RECONCILIATION AND THE SACRAMENT OF PENANCE
Pastoral Letter to the Clergy, Religious and Laity of the Church of Pittsburgh
Most Reverend Donald W. Wuerl, STD
Bishop of Pittsburgh
Grace and peace to all of you in Christ.
Recently as I was standing in line at the airport a young man about 35 years old asked me if I could explain something to him. He claimed that he had more or less been raised as a Catholic and that Catholics “Do something that helps them get rid of all the excess baggage they carry around so that they can start again brand new.” I assumed that he was talking about the sacrament of Confession. His reply was that he knew we had something like that; he just did not know how to use it. He had never been properly instructed nor participated in this “Catholic way of getting rid of excess baggage.”
The young man at the airport is not alone. All of us at times carry a great deal of “baggage” that we would like to unload. Despite our best intentions each of us has experienced personal failure. My hope is that all Catholics properly understand the nature and importance of the sacrament of Confession, but this letter is directed in a special way to those who do not or who have drifted away from its use.
As we prepare for Lent 1999 and the Great Jubilee 2000 our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, invites us to undertake a renewed “journey to the Father… a journey of authentic conversion” (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 50). What a beautiful image Pope John Paul sets before us:
“The whole of the Christian life is like a great pilgrimage to the house of the Father, whose unconditional love for every human creature, and in particular for the ‘prodigal son’ (cf. Lk 15:11-32), we discover anew each day. This pilgrimage takes place in the heart of each person, extends to the believing community and then reaches to the whole of humanity” (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 49).
In response to the Pope’s invitation this pastoral letter will speak of our need for reconciliation, explain how we receive it and present a diocesanwide program to both instruct and encourage people to receive the sacrament of Penance.
My invitation to every Catholic in this diocese is to join this spiritual journey, to celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation or, as we have traditionally said, “go to confession” during this special year of reconciliation, preferably during the season of Lent. It would be difficult to think of a better way to prepare for the beginning of the next millenium than by returning in humble love to God, whose forgiveness restores us as his children and sets us at peace with his Church and our neighbors.
ROOT OF SIN
Why is it so difficult at times to be good and to do what is right? Even though we may have good intentions, why do we often find ourselves doing what we know we should not do or failing to do the good we know we ought to do? These perplexing questions arise from our awareness that a part of us is determined to do good while at the same time an element within us continually turns away from the good we know we can do.
In the seventh chapter of his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul describes this situation while writing about what we call the human condition. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate . . . I can will what is right but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me” (Rom. 7:15-20).
Saint Paul’s cry from the heart is something each of us has experienced. Why is it that we have the best of intentions, sincerely make new year’s resolutions, firmly renew our aspirations, sometimes every day, and then allow the worst in us to come out?
We can find an explanation in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis. A description of this seemingly relentless and endless struggle between good and evil is described in the imagery of the serpent tempting Adam and Eve with the forbidden fruit. God said, “you may eat freely of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:16-17). The tempter however said, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4-5).
Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. They chose their own desires over God’s will and plan. This teaching, whatever the imagery, is very clear. Sin entered the world through the decision of a human being to choose self over God and God’s plan. God is not responsible for the evil in the world.
At the same time the harmony of creation was destroyed. If we continue to read the book of Genesis, we see how Adam and Eve became aware of their sin and were filled with shame before God – hiding from him rather than seeking his face. This was not the way it was meant to be. Once sin entered into life and into our world, harmony with God was shattered and the whole network of relationships with each other and our world began to unravel – as Genesis recounts from the killing of Abel by his brother Cain through the utter confusion of the narrative about the Tower of Babel. This first sinful action – this fundamental breakdown – we call original sin. It results in what we call the human condition.
Each one of us is an heir to Adam and Eve. We are members of the human family. We trace our lineage back to this couple and their failure to respect God’s law, will and plan. The actions that they took shattered God’s created harmony not only for them but also for us. Their sin is reflected in us and is mirrored in our daily life. This helps to explain why it is so difficult to do good, to do what we know we should do.
TRACES OF ORIGINAL SIN
Saint Paul describes the consequences of original sin within us as a struggle between the old and new person. The old person is interested only in the selfish man or woman who dwells within each of us. The life of the new person, baptized and alive in God’s grace, is directed to God, Christ and our neighbors. This struggle deep within our human nature has continued from the time of Adam and Eve’s sin. Our baptism washes away original sin but its effects still remain.
