Sacrament of Penance

Today I delivered my remarks to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, Maryland. I would like to share a copy of my text with you.

My brother bishops,

Yes, we have “a lot on our plate” as we commence our meeting, urgent issues very worthy of our solicitude as pastors — the suffering in vast areas not far from here caused by the Hurricane of two weeks ago, the imperative to the New Evangelization, the invitation offered by the Year of Faith, and our continued dialogue, engagement, and prophetic challenge to our culture over urgent issues such as the protection of human life, the defense of marriage, the promotion of human dignity in the lives of the poor, the immigrant, those in danger from war and persecution throughout the world, and our continued efforts to defend our first and most cherished freedom — all issues calling for our renewed and enthusiastic commitment.

But I stand before you this morning to say simply: first things first. We gather as disciples of, as friends of, as believers in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” who exhorted us to “seek first the Kingdom of God.” We cannot engage culture unless we let Him first engage us; we cannot dialogue with others unless we first dialogue with Him; we cannot challenge unless we first let Him challenge us. The Venerable Servant of God, Fulton J. Sheen, once commented, “The first word of Jesus in the Gospel was ‘come’; the last word of Jesus was ‘go’.”

Fifty years ago, on October 11, 1962, Blessed John XXIII courageously convened the Second Vatican Council “the greatest concern of which,” he insisted, “is that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.” (Allocution on the occasion of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudet mater ecclesia). We gather for our plenary assembly in our nation’s premiere see, at the close of the XIII Ordinary General Synod of Bishops, still near the beginning of the Year of Faith. Both occasions have the same origin, the same goal expressed by Blessed John XXIII: the effective transmission of the faith for the transformation of the world.

A year ago we began our visits ad limina Petri et Pauli. I know you join me in expressing deep gratitude for the extraordinary affection, warmth and fraternal care with which our Holy Father welcomed us.But Pope Benedict did not stop with his gracious hospitality. No. He also gave us plenty of fatherly advice — for our ministry as pastors of the Church and our personal role in the New Evangelization.Here’s an especially striking example from his first ad limina address:

“Evangelization,” the Successor of St. Peter noted, “. . . appears not simply a task to be undertaken ad extra; we ourselves are the first to need re-evangelization. As with all spiritual crises, whether of individuals or communities, we know that the ultimate answer can only be born of a searching, critical and ongoing self-assessment and conversion in the light of Christ’s truth.”

As we bishops at the just concluded Synod of Bishops confessed in our closing message: “We, however, should never think that the new evangelization does not concern us as Bishops personally. In these days voices among the Bishops were raised to recall that the Church must first of all heed the Word before she can evangelize the world. The invitation to evangelize becomes a call to conversion.”

“We Bishops firmly believe that we must convert ourselves first to the power of Jesus Christ who alone can make all things new, above all our poor existence. With humility we must recognize that the poverty and weaknesses of Jesus’ disciples, especially us, his ministers, weigh on the credibility of the mission. We are certainly aware – we bishops first of all – that we can never really be equal to the Lord’s calling and mandate to proclaim His Gospel to the nations. We. do not hesitate to recognize our personal sins. We are, however, also convinced that the Lord’s Spirit is capable of renewing His Church and rendering her garment resplendent if we let Him mold us.” (Final Message of the Synod of Bishops to the People of God, October 28, 2012)

The New Evangelization reminds us that the very agents of evangelization – you and me — will never achieve that abundant harvest Blessed John XXIII described unless we are willing and eager to first be evangelized themselves. Only those themselves first evangelized can then evangelize. As St. Bernard put it so well, “If you want to be a channel, you must first be a reservoir.”

I would suggest this morning that this reservoir of our lives and ministry, when it comes especially to the New Evangelization, must first be filled with the spirit of interior conversion born of our own renewal. That’s the way we become channels of a truly effective transformation of the world, through our own witness of a penitential heart, and our own full embrace of the Sacrament of Penance.

II. “To believers also the Church must ever preach faith and penance,” declared the council fathers in the very first of the documents to appear, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. (SC, n. 9) ​To be sure, the sacraments of initiation – - Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist – - charge, challenge, and equip the agents of evangelization. Without those sacraments, we remain isolated, unredeemed, timid and unfed.

