Jesus, the Head of the Church, came to reconcile us to the Father. We call this sacrament “penance,” “confession,” or “reconciliation”. Call it what you will, the sacrament is essential for the life of the Catholic disciple. Every Catholic should be eager to hear those words; every priest should be eager to say them.
We have to be frank, though. Those words are not heard as often as they should be in the Church in New York. We can’t imagine Catholic life without the words of consecration – This is my body! This is my blood! Likewise Catholic life cannot be lived properly without the Sacrament of Penance. We need the forgiveness of our sins. We need the grace of this sacrament to grow in virtue.
Last year was my first Saint Patrick’s Day as Archbishop of New York, and I took advantage of our patronal feast to address a letter to the Archdiocese on the importance of Sunday Mass, Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy. I am grateful for the favourable reaction to my letter, with many priests and parishioners kindly telling me that it helped them think again about the gift of the Lord’s Day. That Sunday rest and Mass rightly orient all of our time toward our final goal as Christian pilgrims, the definitive Sabbath rest with the Lord Jesus in the company of all the saints in heaven.
This year I wish to address another fundamental part of our Catholic life which has been neglected by too many – both priests and parishioners – for too long. Given the coincidence of Saint Patrick’s Day with the season of Lent, I hope that my encouragement might bear fruit this Lent. Please God, this letter might encourage Catholics to keep the tradition of making a good confession before Easter.
Among priests one hears a joke in which a pastor tells his parishioners that he is terribly afraid of dying in the confessional. “Why?” they ask him. “Because no one would find me for days!” he replies. Another priest told me that, after six months in his new parish, he announced to the people that he was asking the bishop for a transfer. “You don’t need me. I’ve sat in the confessional for half-a-year, and nobody has come. You must all be saints. I want to serve sinners.” We can laugh, but I am afraid there is too much truth here. So in this Lent, on this Saint Patrick’s Day, I exhort the entire Archdiocese of New York: Experience the joy of forgiveness! Experience liberation from sin! Keep those confessionals busy! Keep your priests busy about the great work of dispensing the Lord’s mercy! Keep the Sacrament of Penance at the heart of Catholic life!
The Altar and the Confessional
Catholics the world over were both outraged and heartbroken by the massacre at the Syriac Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad last October. Terrorists, claiming to be part of a group called the “Islamic State of Iraq”, stormed the church during a Sunday evening Mass, and began to kill those present. Some 58 were murdered, and more than 70 injured. It reminded us that there are those so filled with hatred for Christ and His Church that they will kill Christians.
When the terrorists entered the church, Father Saad Abdal Tha’ir was offering Mass. Another priest, Father Waseem Tabeeh, came out of the confessional, and attempted to persuade the terrorists to let the people go, offering his life and that of Father Tha’ir in exchange. How courageous were these two young priests, Father Tha’ir only 32, and Father Tabeeh, 27! The killers rejected the plea for mercy, and both priests were then martyred. The last words of Father Tha’ir, who died before his own mother’s eyes, were, “Jesus, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
How can we not see here an image of the Lord’s own passion, His own words from the cross? The new martyrs of Baghdad have something to teach us about the Lord’s passion and the work of the Church. Is it not deeply moving to note that these two young priests were at the altar and the confessional at the moment of their supreme witness? The altar and the confessional are the two most important places in a priest’s life. Those two young priests died doing what every priest should live for – to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at the altar, and to forgive sins in the name of Jesus in the confessional.
According to one account of the massacre in Baghdad, a voice cried out in the midst of the horror, “We die? Okay, we die. But the Cross lives!” That speaker was immediately killed.
Yes, between the altar and the confessional, amidst the blood of the martyrs, the Cross lives!
Holy Thursday, Easter, and the Priesthood
During Lent, of course, we prepare our hearts for Easter. Let’s fast-forward to the Gospel account of that first Easter evening in Jerusalem:
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.”(John 20:21-23)
Here we have the institution of the Sacrament of Penance, the clear biblical witness that the Lord Jesus gives to His priests the authority to forgive sins. In Saint John’s Gospel, it is also at this moment that we see most clearly the institution of the priesthood. The gifted English convert, biblical scholar and preacher, Monsignor Ronald Knox, emphasized this point and links it back to the creative work of Genesis:
“How did our Lord institute the priesthood? When he had said this he breathed on them …. With one breath, God created the whole human family; with one breath, our Lord instituted the whole Christian priesthood. As man is a beast among beasts, so the priest is a man among men; he shares their passions, their weaknesses, their disabilities. And yet, when God breathes into the face of a priest, a new thing, in a sense, comes into being, just as when God breathed into the face of that clay image he had fashioned. It was a kind of second creation, when our Lord spoke those words in the Cenacle. It brought into the world a new set of powers, infinitely exceeding all that man had ever experienced, all that man could ever expect. It was a fresh dawn of life – supernatural life.”
