April 16, 2010

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Revival of the sacrament of penance is needed in our day

In his letter which inaugurated the Year for Priests, Pope Benedict XVI cited the fact that the Curé of Ars, St. John Vianney, founded confraternities and enlisted lay persons to work at his side in the parish community at Ars.

The Holy Father points out that there are “sectors of cooperation which need to be opened ever more fully to the lay faithful. Priests and laity together make up the one priestly people and, in virtue of their ministry, priests live in the midst of the lay faithful, ‘that they may lead everyone to the unity of charity, loving one another with mutual affection; and outdoing one another in sharing honor.’ ”

The pope said, “Here we ought to recall the Vatican Council II’s hearty encouragement to priests ‘to be sincere in their appreciation and promotion of the dignity of the laity and of the special role they have to play in the Church’s mission. … They should be willing to listen to lay people, give brotherly consideration to their wishes, and acknowledge their experience and competence in the different fields of human activity. In this way, they will be able together with them to discern the signs of the times.’ ”

The pope comments that St. John Vianney taught his parishioners primarily by the witness of his life. “It was from his example that they learned to pray, halting frequently before the tabernacle for a visit to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. ‘One need not say much to pray well.’—the Curé explained to them—‘We know that Jesus is there in the tabernacle, let us open our hearts to him, let us rejoice in his sacred presence. That is the best prayer.’

“And he would urge them: ‘Come to communion, my brothers and sisters, come to Jesus. Come to live from him in order to live with him. … ‘Of course you are not worthy of him, but you need him!’ ”

The Holy Father says: “This way of educating the faithful to the eucharistic presence and to communion proved most effective when they saw him celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass. Those present said that ‘it was not possible to find a finer example of worship. … He gazed upon the host with immense love.’ ”

Pope Benedict believes it was the deep personal identification with the Sacrifice of the Cross when he celebrated the Eucharist that led the saint of Ars “by a sole inward movement—from the altar to the confessional. Priests ought never 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.”

The pastor of Ars persevered in his preaching and used his powers of persuasion to help his parishioners to rediscover the meaning and beauty of the sacrament of penance. He kept the connection between the Eucharist and the sacrament of penance before the eyes and hearts of the people. The pope commented that thus the Curé created a “virtuous” circle. He also noted that the people knew that their pastor would always be there ready to listen and offer forgiveness.

Pope Benedict raised an important point, which I would like to underscore. It is important for the revival of the beauty and pastoral value of the sacrament of penance that confessors are available, and are there at consistent and convenient times for parishioners.

It has become increasingly apparent that where the sacrament is offered on a known and consistent basis penitents come. This also implies that there is available clear catechesis about the importance of and the pastoral consolation that accompanies the forgiveness of sins available in confession.

The revival of this sacrament in our day, as in the day of the Curé of Ars, is sorely needed in a culture that has all but lost a sense of sin.

With the loss of a sense of sin, there is inevitably a loss of the sense of God and his grace. Recovery of a regular reception of the sacrament of penance promises a new sense of God’s love and mercy.

Priest confessors recognize that if they are to be compassionate confessors they, too, must be sincere penitents. Confessing one’s sins is humbling, and requires an embarrassing honesty for anyone.

I have strong convictions about the importance and value of confession after many years of receiving the sacrament. It is such an important experience of knowing how much we need God in our lives.

So very little in our secular culture turns us to God, yet without him we do not enjoy serene and joyful peace. †

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