​But, the Sacrament of Reconciliation evangelizes the evangelizers, as it brings us sacramentally into contact with Jesus, who calls us to conversion of heart, and allows us to answer his invitation to repentance — a repentance from within that can then transform the world without. ​What an irony that despite the call of the Second Vatican Council for a renewal of the Sacrament of Penance, what we got instead was its near disappearance.

​We became very good in the years following the Council in calling for the reform of structures, systems, institutions, and people other than ourselves.That, too, is important; it can transform our society and world. But did we fail along the way to realize that in no way can the New Evangelization be reduced to a program, a process, or a call to structural reform; that it is first and foremost a deeply personal conversion within? “The Kingdom of God is within,” as Jesus taught.

​The premier answer to the question “What’s wrong with the world?” “what’s wrong with the church?” is not politics, the economy, secularism, sectarianism, globalization or global warming . . .none of these, as significant as they are. As Chesterton wrote, “The answer to the question ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ is just two words:’I am,’”

​I am! Admitting that leads to conversion of heart and repentance, the marrow of the Gospel-invitation. I remember the insightful words of a holy priest well known to many of us from his long apostolate to priests and seminarians in Rome, Monsignor Charles Elmer, wondering aloud from time to time if, following the close of the Council, we had sadly become a Church that forgot how to kneel. If we want the New Evangelization to work, it starts on our knees.

Remember a few years back, when Cardinal Cahal Daly led us in our June retreat? Speaking somberly of the Church in his home country, he observed, “The Church in Ireland is in the dirt on her knees.” Then he paused, and concluded, “Maybe that’s where the Church is at her best.”

We kneel in the Sacrament of Penance because we are profoundly sorry for our faults and our sins, serious obstacles to the New Evangelization. But then we stand forgiven, resolute to return to the work entrusted to us – as evangelizers of the Gospel of Mercy.

I recall a conversation about a year ago with one of our brother bishops, newly ordained, attending his first plenary assembly. I asked his impressions of the meeting. “Well organized, informative, enjoyable,” he replied, but he went on to observe that it was one moment in particular that had the greatest impact on him. It was during our closing Holy Hour, as he entered the large room next to the chapel, to see dozens and dozens of bishops lined up to approach the Sacrament of Penance. This new Bishop told me that he felt that moment had more of an influence upon him than anything else at the meeting.

Who can forget the prophetic words of repentance from Blessed John Paul II, during the Great Jubilee, as he expressed contrition – publically and repeatedly – for the sins of the past? He mentioned the shame of the slave trade, the horrors of the holocaust, the death and destruction wrought by the crusades, the injustices of the conquest of the new world, and the violence of religious wars, to name only a few.

I remember during the celebration of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress in Ireland last June, when Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Papal Legate, expressed this so forcefully as he spoke on behalf of the Holy Father at the penitential shrine of St. Patrick’s Purgatory: “I come here with the specific intention of seeking forgiveness, from God and from the victims, for the grave sin of sexual abuse of children by clerics. . . In the name of the Church, I apologize once again to the victims, some of which I have met here in Lough Derg.”

And so it turns to us, my brothers. How will we make the Year of Faith a time to renew the Sacrament of Penance, in our own loves and in the lives of our beloved people whom we serve? Once again, we will later this week approach the Sacrament of Penance.

And we’ll have the opportunity during this meeting to approve a simple pastoral invitation to all our faithful to join us in renewing our appreciation for and use of the Sacrament. We will “Keep the Light On” during the upcoming Advent Season!

The work of our Conference during the coming year includes reflections on re-embracing Friday as a particular day of penance, including the possible re-institution of abstinence on all Fridays of the year, not just during Lent. Our pastoral plan offers numerous resources for catechesis on the Sacrament of Penance, and the manifold graces that come to us from the frequent use of confession. Next June we will gather in a special assembly as brother bishops to pray and reflect on the mission entrusted to us by the Church, including our witness to personal conversion in Jesus Christ, and so to the New Evangelization.

