G.K. Chesterton, the brilliant English convert and apologist once wrote: “The answer to the question, ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ is just two words: ‘I am.’ Chesterton had an uncanny way of nailing uncomfortable truths with remarkable clarity.
Quoting Chesterton in this memorable way, Cardinal Timothy Dolan in his recent presidential address to the USCCB focused our attention on one of the key themes for the New Evangelization: our call to conversion. The emphasis is on “our” call. Evangelization begins with us, that is, with our own evangelization. During the ad limina visits earlier this year, Pope Benedict XVI reminded a group of U.S. bishops of this same crucial truth: “Evangelization appears not simply as a task to be undertaken ad extra (toward others outside); we ourselves are the first to need re-evangelization.” During this Year of Faith, so intimately linked to the New Evangelization, we are summoned to rediscover the riches of our faith in all of its fullness and freshness through an encounter with Christ in his Church. Fifty years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council, we are still in the process of receiving its teaching and its clear call to holiness, communion and mission. The first document which the Council Fathers approved, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, made this same point. We must be the first to hear and respond to the call to conversion. “To believers also the church must ever preach faith and penance.” (SC 9). Conversion is a lifelong process. We cannot be heralds and effective witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ for others unless we have been touched and transformed by the Gospel ourselves.
It is through the sacraments of initiation, Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist that we are made sharers in the mystery of Redemption through a living encounter with Christ in his Church. These sacraments equip us for holiness and for our mission as evangelizers. They strengthen and nourish our faith.
But the pre-eminent sacrament for the New Evange-lization is the Sacrament of Penance. Unfortunately and ironically, the Second Vatican Council’s clear call to a renewal of the liturgy and the sacraments as the necessary means of fostering growth in faith and holiness for the sake of mission has not resulted in the expected renewal of the Sacrament of Penance. Instead, we have witnessed its near disappearance in parish life. How often have I and many pastors heard confessions before weddings, Confirmations or even on death beds, only to learn that the last time a penitent had been to confession was at their first Reconciliation? Too often. What grace has been forfeited as a result of the neglect of such a precious gift? Only God knows. Without the Sacrament of Reconciliation, our faith becomes stunted and we lose touch with the experience of the unmerited mercy of Christ which is the very essence of the Good News.
In order for us to be-come effective evangelizers, we must first be converted ourselves. That is, we must have a living, sustaining and transforming experience of the grace and mercy of Christ ourselves. Only thus will we be compelling and credible witnesses to the Good News of salvation. Unless we are living with a vivid sense of God’s mercy transforming and reconciling us in our own weakness and sinfulness, we cannot share this with others. Put another way, if we live our lives rooted in this regular experience of God’s gracious love and mercy, we will radiate a joy that others will find irresistible. We will be filled with the confidence that comes not from ourselves but from Christ dwelling within us.
There is no more effective means of encountering the mercy of Christ in such a deeply personal and ecclesial way than the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This is the means given to us by Christ himself, who has tailored his gift to address our spiritual, emotional and psychological needs. Here the mercy and love of Christ becomes real for baptized persons in a way that heals, reconciles and restores the fervor of our faith. Through the frequent reception of this beautiful sacrament, we experience redemption and mercy through the forgiveness of our sins.
St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests, began the renewal of his parish in Ars by catechizing his lukewarm parishioners about the importance of Confession. He recognized it as an indispensible tool for evangelization. He spent time in the confessional even when nobody came. Eventually they began to come and soon the parish was totally transformed.
During this Year of Faith, I call upon all of the faithful to rediscover and celebrate regularly this precious sacrament of mercy. I ask our priests to make the Sacrament of Penance the subject of preaching and teaching and to actively encourage the frequent reception of this sacrament by being generously available in the confessional. Confessions ought to be scheduled at such times that the faithful are able to come without burden. That will speak of its importance. I also invite our priests, who may not be sufficiently fluent in Spanish, to invite brother priests with greater mastery of the Spanish language to assist them in this ministry when pastoral circumstances warrant it.
If this Year of Faith produces only one fruit, I will be content if it leads to more frequent and fruitful celebration of Sacrament of Penance among Catholics. It is the sacrament for the New Evangelization.