NEW LIFE IN CHRIST
Yet we are not lost. We are not left to our own devices. Saint Paul in writing to the Corinthians reminds us that just as in Adam sin was introduced into the world and, through sin, death and all of its consequences; so too grace and new creation come to us in Christ. Just as death came through a human being, so too the resurrection of the dead came through a human being. As in Adam all people die, so in Christ all shall be brought to life — a fullness of life, a new creation already beginning in us through grace (cf. 1 Cor. 15).
This is the message we proclaim when we face the mystery of sin, the reality of original sin and the problems of the human condition that lead us to personal sin. Just as Adam brought sin, death, disharmony, confusion, disruption and struggle into our lives, so too now Christ, the new Adam, gives us grace, redemption, new life and salvation. It is in Jesus Christ that we now find the beginnings of the new creation. He leads us back to the Father, overcomes the tragic alienation of sin and restores harmony. Jesus gives us newness of life in grace that begins to restore our relationship with God which will lead to full communion with God in glory. It is for this reason that we identify Christ as the new Adam. Grace is the beginning of a new creation for all of those baptized into Christ.
When we face daily frustrations and struggle to be good, we need to recall the teaching of the Church that we have the power to triumph over sin because we have Christ’s grace within us. We have the capacity to be victorious, but we must face it every day with our Lord and Savior, the new Adam, Jesus Christ.
BY YOUR HOLY CROSS…
In one of the most familiar and cherished forms of the Way of the Cross, we find this invitation to prayer: “We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you.” The people reply “Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.” In this brief invitatory and response, Saint Alphonsus Liguori captures the essence of the article of the creed that proclaims Jesus Christ “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.”
The central role of Christ’s cross and resurrection in the good news that the apostles preached is evident. There is much more to this statement of faith than the simple recognition that Christ died. If by his cross Christ had not redeemed us, his death would have had little meaning. It is with the eyes of faith that the apostles and every believer after them gazes on the cross and sees much more than just the instrument on which Jesus hung until he died.
Jesus became the new Passover, the unique and final sacrifice by which God’s saving plan was accomplished “once for all” by the redemptive death of his son Jesus Christ. In God’s holy plan it was determined that the Word of God, made flesh in Jesus Christ, would be the expiatory sacrifice that would take away the sins of the world. In fact we continue at the celebration of every Eucharist, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, to proclaim before we receive the body and blood of Christ: “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
The Catholic faith teaches that Jesus truly saved us by deeds performed in his human nature, by his obedient love, and by his patient endurance as well as by offering his life as “a ransom for the many” (Matt. 20.28). It was in his humanity that Jesus took on our sin and by dying atoned for it. The tragic consequences of Adam’s sin could have no other remedy than the
reconciliation of individual penitents and the rite for reconciliation of several penitents with individual confession and absolution.
The first rite is the most familiar form of penance and usually takes place in the private confessional or reconciliation room at the church. Yet even in this “private” form of confession, the social and communal element is still expressed since the priest represents the Church in the act of reconciliation.
A second form, sometimes referred to as a communal penance service and often celebrated in Advent and Lent in preparation for the great feasts of Christmas and Easter, consists essentially in a communal celebration of the word in preparation for confession which is then administered in the form of private, individual confession. Communal celebration shows more clearly both the social impact and the common experience of sin and the ecclesial nature of penance and reconciliation. It should not be confused with general absolution which is reserved for special circumstances.
In order to concentrate on our personal reconciliation with God and the Church through the sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance, I am proposing the following pastoral program that has two components: one educational and the other sacramental.
To the secretariat for education I am entrusting the task of developing religious education materials to be used in all of the religious education programs of the diocese throughout this year of reconciliation. A special effort will be made to enhance the educational program of adults, young adults and youth with regard to the sacrament of Penance.
Among the items to be produced is a small user-friendly brochure that can be distributed to all of the faithful. This brochure detailing the mechanics of sacramental Confession would highlight how one goes to Confession. The flier will also contain the Act of Contrition for those who might like to detach it from the brochure and keep it with them.
Any form of the Act of Contrition is a powerful prayer and we should use it frequently. It is not just for Confession. It is a prayer that we need to say every day with humility and gratitude as we regularly place ourselves before a loving and merciful God.
