Posts Tagged ‘Sacrament of Penance’

Sacrament of Penance

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

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!

Synod Intervention

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

This morning I delivered my remarks at the Synod for the New Evangelization. I would like to share a copy of my text with you.

AMDG                                                                                                  JMJ

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan
Synod Intervention
Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The great American evangelist, The Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, commented, “The first word of Jesus in the Gospel was ‘come’; the last word of Jesus was ‘go’.”

The New Evangelization  reminds us that the very agents of evangelization must first be evangelized themselves.  We must first come to Jesus ourselves before we can go out to others in His Holy Name.

Saint Bernard said, “if you want to be a channel, you must first be a reservoir.”

Thus I believe that the primary sacrament of the New Evangelization is the sacrament of penance, and thank Pope Benedict for reminding us of this.

Yes, to be sure, the sacraments of initiation – - Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist – - charge, challenge, and equip the agents of evangelization.

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 inspires us to answer His invitation to repentance.  As we learned in philosophy, nemo dat qoud non habet (“no one gives what he does not have”).

The Second Vatican Council called for a renewal of the sacrament of penance, but what we got instead, sadly, in many places, was the disappearance of the sacrament.

So we have busied ourselves calling for the reform of structures, systems, institutions, and people other than ourselves.  Yes, this is good.

But the answer to the question “What’s wrong with the world?” is not, in the first place, politics, the economy, secularism, pollution, global warming, or other people . . . no.  As Chesterton, the eloquent British apologist, wrote, “The answer to the question ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ is two words:  I am.”

I am!  Admitting that leads to conversion of heart and repentance, the core of the Gospel-invitation.

That happens in the Sacrament of Penance.  This is the sacrament of the New Evangelization.

Saint Patrick’s Day Pastoral Letter to the clergy, religious, and lay faithful of the Archdiocese of New York

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

+ Timothy M. Dolan

Archbishop of New York

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.”[1]

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.[2]

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.”[3]

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.”[4]

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.”[5]

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.”[6]

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.”[7]

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.”[8]

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.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11] 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![12]

Thanks for paying attention!  A blessed Lent!

A blessed Feast of Saint Patrick to all!

+Timothy Michael Dolan

Archbishop of New York


[1] “A Catholic Survivor of Iraqi Church Massacre Speaks”, Giulia Mazza, Asia News (www.asianews.it), 2 December 2010.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ronald Knox. The Priestly Life: A Retreat. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1958, pp. 18-19.

[4] Venerable John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 2 December 1984, #18.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, “The Position of My Mind since 1845” in  Apologia Pro Vita Sua, 1864.

[7] Pope Benedict XVI, Light of the World, 2010, p. 175.

[8] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily for Mass with Members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Pauline Chapel, Apostolic Palace, 15 April 2010.

[9] Pope Benedict XVI, Letter of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI Proclaiming a Year for Priests on the 150th Anniversary of the “Dies Natalis” of the Curé of Ars, 16 June 2009.

[10] Blessed John XXIII, Encyclical Letter Paenitentiam Agere, 1 July 1962, #1.

[11] Venerable John Paul II. Address to Participants in the Course on the Internal Forum organized by the Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary, 27 March 2004.

[12] Most Reverend José H. Gomez, Archbishop of Los Angeles, “Lent and the pilgrimage of the prodigal son” in The Tidings, 11 March 2011.