Monsignor Knox is bold to liken the events of Easter Sunday evening to a new creation, an outpouring of the Spirit equivalent to the very act of creation itself. Bold and true, for this is the grandeur of the priesthood in regard to the forgiveness of sins. Just as only God can create the universe out of nothing, only God can forgive sins. Only He has the power. Only He has the authority. And He gives it to His Church through the institution of the priesthood!
My brother priests, we should never lose our amazement and our gratitude at this gift. The Spirit called down upon us at our ordination is the same Spirit who hovered over the waters at the dawn of creation. We need that same Holy Spirit, for the work of forgiving sins is a work as astonishing as the creation of the world – a work we can only do because the Lord Jesus explicitly entrusted it to us. Just as we rightly look to the Last Supper and the Eucharist as the origin of our priesthood, we too should look to Easter Sunday and the Sacrament of Penance as constitutive of our identity. Just as it would be impossible to imagine our priesthood without the Eucharist, it is impossible to imagine our priesthood without the ministry of reconciliation in the confessional. Our priesthood exists for the Eucharist. Our priesthood exists for the forgiveness of sins.
When I was in Rome as a seminary rector, my barber use to tease me that neither he nor I would ever go out of business. Why? “There will always be hair,” he replied. “And there will always be sin.” Even he knew that the priesthood existed for the forgiveness of sins!
My fellow Catholics, reading the four Gospel accounts together, we can see that the Sacrament of Penance is not some kind of later invention, some afterthought, something leftover, something ancillary. Rather it belongs to the very heart of Christ’s saving and redeeming work. On the day that His passion begins, the Lord Jesus gave us the Eucharist and the priesthood. On the day of the resurrection, the Lord Jesus gave us the Sacrament of Penance and, as it were, completed the institution of the priesthood. All three sacraments are born from the heart of the Church in the Cenacle; all three are inserted into the heart of the redemptive and salvific work of Christ Jesus; all are three lie at the heart of the Catholic life in every age.
Indeed, the Cross lives between the altar and the confessional!
Realizing the Seriousness of Sin
If the Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of Penance are at the very heart of the Christian life, why is the latter neglected? It is a lamentable characteristic of the Church’s life in our time. Almost thirty years ago, soon to be Blessed Pope John Paul II convoked a Synod of Bishops addressed to the very topic of Reconciliation and Penance in the Mission of the Church. The penetrating analysis of the Holy Father’s subsequent apostolic exhortation retains its force today. He wrote in 1984 that, in an age when God is pushed to the margins, the awareness of our need for forgiveness will diminish, for “the loss of the sense of sin is thus a form or consequence of the denial of God: not only in the form of atheism but also in the form of secularism.”
We do not only observe a diminishing sense of sin in the secular culture around us. We find it in the Church herself. Perhaps it is an over-reaction to an earlier period, as the late Holy Father suggests:
“Some are inclined to replace exaggerated attitudes of the past with other exaggerations: From seeing sin everywhere they pass to not recognizing it anywhere; from too much emphasis on the fear of eternal punishment they pass to preaching a love of God that excludes any punishment deserved by sin; from severity in trying to correct erroneous consciences they pass to a kind of respect for conscience which excludes the duty of telling the truth.”
Fair enough. Not everything was perfect decades ago when most Catholics routinely went to confession – perhaps too routinely. But whatever problems existed in the 1950s are now a half-century in the past, and subsequent generations have grown up without any knowledge of whatever excesses may have existed. They have indeed grown up without what belongs to them as part of the patrimony as Catholics – the liberating, joyful experience of God’s mercy in the sacrament of penance.
We receive the gift of mercy to the extent that we realize our need for it. We desire forgiveness only if we acknowledge the seriousness of sin. The recently-beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman expressed the magnitude of sin with his characteristic literary force:
“The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.”
Do we think today that Blessed John Henry Newman is right? How many of us would argue that opposite – that a little sin here and there is no big deal? How many, both inside and outside of the Church, argue that a little sin here and there is worth this technological advance, or that public policy goal, or is an acceptable means to some desired end? As someone jokingly observed to me, “It’s the Lamb of God, not our culture, that’s supposed to take away the sins of the world!”