We work at giving our people good examples of humble, repentant pastors, aware of our own personal and corporate sins, constantly responding to the call of Jesus to interior conversion. Remember the Curé of Ars? When a concerned group of his worried supporters came to him with a stinging protest letter from a number of parishioners, demanding the bishop to remove John Vianney as their curé, claiming he was a sinner, ignorant, and awkward, St. John Vianney took the letter, read it carefully … and signed the petition!
III. As I began my talk this morning, my brothers, so I would like to end it, with Blessed John XXIII.

It was the Sunday angelus of October 28, 1962.The message the Holy Father delivered on that bright Roman afternoon never even mentions the phrase New Evangelization.But it strikes right at the heart of the mission entrusted to each of us as shepherds.

“I feel something touching my spirit that leads to serenity,” Good Pope John remarked. “The word of the Gospel is not silent.It resonates from one end of the world to the other, and finds the way of the heart. Dangers and sorrows, human prudence and wisdom, everything needs to dissolve into a song of love, into a renewed invitation, pleading all to desire and wish for the establishment of the Kingdom of Christ. A kingdom of truth and life; a kingdom of holiness and grace; a kingdom of justice, love and peace.”

How could we not see it alive in those holy men and women of every time and place, the heroic evangelizers of our faith, including most recently St. Kateri Tekakwitha and St. Marianne Cope?

We have beheld it in the Church’s unrelenting corporal and spiritual works of mercy, in the heroic witness of persecuted Christians, in the Church’s defense of unborn human life, the care of our elders and the terminally ill, advocacy for the unemployed, those in poverty, our immigrant brothers and sisters, victims of terror and violence throughout our world, of all faiths and creeds, and in our defense of religious freedom, marriage and family.

And, I have suggested today, that as we “come and go” in response to the invitation of Jesus, we begin with the Sacrament of Penance.This is the sacrament of the New Evangelization, for as Pope Benedict reminds us, “We cannot speak about the new evangelization without a sincere desire to conversion.” (Homily for the Opening of the XIII Ordinary General Synod of Bishops).

With this as my presidential address, I know I risk the criticism. I can hear it now: “With all the controversies and urgent matters for the Church, Dolan spoke of conversion of heart through the Sacrament of Penance. Can you believe it?”

To which I reply, “You better believe it!” First things first!

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16 Responses to “Sacrament of Penance”

  1. Yes! Bring back Friday penance. Penance and works of mortification have almost gone! Please bring it back. Sociologically, it is a strong sign of identity. Theologically, it reminds us of our part in working out or salvation (through His grace, of course.) Do it!

  2. Jim Gioia says:

    Ameyn Cardinal. Your approach is sound. I write to share my thankfulness and gratitude for your leadership.

    I write also to share my thoughts on another issue. That of heresy. And of a desire to see excommunication of some within the church. I believe that excommunication is a LOVING OPTION.

    First, for the excommunicant, as it prevents them from heaping condemnation upon themselves through receiving Holy Communion unworthily.

    And secondly, for the faithful. So as to help in the evangelization process when encountering lukewarm Catholics, and non-denominational Catholics. No longer would we have to try to explain how it is ok to be Catholic, and still have what is perceived as a “rational” argument in support of such things like abortion.

    As you know, excommuication is not to shun, but rather a call to repent, and return to full communion with the church and her teachings. As you are in Baltimore, I am sure that you are aware, or at least I hope that you are aware, of a local priest, who in open defiance to his bishop, preached on how the church doctrine on homosexual marriage needed to change. Open support of gay marriage during a homily. Followed by cheers from the congregation. A priest leading his flock astray. This MUST be stopped. Additionally, in Minnesota, another priest openly requested his archbishop to resign, since his support both vocally and financially in support of traditional marriage during this past election had done nothing but cause confusion and “divided” the Catholic community. An act of disobedience that requires action.

    I wholeheartedly agree that we must first evangelize ourselves before we follow the command of Jesus to go out and fish for men. And that is why I humbly ask that you, and your fellow bishops, further resolve to remove those priests who are doing very little to honor their obligation to follow the church’s doctrine and teachings.

    God bless you Carinal Dolan! And should I be able to assist in ANY way, in the conversion of sinners (as I am one) and aid in the return to full union with the Catholic Church, through the divine assistance of the Holy Spirit, I submit myself as a humble servant.

