A School of Sanctification, Penance, Love and Hope, The Anchor, April 15, 2011

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
April 15, 2011

The theme of Lent is encapsulated on Ash Wednesday when the words of Christ with which he began his public ministry echo throughout the world as ashes are imposed: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” Lent is a time in which the Church cries out to God, “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sin.” It’s a 40-day pilgrimage not so much into the desert but back from the prodigal son’s pigsty to the Father’s house and graces. That’s why one of the most important aspects of a well-lived Lent is receiving the Sacrament of Penance because it not only prepares us for Easter but helps us to experience the spiritual essence of Easter in Lent. Every reconciliation is a resurrection, when — to use the words Jesus puts in the mouth of the father in the parable of prodigal son — “My son was dead and has been brought back to life again” (Lk 15:24) This connection between reconciliation and resurrection is one of the reasons why it is so fitting Jesus founded the Sacrament of Reconciliation on the day he rose from the dead, when he breathed the power of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, told them that just as the Father had sent him to take away the sins of the world, so he was sending them, and finally instructed them that whatever sins they forgive or retain are respectively forgiven or retained (Jn 20:23).

Therefore it’s unsurprising that during Lent, the leaders of the Church would be reiterating St. Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians that the Church attentively hears on Ash Wednesday: “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself … and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. … We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!” (2 Cor 5:19-20).

On March 25, Pope Benedict gave an address to the young priests and those soon to be ordained who were participating in an annual training course held by the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican department that supervises the administration of the Sacrament of Penance, indulgences and other internal forum matters, for the Holy Father. The Pope focused on something he said that has not been “sufficiently thought about but which is of great spiritual and pastoral importance: the pedagogical value of Sacramental Confession.” The Sacrament of Confession is, he said, a school of sanctification, penance, love and hope that “educates the faith of both the minister and the penitent.”

It’s first a school of sanctification. Pope Benedict named several priests — Saints John Mary Vianney, John Bosco, Josemaria Escriva, Padre Pio, Joseph Cafasso and Leopold Mandic —who became holy or holier through their heroism in the confessional. He also marveled at the “real miracles of conversion” that occur in the Sacrament and “how many truly holy lives began in a confessional!”

Since it is a school that educates in holiness, it is necessarily a school of penance. He said that the practice of examining one’s conscience has an enormous “pedagogical value.” It helps us “to look squarely at our life, to compare it with the truth of the Gospel and to evaluate it with parameters that are not only human but are also borrowed from divine Revelation. Comparison with the Commandments, with the Beatitudes and, especially, with the precept of love, constitutes the first great ‘school of penance.’” It is a time in which the Church’s entire sacramental power is placed at the service of the one person, not just to absolve that person of his sins, but also to help bind up his wounds and accompany him on the path to holiness. “In our time, marked by noise, distraction and loneliness,” the Holy Father said, “the penitent’s conversation with the confessor can be one of the few — if not the only — opportunities to be truly heard in depth.”

It’s also a “true school of love and hope” that “guides the person to full trust in the God of Love, revealed in Jesus Christ,” in which those who have received mercy are enriched to share that merciful love and those who have realized that no situation is hopeless learn how to become witnesses of hope to others.

On March 17, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York in his characteristically direct and humorous way announced that that school has an open enrollment and free tuition and encouraged all Catholics to take advantage of this gift. Just like we will not grow as human beings without formal education, so we can’t grow spiritually without the Sacrament of Reconciliation. “Catholic life,” he said in a pastoral letter on the Sacrament of Penance, “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.” He noted, however, that “this fundamental part of our Catholic life … has been neglected by too many — both priests and parishioners — for too long.”

“Among priests,” he added to emphasize the point, “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.”

He went on to stress the centrality of the Sacrament of Penance in Christ’s plan for our redemption. “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.”

He said that we are living in the midst of a “confessional culture” that “has an almost perverse delight in detailing the sins and scandals of those in the public eye. … We produce an entire genre of ‘reality shows’ that put on public display much sinful behavior that people should be embarrassed about, not celebrated for. … 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 see the trivialization in the celebrity scandals that become not occasions for averted eyes, but fodder for jokes.”

Our culture, he added, “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.” It needs to find absolution.

That absolution is found in the school where the Master himself — through the same priests through whom he gives us his body and blood — helps us progress in holiness, penance, love and hope.