We just heard this past Sunday, the First Sunday of Lent, the account of the temptations of the Lord Jesus. Satan offers to Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if He would just bow down in worship. A little “devil worship” and Jesus would have the whole world! Wouldn’t that be more efficient than God’s own plan – the passion, death, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost, and two thousand years of evangelization? But no sin is worth even all the kingdoms of the world.
Blessed Cardinal Newman is only one in a tradition of saints who have spoken with great ferocity about the horror we should have for sin – including our own beloved Saint Patrick, who emphasized the essential role of penance in his conversion of Ireland.
We can speak so boldly about the horror of sin because the good news is that the Lord Jesus did not just die for sin in general, but for my sins, and yours. So our horror at sin should be accompanied by a serene confidence that forgiveness is ours should we ask for it with true contrition. Together with Saint Paul we can give thanks that where sin increases, grace abounds all the more (cf. Romans 5:20)! We’re not “hung-up” on guilt and sin; no, we’re obsessed with God’s mercy.
The World Speaks to Us of Our Sins
“In the midst of scandals, we have experienced what it means to be very stunned by how wretched the Church is, by how much her members fail to follow Christ. That is the one side, which we are forced to experience for our humiliation, for our real humility. The other side is that, in spite of everything, he does not release his grip on the Church. In spite of the weakness of the people in whom he shows himself, he keeps the Church in his grasp, he raises up saints in her, and makes himself present through them. I believe that these two feelings belong together: the deep shock over the wretchedness, the sinfulness of the Church – and the deep shock over the fact that he doesn’t drop this instrument, but that he works through it; that he never ceases to show himself through and in the Church.”
Perhaps the trauma of the sexual abuse scandals has taught us again, in a most painful way, of the reality of sin. Pope Benedict XVI makes that point above in his recent interview book, Light of the World. Yet if we only see the wretchedness in the Church, the wretchedness in the world, the wretchedness in my own life, then we are condemned to discouragement, even to despair. We need to be shocked by our sins, as the Holy Father says, and also be shocked that Jesus keeps us in His hand. The Sacrament of Penance accomplishes this in a supreme way. We prepare for confession by examining our consciences – looking hard, as it were, at the wretchedness in our heart. Then we receive absolution of those sins, and through the ministry of the Church are invited once again to be shocked at the mercy of God!
At the height of the sexual abuse controversies last year, the Holy Father reminded us that repentance itself is a grace. It is not a burden to repent of our sins, but a blessing:
“Repentance is grace; it is a grace that we recognize our sin; it is a grace that we realize the need for renewal, for change, for the transformation of our being. Repentance, the capacity to be penitent, is a gift of grace. And I must say that we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word penitence – it seemed to us too difficult. Now, under the attacks of the world that speak of our sins, we see that the capacity to repent is a grace. And we see that it is necessary to do penance, that is, to recognize what is wrong in our lives, open ourselves to forgiveness, prepare ourselves for pardon by allowing ourselves to be transformed.”
Is that not exactly the case? That we have shied away from words like penance, repentance, contrition – even the basic reality of sin? We have failed to speak about them, and the now, as we have experienced so painfully, to our shame and embarrassment, we face the “attacks of the world that speak of our sins”. The attacks are real, and so too are our sins! The Christian should not wait for others to speak of his sin; we should confess it simply, repent sincerely, and be forgiven quickly!
A Confessional Culture
Funny enough, while ridiculing the Church for being “hung up” on sin and guilt, the world delights in speaking of sin, does it not? Not just the sins of priests and bishops, but of anyone who is prominent. Our culture has an almost perverse delight in detailing the sins and scandals of those in the public eye. And ordinary people are eager to get in on the action! We produce an entire genre of “reality shows” which put on public display much sinful behaviour that people should be embarrassed about, not celebrated for. Seems as if everybody’s “going to confession” except in the sacrament! There are a parade of talk shows in which the troubled and afflicted share their intimate secrets with a vast television audience. People use social networks to make available to all on the internet what should be treated with utmost discretion.
We have a “confessional culture.” It seems at every moment someone, somewhere is shouting for our attention, eager to confess from the rooftops what Catholics have the opportunity to whisper in the confessional. The “confessional culture” around us shouts itself hoarse for it can confess, but there is no absolution. Sin confessed but unredeemed either leads to despair or is trivialized. We see the despair in the vast anguish that fuels an enormous therapeutic industry. We see the trivialization in the celebrity scandals that become not occasions for averted eyes, but fodder for jokes.
Our culture does not need to be taught how to confess; it needs to discover where forgiveness can be found. Our culture does not need to further expose the stain of its sinfulness; it needs to discover the only One who can wash it away. We Catholics have the blessing of teaching our “confessional culture” about true mercy, but we cannot give what we do not have! I challenge the Catholics of the Archdiocese to make a good confession this Lent and then to tell one other person – perhaps a friend or relative or colleague who has been away from the sacraments for a long time – about the liberating joy of God’s mercy!