    Most sincerely,

    James Gioa

  3. Jim Gioia says:

    Ameyn Cardinal. Your approach is sound. I write to share my thankfulness and gratitude for your leadership.

    I write also to share my thoughts on another issue. That of heresy. And of a desire to see excommunication of some within the church. I believe that excommunication is a LOVING OPTION.

    First, for the excommunicant, as it prevents them from heaping condemnation upon themselves through receiving Holy Communion unworthily.

    And secondly, for the faithful. So as to help in the evangelization process when encountering lukewarm Catholics, and non-denominational Catholics. No longer would we have to try to explain how it is ok to be Catholic, and still have what is perceived as a “rational” argument in support of such things like abortion.

    As you know, excommuication is not to shun, but rather a call to repent, and return to full communion with the church and her teachings. As you are in Baltimore, I am sure that you are aware, or at least I hope that you are aware, of a local priest, who in open defiance to his bishop, preached on how the church doctrine on homosexual marriage needed to change. Open support of gay marriage during a homily. Followed by cheers from the congregation. A priest leading his flock astray. This MUST be stopped. Additionally, in Minnesota, another priest openly requested his archbishop to resign, since his support both vocally and financially in support of traditional marriage during this past election had done nothing but cause confusion and “divided” the Catholic community. An act of disobedience that requires action.

    I wholeheartedly agree that we must first evangelize ourselves before we follow the command of Jesus to go out and fish for men. And that is why I humbly ask that you, and your fellow bishops, further resolve to remove those priests who are doing very little to honor their obligation to follow the church’s doctrine and teachings.

    God bless you Carinal Dolan! And should I be able to assist in ANY way, in the conversion of sinners (as I am one) and aid in the return to full union with the Catholic Church, through the divine assistance of the Holy Spirit, I submit myself as a humble servant.

    Most sincerely,

    James Gioia

  4. Paul says:

    Cardinal Dolan,
    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
    May God bless you.

  5. My family and most people in my community practice the Friday abstinence, which brings a rhythm of regular penance to our lives. I hope this traditional observance is preached again. It is not clear to me that Friday penance was ever actually abolished, but rather augmented and subsequently forgotten. We need a resurgence in Catholic culture, for which we ought to inspect the treasures of our tradition, like days of fasting and abstinence (viz. Ember and Rogation Days or the practice of ‘fast then feast’).

    Who else reading this would love to assist at a Pontifical High Mass celebrated by His Eminence? The re-invigoration of the liturgy, in which penance and our sinful nature are emphasized, ought to play a role in the New Evangelization.

    God bless his Eminence!

  6. Nancy Janzen says:

    Yes bring back Friday penance. Bring back frequent confession. If Blessed JP II living in the Vatican thought he needed weekly confession we living here need at least monthly confession. It is a chance for couseling as well as confession.So my priest tells me I’m not as bad as I think I am well as I reform my conscience that is what I need to hear. That I am on the right track. We have stopped living those things that make us Catholic.

  7. Philip Ferrato says:

    I hope you’ll find it in your conscience to speak out– perhaps even as a unified body– against the impending passage of legislation in Ghana punishing gays and lesbians with imprisonment and death for being simply as God made them.

    Philip Ferrato

  8. Joe Nichols says:

    Wonderful remarks. The biggest challenge for my wife and me, as parents of six children, has been to keep them going to confession after High School and through college. There is a “darkness” to confession that turns them off, and it is too bad.
    However, one thing should be noted. Respectfully, you have Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, and also democrats and republicans alike who are Catholics but reject the life issues. Yet, most all bishops and cardinals simply do not say, “Joe Biden, you are wrong.” “Nancy Peolosi, you are wrong.” Our kids don’t hear that loud and clear without equivocation. So, when a Catholic like Joe biden calls transgender rights the biggest civil rights issue of our time, or calls for gay marriages, why doesn’t Cardinal Dolan call Biden up and say, “Mr. Vice-President, you are wrong.” He suffers no consequence to misleading millions of Americans. Yet, (and rightfully), the divorced Catholic who did not get an annulment cannot accept Holy Communion. I think quite often, our Bishops and Cardinals enjoy the spotlight at the “Al Smith dinner”, fail to unequivocally call these Catholic politicians out for misleading our Youth, and scratch their heads in confusion when our Young Catholics fail to go to confession because they do not perceive just what is sinful and what is not.

