I want to begin my column this week by expressing my deep gratitude, and that of my father and family, to all who have been carrying us in prayer these past few weeks. Your prayerful expressions of support for my mom and dad, along with the rest of our family, have been a source of great consolation as my mother’s health declined and when she entered into eternal rest early Tuesday morning, March 9.
Seven weeks ago, I wrote in this column: “I don’t know what the coming hours, days, weeks, etc. are going to bring. It is definitely a new stage of the journey, especially in our life as a family. All I can do is rely on the Paraclete, the Consoler, the promised Power of God in the Holy Spirit to get me (us) through it all.” Today, I wish to attest in a particular way to the power of the Spirit working in the time up to and after my mother’s death. There are so many moments when, looking back, I see the hand of God accompanying us as we accompanied our mother. Exceptionally notable was the peace and calm that filled her hospital room at the time of death and after. I knew without a doubt that heaven and earth had met, but it was confirmed to me by my sister who spoke of the stillness of the room and even of herself when she realized Mom was about to die.
It is this same Holy Spirit … this same Power of God … who is active in the Sacrament of Penance! The peace and calm my sister and I came to know at my mother’s deathbed is meant also to be received as a gift when you and I go to Confession and celebrate the Church’s Rite of Reconciliation. We know that we are totally dependent on God’s grace for progress in the spiritual life. Yet, at the same time, our own effort, our own openness to God is crucial. As we read in the Scriptures, it is important to assess what’s required before undertaking a task (before starting to build a tower or entering into a battle in war — see Lk 14:28-32) if we want to successfully complete it.
As we make an honest assessment of our lives, we are acutely aware that sin has been no stranger to us. The wounds of both original sin and our personal sins are deep and need to be healed. Feeling the challenge of the call to follow Jesus and yet seeing the personal obstacles, it is easy to rationalize delaying or compromising and avoid a wholehearted response. We often look at our busy lives and sluggish hearts and suppose that priests and sisters are in a better position to respond to the call and follow Jesus in earnest. After all, “They are the professionals; they have the time.”
The Second Vatican Council reminded us otherwise: every person is called to be holy. Why? Simply, because that’s the only way we will arrive in heaven (and there is a heaven and a hell). More and more, we become the persons we were created to be when we allow God’s grace to shape us into holy women and holy men. Holiness is the only means to genuine peace in our troubled world and to eternal happiness in the next. Holiness isn’t about showy practices of piety, but about a heart transformed in love, touching every part of our lives. That’s why the shadowy, sinful parts must be purged.
While we certainly depend upon the support of fellow companions on the journey, no one can do the Sacrament of Penance for us! What a wonderful gift we give ourselves each time we decide to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance. Many of us hold back from celebrating the Sacrament for a variety of reasons: “I forgot what to do.” “I don’t know what to say.” “I haven’t done anything really bad.” “I don’t need to go to a priest to be forgiven.” “I am too embarrassed to tell my sins to a priest.” “It doesn’t do any good. I keep committing, and then confessing, the same sin over and over.” “I’m basically a good person and God accepts me the way I am.”
As you and I approach Holy Week 2021, this is an opportune time to take a good, honest look at ourselves — our lives and our behaviors. The coming two weeks of the Church’s year, which are devoted to the Lord’s Passion for the salvation of man and woman, is a wonderful occasion to grow deeper in love with Jesus. To do so, you and I must be ever more aware of our sinfulness — of what separates us from God. Through the Sacrament of Penance, God’s mercy and grace work in us, leading us to conversion so we might follow Christ more closely. One of the great tragedies of our day is our skittishness to recognize that sin is real and that we sin.
That is a concern that some Catholics in the Diocese of Syracuse raise with me. They feel that I am not tough enough on calling out those who are sinning, particularly our political leaders. In part, I admit I haven’t because I feel that it is a “given” regarding the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion or on any sexual activity outside the unitive and procreative aspect of the marriage bond is a grave sin, whether heterosexual or homosexual. I desire also not to turn them away from the Sacraments, but to draw them to conversion.
Nonetheless, despite such hesitation I am recognizing more and more that there is a growing menace wherein Catholics are being led astray by leaders in both Church and State in their sponsoring and endorsement of legislation which totally disregards the teachings of Christ’s Church. Of chief concern are those measures which neuter the human person’s God-given dignity of being man and woman as well as promote practices that destroy such dignity, including abortion and gender neutrality.
First and foremost, all life is sacred because it comes from God. It is God who has called each one of us by name and fashioned us male and female in complementary roles. This natural law is how God has built human society which is meant to further the Kingdom of God. It governs as well how the Catholic and other Apostolic churches view the Sacrament of Holy Orders and the original mandate that only adult males may receive this Sacrament. Some feel this is a disservice to women, but could it just be that both physiology and tradition are the means God conveys his mind in the matter, especially if one considers “What Would Jesus Do?” It seems to me that these days we think we know better than God!
This week, Pope Francis through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reiterated that while the Church loves the sinner, it cannot bless practices that are contrary to the law of God. Not only is this a reference to the blessing of same-sex marriages, but also focuses our attention on what it means to be a practicing, adult Catholic: (1) Received the Sacraments of Initiation — Baptism/Confirmation/Holy Eucharist; (2) Attend Mass on Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation; (3) Observe the laws concerning Fast and Abstinence; (4) Observe the Church’s marriage laws; and (5) Seek to live one’s life in accord with Church law and teaching.
Because we are called a “pilgrim people,” always on the move, growing closer to Jesus, perhaps a good analogy to consider would be car maintenance. Experts tell us to change our oil every 3,000 miles. This gets the “gunk” out of our engines and allows them to run more efficiently. Confession does similar work on our souls — it gets the “gunk” out. If we are getting our oil changed more often than we are going to Confession, our car’s journey on earth will be smoother than our soul’s. The confessional is the perfect place for a spiritual tune-up. It’s a place steeped in the Lord’s mercy and unconditional love, a place where we can relax and allow the priest to guide us through this beautiful sacrament of healing.
As our Catechism reminds us, Christ instituted the Sacrament of Penance for all of us because we sin. The regular confession of our sins helps us to form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, and let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of His Spirit. The Ten Commandments, the Two Great Commandments, and the Beatitudes form the basis for an examination of conscience to discover the presence and types of sin that haunt our lives. A sample examination of conscience will be made available to you as you prepare to celebrate this encounter with the Merciful Christ in the sacrament.
Unlike last year, the light is on in the confessional this coming Holy Week 2021. Experience the Lord’s limitless mercy and forgiveness waiting to be given you there. It will brighten your day and give you lots of renewed energy to be true disciples of Jesus in word and deed.