Penance is God's gift to us
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
Throughout the pages of Holy Scripture we find many consoling words of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. In their human weaknesses, those suffering physical or spiritual ailments turned to Jesus to be healed. The Holy Gospels unfold the compassion and empathy of Jesus to those seeking healing, forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation. Jesus made the blind to see, the lame to walk, the deaf to hear. He made clean the lepers and became Himself a wall of stone to protect the woman caught in adultery from those about to stone her. In contrast to their bitter anger and revenge, Jesus lifted His hand in benediction and forgiveness for her. When the scribes and Pharisees departed, Jesus asked the woman: "Has no one condemned you?" "No one, sir", she replied. Jesus said "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more" (John 8:10-11).
The compassion of Jesus is emphasized in chapter 15 of St. Luke’s Gospel, which sometimes is referred to as the Gospel of Mercy. There is great rejoicing when the lost sheep is found and the lost coin recovered, both referring to the human person epitomized in the parable of the prodigal son, who, alone and abandoned after squandering his inheritance, returns to his father’s home. His father welcomes him with open arms and the son at last is at peace.
The willingness of Jesus to forgive us reaches a culminating moment in two instances from the very cross of Christ. As Jesus hangs from the cross, He looks down upon those who condemned Him and then pleads with His heavenly Father: "Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). Perhaps the most beautiful manifestation of Jesus’ forgiveness then follows. One of the criminals, who hangs aside of Jesus, utters those words: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus then makes that remarkable response: "Indeed, I promise you, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:41-43).
This encounter between Jesus and this repentant sinner reveals hope in the most desperate of situations. On that hill of crucifixion, a criminal is given the hope of eternal life. A hopeless life in the eyes of the world becomes a cherished life worthy of eternity. A criminal recognizes Jesus as the Son of God, one able to give what the world could not give: forgiveness, redemption, eternal life. At Calvary, in the hour of condemnation, a criminal, later declared by tradition a saint called Dismas, made a profound profession of faith: he recognized Jesus as his Savior, he acknowledged Jesus’ power to forgive sin and he saw in Jesus Christ the promise of immortality.
Certainly the example of Dismas is not a license to live wantonly and irresponsibly in view of a deathbed conversion. In reality, Dismas’ example illustrates the power of Jesus to enter into our lives at any moment, in any place, in any circumstance. Jesus never abandons us. Rather, in our human weakness it is we who walk away from the Lord.
Knowing then the compassion of Jesus, how sad it is that the sacrament of Reconciliation is used so infrequently in our current society. Through the reception of this sacrament, we are reconciled with God and those whom our sins have wounded. As relational beings, everything we do has some affect upon others. None of us can live in complete isolation from one another. And in our human interactions we can hurt ourselves and others. The Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs us: "Sin is before all else an offense against God, a rupture of communion with him. At the same time it damages communion with the Church. For this reason conversion entails both God’s forgiveness and reconciliation with the Church, which are expressed and accomplished liturgically by the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation" (No. 1440).
As we begin this holy and penitential season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, March 5, let us be mindful that this is a privileged time for renewal, conversion, repentance and reconciliation. The sacrament of Reconciliation, confession, is God’s gift to us to forgive sin, heal a broken relationship and restore our unity with the Lord and with our brothers and sisters in the community of faith, our family in the Church. Lent is the ideal time to approach this sacrament, especially if we have not availed ourselves of this opportunity in many years. Let us see in this sacrament the Good Shepherd calling us home.
Because of the extraordinary power of the sacrament of Reconciliation, I wish to make the reception of this sacrament a focal point of our diocesan observance of Lent. I ask our pastors to provide ample opportunities throughout Lent for individual confessions to be heard and to arrange for local penitential services with sufficient confessors available for individual confessions.
Specifically, on March 25, 2014, the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord in the third week of Lent, a Day of Penance throughout the entire Diocese will be celebrated with the sacrament of Reconciliation, confession, made available in all our parishes from 12:30 pm to 7:30 pm. Blessed John Paul II, of beloved memory, reminded us to make this sacrament of God’s love available to our people through "reconciliation of individual penitents … the only normal and ordinary way of celebrating the sacrament, and it cannot and must not be allowed to fall into disuse or to be neglected." (John Paul II, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, December 2, 1984, no. 32). In the reception of this sacrament, we are given the courage and the hope to begin again. This privilege, this opportunity, this gift from God Himself cannot be ignored. One day we, too, hope to hear those words, "Today you will be with me in paradise."
