Holiness, Conversion and the Sacrament of Penance

8/28/2011

It has been my particular concern in these recent columns to teach about the extraordinary dignity of the Christian life expressed in the universal call to holiness. We are invited to “put out into the deep,” to leave behind a superficial faith and religiosity and discover the profound meaning and destiny of our lives. We are called to be saints!

The journey begins with the proclamation of the Gospel and call to conversion: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel.” (Mk 1:15). As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Baptism is the principal place for the first and fundamental conversion. It is by faith in the Gospel and by Baptism that one renounces evil and gains salvation, that is, the forgiveness of all sins and the gift of new life.” (CCC 1427).

The Lord’s call to conversion continues to echo in the lives of Christians, even after Baptism, for we continue to sin. Though cleansed and renewed by the saving waters, we bear the wounds and disorder of sin deep within us. The ongoing work of conversion, therefore, continues as a task for the whole Church, who, “clasping sinners to her bosom, (is) at once holy and always in need of purification, (and) follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.” (LG 8).

Though our repentance must be expressed outwardly in our lives, it is not primarily a matter of “sackcloth and ashes.” Without an inner conversion of the heart, exterior forms of penance remain sterile. “Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed.” (CCC 1431). True repentance enables us to see sin through God’s eyes, and thus experience profound sorrow and contrition. It is a grace to be sought, and one that the Lord is eager to bestow!

The interior penance to which we are called finds outward expression in many ways, but especially in the three traditional forms recommended by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. (Mt 6:1-18). These express and authenticate our interior conversion in relation to God, oneself and others.

Our ongoing conversion is sustained by our active participation at Mass, through which we participate in Christ’s redemptive sacrifice and are nourished with the Bread of Life in Holy Communion. It is from the Holy Mass that every grace flows as from a fountain of divine charity.

Christ has entrusted to his Church all of the means necessary to assist us along the way of repentance and holiness. “In order to reach this perfection, the faithful should use the strength dealt out to them by Christ’s gift.” (LG 40). One sadly neglected gift in our time, however, has been the Sacrament of Penance. Far too many Catholics approach this sacrament rarely, if ever. Without a renewed esteem for this gift and a return to its regular and frequent celebration, we remain severely hampered in our ability to realize our fundamental vocation through the call to holiness.

The Sacrament of Penance is the ordinary way of obtaining forgiveness and remission of serious sins committed after Baptism. It heals and strengthens us, reconciling us to God and to his Church.

It is through this sacrament of mercy that we encounter the mystery of God’s unconditional love which Jesus presents in the parable of the prodigal son. (Lk 15 11-32). It is this merciful face of Christ, who reveals the Father’s love for us, which we must rediscover through the Sacrament of Penance.

I call upon my brother priests and our catechists to commit ourselves to developing new pastoral strategies and an effective catechesis to renew our understanding and esteem for this sacrament. We need to find practical ways of encouraging its celebration and assure its ready availability in each of our parishes. We are stewards of the mysteries of God. As good stewards, let us exercise creativity and generosity in promoting this sacrament in an effective and compelling manner.