Young people have a special gift to share with us, for they often ask their priests to hear their confessions. Gatherings of Catholic youth often include confessions, for they have discovered the beauty of this sacrament. So do our wonderful newly arrived Catholics from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Older generations, marked perhaps by bad experiences of routine or severe confessors, should listen to this witness of a new generation, for whom a sincere confession is a joy to be celebrated, not a duty to be grudgingly endured.
A Saint Patrick’s Day Plea to Priests
My dear brother priests, are there any of us who have not, at least at one point, marvelled at the heroic service of saints such as the Curé of Ars or Padre Pio? Are there any among us, who after hearing confessions even for just an hour, feel somewhat worn out and wonder how they could have done it for ten, twelve hours a day for years on end? In some of us our initial ardor for the Sacrament of Penance has cooled, and we have begun to doubt the saintly witness we once admired. I urge you to rekindle that early desire to heroic service in the confessional! The heroism of Saint John Vianney is relevant in the 21st century! The zeal of Padre Pio is needed today in New York! Be generous in scheduling time for confessions, and don’t be shy about letting people know that you too frequently receive the Sacrament of Penance, for we all are poor sinners.
The Curé of Ars faced a situation not altogether different from what we face. Listen to how our Holy Father describes his simple and powerful pastoral solution:
This deep personal identification with the Sacrifice of the Cross led [John Mary Vianney] – by a sole inward movement – from the altar to the confessional. Priests ought never to be resigned to empty confessionals or the apparent indifference of the faithful to this sacrament. In France, at the time of the Curé of Ars, confession was no more easy or frequent than in our own day, since the upheaval caused by the revolution had long inhibited the practice of religion. Yet he sought in every way, by his preaching and his powers of persuasion, to help his parishioners to rediscover the meaning and beauty of the sacrament of Penance, presenting it as an inherent demand of the Eucharistic presence. He thus created a “virtuous” circle. By spending long hours in church before the tabernacle, he inspired the faithful to imitate him by coming to visit Jesus with the knowledge that their parish priest would be there, ready to listen and offer forgiveness. Later, the growing numbers of penitents from all over France would keep him in the confessional for up to sixteen hours a day. It was said that Ars had become “a great hospital of souls.”… From Saint John Mary Vianney we can learn to put our unfailing trust in the sacrament of Penance, to set it once more at the center of our pastoral concerns.
The center! The Cross, the altar and the confessional – all at the center of our identity as priests and our pastoral work!
A Saint Patrick’s Day Plea to All Catholics
Perhaps you are now thinking that this letter is too long! If so, take it as a sign of my eagerness to use all the persuasive power God has granted me in the service of a renewal of the Sacrament of Penance. If my words are not enough, listen to two of our most recent saintly shepherds.
“No individual Christian can grow in perfection, nor can Christianity gain in vigor, except it be on the basis of penance,” wrote Blessed Pope John XXIII, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council. He certainly had no intention that the Sacrament of Penance would diminish after the Council; to the contrary, he desired its flourishing.
In a few weeks, Pope John Paul the Great will be declared blessed in Rome – on Divine Mercy Sunday. He died on that liturgical feast in 2005, as if to point the Church with his last breaths toward the mercy of God, experienced supremely in the Sacrament of Penance.
“It would be an illusion to want to strive for holiness in accordance with the vocation that God has given to each one of us without frequently and fervently receiving this sacrament of conversion and sanctification,” the late Holy Father taught. Frequent and fervent!
Finally, I was struck by a plea from the newly-installed Archbishop of Los Angeles, José H. Gomez, who addressed the Sacrament of Penance in his first few weeks in his new archdiocese. Uniting myself to him then, as if to encourage Catholics from one end of our beloved country to another, I make his words my own to the faithful of the Archdiocese of New York:
I encourage you to make a good confession before Easter. Even if it has been a long time. Come home to our Father! Be reconciled to God through the ministry of his Church! Don’t wait to change your life! You can hope in our Father’s mercy. You can trust in his pledge of grace to help you lead a better life. In the early Church, they called confession the “second conversion in tears.” St. Peter wept in sorrow after denying Jesus, and in his mercy Christ spoke to him the tender words of his pardon and peace. In the sacrament, we too can hear these words!
Thanks for paying attention! A blessed Lent!
A blessed Feast of Saint Patrick to all!
+Timothy Michael Dolan
Archbishop of New York