    Time for the Bishops and Cardinals to quit giving lavish dinners for politicans “for laughs” and start proclaiming the truth.

    Here’s a radical idea! Have a lavish dinner for the Young Catholics. It might not get you as much fame and would not allow you to cozy up with the big shots who don’t listen to you anyways, but at least it would not mislead our young Catholics into thinking that you endorse their platform.

    This desire to be well thought of and famous by our Cardinal is tragic, it really is.

  9. Bryan Hofmann says:

    Your Excellency,
    Thank you for this very needed message. You are a successor to the Apostles, how awesome that must be! With the utmost respect for your Office and the deepest desire for the salvation of your soul I pray that you consider first your need for repentance and penance. Would you have dined, laughed and joked with President Obama had he been activily promoting a culture that tolerates the murder of Jews or Catholic priests? I pray not. If not, then why are the lives of unborn babies less worthy of your defense? Why is the slaughtering of unborn babies not sufficient to cause you to flip over the dinner table rather than laugh and joke at it? I pray you will be heartily sorry, do penance, and amend your life, Your Excellency. The rich Mercy of our Blessed Lord awaits.
    Bryan Hofmann
    LOVE SO AMAZING

  10. Robert Fox says:

    Your Excellency: Nobody takes the sacrament of penance seriously because nobody takes canon 915 seriously. The man in the pew may not know the number of the canon and he/she may not even know canon law… but they sure know when a public representative who is a proponent of violating sacred law approaches the altar for Holy Communion. And the man in the pew CERTAINLY understands that PUBLIC silence is PUBLIC permission.

    So, with respect, these small moves toward orthodoxy… while laudable… will only really amount to “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Why? Because our liturgy has been essentially stripped of anything which is “offensive to even the most modernist Protestants”.

    As I move my family out of New York permanently… and head for the nearest FSSP parish in some other state which I can find to call “home”… it is with the understanding that nothing in the Church will change spiritually or demographically until we restore the heart of the Catholic Faith… which alone is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. And that won’t come from tinkering with a few words here and there or the agonizing of some large committee somewhere.

    We live in a crisis of faith… the crisis of culture is a RESULT of a crisis in faith! The crisis in faith is connected to the crisis in liturgy. It’s the biggest elephant in the room! The council document on the liturgy is beautiful. Too bad it was never implemented.

    Save the Mass, save the world!

  11. Andrew Humphreys says:

    I agree with Steven. It is a strong sign of identity, a needed reminder and a good way to teach our children that we have to put God above all else.

    Thank you to Telecare for their coverage of the USCCB conference this week.

  12. Bob Kelly says:

    “The work of our Conference during the coming year includes reflections on re-embracing Friday as a particular day of penance, including the possible re-institution of abstinence on all Fridays of the year, not just during Lent.”

    Your Eminence, I appreciate your call for a renewal of the practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which I have not availed myself of as often as I should. But the possibility of mandating meatless Fridays seems like ‘pouring new wine in old wineskins’. Meatless Friday does not have the same penitential meaning in an age when many of our young people are vegetarians.

    Is this the best our ‘NEW Evangelization’ can do? In all of the Catholic Church, we must have smart people, inspired by the Holy Spirit, who can come up with penitential practices for the present age. Please don’t pine for the 50′s or the 1500′s. We can inspire the present generation if we have solutions that speak to the present-day person who seeks God, just as Blessed John XXIII did when he opened the windows of the Church to see the world around us and to allow the world to see into God’s Church.