Once the brochure on the sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance is completed and distributed throughout the parishes, I hope everyone will feel free to take copies of it and share it with members of your household, friends and particularly those with whom we would like to share this good news of Christ’s mercy available to us in Confession.
Recently one of our pastors told me of how, in anticipation of Christmas and a “return home for the holiday” program, he prepared a letter addressed “Dear Friend” which was a friendly and sensitive invitation to a person who might have drifted away from the practice of the faith to use this time to “come home.” The pastor invited the recipient of the letter to feel free to call him, come to church, be welcomed back through the sacrament of Confession. This letter was then distributed in church for people to take home and give to anyone; family member, friend, co-worker, neighbor as an invitation from the pastor.
It strikes me that this might be useful in all of our parishes: a letter from the pastor distributed by parishioners to those who have drifted away. Perhaps the letter could contain a copy of the brochure on the sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance.
As a part of the educational component of our pastoral program I am also asking the secretariat for education to work with the secretariat for pastoral life to prepare a series of homiletic resources that can be used by the priests especially during the Sundays of Lent. Since this is a special time of intense concentration on sacramental reconciliation, it seems appropriate for all priests to review with our faithful the teaching of the Church on reconciliation and to renew our understanding of the importance of this sacrament and the need all of us have to receive it.
BY THE GRACE OF THE SACRAMENT
The goal, as I have already noted, of our pastoral program is to see that all of us have an opportunity to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation during this year of reconciliation and particularly during Lent.
A large group of diocesan priests have participated in a program of spiritual formation and are functioning as spiritual directors and confessors for their brothers in the priesthood. Religious order priests of the diocese have also made themselves available as confessors. At a recent Advent Vesper Service for priests we provided a number of confessors and will continue to do so at both the spring clergy convocation days and the annual clergy day.
We lead by example. By frequent reception of the sacrament of Penance, priests become a living sermon on the importance of the sacrament to the faithful. I remember being strongly impressed when, as a young person, I heard one of our parish priests speak about his going to confession – with regularity.
In order to highlight both the importance of the sacrament of Penance and its availability especially in the coming Lenten season, every pastor is asked to review the parish confession schedule to ensure the adequate availability of the sacrament of Penance to the faithful. I am also asking the deans to work with the priests of their respective deaneries so that we can provide a series of deanerywide reconciliation services to which the faithful of the deanery will be invited and at which I will join a large number of our priests in hearing confessions.
The format of our deanery reconciliation service will be relatively simple. Since I will be in the deanery to visit with all of the priests on a specific afternoon, we will hold an evening reconciliation service that will allow the maximum number of priests to be available to celebrate the sacrament with all who wish to receive it.
Such a diocesanwide concerted effort at sacramental reconciliation has two obvious positive benefits: the administration of the sacraments to those who come to the penance services and the diocesanwide public witness to the importance of this sacrament.
To facilitate this effort I have asked the secretariat for pastoral life to work with the college of deans to see that appropriate and useful material is made available to the parishes in anticipation of these deanerywide reconciliation services.
THE CROSS OF CHRIST
as well of this magnificent grace of renewal and new life. I will use Ash Wednesday and the celebration of the Eucharist at Saint Mary of Mercy Church and the visits to parishes for the deanerywide reconciliation services as an occasion to bless our diocesan reconciliation crosses.
The cross I hope will be a sign of our collective commitment to help renew ourselves individually and our diocesan community in a way that we will also impact on the world around us. Thus, this “cross of reconciliation” is also a “cross of charity,” Our Holy Father puts it this way: “The call to conversion as the indispensable condition of Christian love is particularly important in contemporary society, where the very foundations of our ethically correct vision of human existence often seem to have been lost.”
“It will therefore be necessary… to emphasize the theological virtue of charity, recalling [that]… ‘God is love’” (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 50).
As we complete these thoughts on the sacrament of Penance, we might well reflect that the deepest spiritual joy each of us can sense is the freedom from whatever would separate us from God and the restoration of our friendship with so loving and merciful a Father who receives each of us with all the forgiveness and love lavished on the prodigal son. Renewed, refreshed and reconciled in this sacrament once more, we who have sinned become a “new creation.” Once more we are made new. It is this newness of spirit and soul that I hope all of us experience this Lent and during this year of reconciliation.
Faithfully in Christ,
Donald W. Wuerl
Bishop of Pittsburgh
January 10, 1999
Baptism of the Lord