While emphasizing the importance of the sacrament of Reconciliation, I also wish to draw attention to other essential and truly beneficial Lenten practices.
Throughout the years, the most effective way to cement our union with the Lord has been and continues to be through participation at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I encourage you to attend daily Mass, whenever possible, throughout this Lenten season. We can experience no closer union with Our Lord than through the reception of His body, blood, soul and divinity in the sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist. This Eucharistic encounter is the foundation for all our other relationships.
This penitential season is also the occasion to renew our devotional life by praying the Rosary of Our Blessed Mother. In reciting the Hail Mary, every bead helps us to meditate upon the very life of Christ, which brought about our salvation. In keeping with her revered role, Mary leads us to her Son.
The Stations of the Cross are also a very powerful meditation upon Christ’s sufferings, which paved the way for our redemption. As we follow that route to Calvary, we cannot but help to appreciate the tremendous love of Jesus for us, a love so great that no amount of suffering would cause it to falter.
"Contemplating ‘Him whom they have pierced’ moves us in this way to open our hearts to others, recognizing the wounds inflicted upon the dignity of the human person; it moves us, in particular, to fight every form of contempt for life and human exploitation and to alleviate the tragedies of loneliness and abandonment of so many people" (Pope Benedict XVI, Lenten Message, 2007). With these words, Our Holy Father Emeritus reminded us that we must be conscious of caring for our brothers and sisters in need. During Lent, the annual collection is taken up for the Catholic Relief Services, which aids so many in desperate situations. Through this endeavor we experience the universality of the Church which extends her heart and arms to those so much less fortunate than ourselves. Many parishes and schools use the "Rice Bowl" as a vehicle to nurture support for this collection. I ask that you respond generously to this special collection. I also know that our parishes have various ministries to the poor. This is a wonderful time to become a part of these outreach programs. "Every time when, for love of God, we share our goods with our neighbor in need, we discover that the fullness of life comes from love and all is returned to us as a blessing in the form of peace, inner satisfaction and joy … By drawing close to others through almsgiving, we draw close to God; it can become an instrument for authentic conversion and reconciliation with Him and our brothers" (Pope Benedict XVI, Lenten Message, 2008).
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, regularly urges us to be concerned for those who have little or nothing of the world’s resources and benefits, and he challenges us to come to their assistance. In his Lenten Message, His Holiness writes: "In imitation of our Master, we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it" (Pope Francis, Lenten Message, 2014).
In realizing the hunger and poverty so present in our world, fasting, penance and almsgiving are time-honored practices which not only develop a disciplined spirit but also help us to concentrate on the essential realities of life and to remove clutter that interferes with our relationship with God. The less self-indulgent we are, the more we become conscious of the sufferings of others. Recognizing God’s tremendous love for us manifested in Christ, we are then compelled "to ‘regive’ to our neighbor, especially to the one who suffers most and is in need" (Pope Benedict XVI, Lenten Message, 2007).
But how can we ever love the God we do not know! This holy season is the ideal time to deepen our understanding of the Catholic faith through study. Reading the Holy Scriptures, studying the Catechism of the Catholic Church, attending adult education courses and Bible studies are all ways of enriching our knowledge of what it means to be a Catholic.
But, as always, my message to you would be incomplete if I did not ask you to join with me in inviting our brothers and sisters estranged from the Church to please come home, to rediscover the love of God and to renew their relationships with Him.
I unite with you in prayer, asking that this holy season of Lent will indeed be for us a time of grace and renewal. May the Lord touch our minds and hearts that we might seek His help in all that we do and make Him the center of our lives, our homes and our communities. On Easter morning may we join Mary, Our Mother, and those first disciples who proclaimed the Lord’s Resurrection, and rejoice in this triumph over death, which bestowed upon us the gift of everlasting life!
Asking God’s blessing upon you and invoking the intercession of our patron, St. John Fisher, who shed his blood for the Catholic faith, I remain,
Devotedly yours in Christ,
+ The Most Reverend Salvatore R. Matano
Bishop of Rochester