  13. Eden Johnson says:

    ArchBishop Dolan, your remarks were very insightful and inspirational, truly striking at my heart. What’s wrong with the world? I am. I take that seriously. Please command every church to have a room for the 24 hour Blessed Sacrament Adoration. And remind Catholics to dress appropriately in Church, not in picnic clothes (shorts, etc…) And bring back the wearing of veils or hats by women. Also, people get out of the Church as soon as the priest says, Ita Misa Est. Per St. Peter Eymard, the hour after Holy Communion, is very important and very powerful. Jesus, Savior. Miracle Worker and Divine Physician, is in us and that’s when we can pray boldly for our personal intentions. That hour after Communions, should be a sacred one. Tell priests that their silent prayer after Communion should be on their knees and be lengthened to at least 15 minutes. Or else the congregation immediately get out of the Church. Also, remind Catholics who can, especially the retired, that they should attend Holy Mass everyday and visit the Blessed Sacrament daily. On the Internet is the Divine Office, which we much also pray. Every prayer should be done representing every soul, specially sinners, in the whole world, the saintly and devout, the conversion to Jesus of every one (God does not want any soul left behind and Jesus said that he does not want only the sheep assigned to Him but also those who are not yet, in his folds. We must surely pray for the healing of the planet, global warming, and the poor sould in purgatory. Retired Catholics by unceasing prayer on behalf of all souls, living dying, and the dead, can save the world and ready themselves for their own deaths. Priests, headed by you, should preach about purgatory, based on Dante’s inferno. because many Catholics do not believe in it. And write about the penitential site in Ireland and encourage pilgrims to go there. We should also say the even penitential psalms and thanksgiving prayers daily. Also would you please offer the defrocked priests, after they have serve their prison sentences, a penitential monastery? Many of them want to remain catholic and they need our support. As a rule, they go on their individual ways in shame, not realizing that they, having had their sins exposed and penalized, have a real opportunity for sainthood. They need our support. Don’t just leave them without our assurance that they are still loved and supported. Retirees are the most potent resource for the new evangelization if only we would re-cathecize them about their vocation. Per Father Barron, we should counter aggressive secularization, and for seniors, we can do unceasing prayer. Most Catholics have no education about this responsibility and are part of the consumerist/secular society. Also make it clear that we love homosexuals/lesbians, but that we expect them to be celibate just as we expect heterosexuals of the single state to be. The problem is that many Catholics have also bought in to the examples of promiscuity (Sex in the City and 50 Shades of Grey). Every priest should be as bold and hardworking as St. John Vianney. Anymore, sermons are unchallenging. Priests are afraid to speak up boldly about sin, mortal and venial, and their consequences in this life and after. This is why few go to confessions. Confessions are generally scheduled for 45 minutes before Mass. Catholics are not aware of their sinfulness, generally speaking. They are not devout.

  14. Craig Manoukian says:

    Your Excellency,

    I am not sure how to contact you and apologize if this is the wrong venue. I for years have been concerned about the Liberalism that is eroding the fabric of the American Catholic Church. I pass this along from a conservative political blog I participate in:

    What is happening to the Catholic Church? The other day I visited the website of The Basilica of Saint Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, to fill out and application for membership to the church. I was distracted by the headline of an article at the bottom of the site which reported the news of Alexia Kelley, an Obama administraion official being named the new president of the Catholic Church’s FADICA. The FADICA is The Foundations and Donors Interesed in Catholic Activities! Alexia Kelley was also a $1000 donor to both the Barack Obama campaigns and the Hillary Clinton campaigns. So the Catholic Church named a woman who donated to and worked for Barak Obama who supported infanticide by aggressively defeating The Born Alive Infant Protection Act while in the IL state senate. For a state senator who voted present over 100 times he must have been passionate about the right of an abortion doctor to toss a fully birthed infant into a hospital waste bin. What kind of donors will Ms. Kelley attract and how will they shape the agenda of the Catholic Church?

    Thanks Catholic Church for selling out! Of course I never did fill out that application.

    Your humble servant in Christ,
    Craig Manoukian

  15. I am near death so what I write comes from the heart.
    The church is trying to be liked as if it were a desert.
    It will not challenge those left wing politicians who sell their souls for votes. I want to see Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden stopped from receiving Euchrist. Make people think the clergy has a backbone. Until the bishops put their foot down, they are just blowing smoke until, at length, the politician dies or is defeated.
    Patrick Johnston

  16. Brian Murphy says:

    Repentance is a good start. Then, I believe that the New Evangelization will not begin until there is a courage and willingness to repent of proclaiming the “sugar gospel” and return to proclaiming the full gospel, which must include an announcement of God’s Judgment. Cf. Rev 21:8.