Dearly beloved of the Diocese of Lake Charles,
Last year on the First Sunday of Lent, I wrote to you on the importance of the Sacrament of Penance. I stressed that the Sacrament of Penance gives us the opportunity to hear the words spoken to us, “I forgive you.” I also emphasized that Our Lord Jesus knew of this need when in the Gospel of St. John He communicated to His Apostles and to His Church the power to forgive sins in His name. “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23). As we begin another Lent, I would wish to share with you a few more reflections on the importance of this Sacrament by which we are reconciled to God and to neighbor within the Church.
First, humility is needed for the Sacrament of Penance. When we have sinned, the grace of God through our conscience helps us realize the error of our ways. At that moment or soon after we acknowledge the fault and experience a sense of sorrow. If we allow the grace of God to continue its action in us, then we make a decision to change our lives. We seek to be reconciled. The important virtue that helps us through this journey is humility. Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in reflecting on this last Christmas, had this to say: “It takes man’s humility to respond to God’s humility.” What does Pope Benedict mean by “God’s humility”? I think the answer to that question is linked to the Sacrament of Penance.
God’s humility is first and foremost manifested in becoming Man. “And the Word became flesh” (John 1:14) the Gospel of Christmas day proclaims to us. God humbles himself by taking on frail and flawed human flesh. This humility of God is a profound mystery. St. Paul, probably quoting an ancient Christian hymn, speaks of this humility when he writes: “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8). To meet God we too must humble ourselves. We encounter God in the humility of accepting a dying to self through repentance. For this response of “man’s humility… to God’s humility”, Jesus gave us the Sacrament of Penance. Here we encounter Jesus as our Lord and Savior.
Let us take a brief look at how sin entered the world. Sin first appears in the Bible in the decision of Adam and Eve described in the Book of Genesis. God gives to our first parents all that is good but asks only one thing of them. “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden,” Eve explains to the tempter. “It is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die’” (Genesis 3:3-4). Of course, the temptation is that “you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad” (Genesis 3:5). Man rejects that God defines what is good and evil. The temptation is for Man, both male and female, to determine what is good and evil. In eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve, and consequently their descendants, define for themselves what can and cannot be done. When they do this, they die. In other words, they are separated from God. Physical death is a tribute to that separation. Physical death is to be feared, because there is no hope. How can hope exist if Man is his own god? In effect, Man says, “God is not going to tell me what to do.” It is obvious today that Man still tries to define what is good or evil, using his own secular definitions. What the modern world has not already accomplished by denying that sin exists, it seeks to achieve by redefining good and evil according to its own standards. The result of this thinking is the cause of much of the chaos we see in the world around us. Mercifully, God does not leave us alone in our self-centeredness.
God reconciles His creation to Himself. God creates a new Adam to reverse the action of the old Adam. For this to happen, God must become Man. He must enter the world of Man, humbly teaching us what it means to be selfless, taking death and turning it into victory. To do so, the Son of God embraces death humbly and freely. Then, and only then, can there be a resurrection. Jesus repeats that this is exactly what He will do. “This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. … I lay it down on my own. I have the power to lay it down, and power to take it up again” (John 10:17-18). This is real power, a power to defeat pride, the sin of Man, and even death itself. This is the power of Jesus, and it flows over into us who participate in Him. St. Paul expresses it beautifully: “For if by that one person’s transgression the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one person Jesus Christ overflow for the many” (Romans 5:15). That gift is here and now, now for anyone who turns to God with a contrite heart, with sorrow for sin, and participates in the rich, overflowing gift of God’s mercy. For us as Catholics, the Sacraments exist for this encounter.
This work of reconciling Man to God is given over to the Church. St. Paul also speaks of this, when he writes to the Corinthians: “And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us that ministry of reconciliation” (II Corinthians 5:18). The ministers of the Church are “ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through” them, “… be reconciled to God” (II Corinthians 5:20). What joy the early Christians must have experienced in the confession of sin, realizing that in so doing they were participating in the abundant mercy of God made possible through Jesus Christ. We read in the Letter of St. James the exhortation: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Perhaps we should remember the words of St. John, when he writes: “If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. If we say, ‘We have not sinned,’ we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (I John 1:9-10).
The new creation of God’s grace and mercy is found in the Sacraments of the Church. Through the Sacraments, which include the Sacrament of Penance, we encounter Jesus and His forgiveness. It is particularly in the Sacrament of Penance that the “ministry of reconciliation”, of which St. Paul spoke earlier, continues for us.
As a pastor of many years, I have heard people say, “I went to confession, and I felt as though a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I could have sprouted wings.” What prompted such joy? It was nothing less than an encounter with God’s mercy that was real. These people had humbly confessed their sins. They had encountered the Lord Jesus Christ. “From his fullness” they had “all received, grace in place of grace” (John 1:16). They died to their sins. They were renewed and alive. What a special happiness it is for a priest to say “in the person of Christ”, “God loves you and has forgiven your sins.” Here the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ are alive for the repentant sinner, who humbly embracing death, freely and completely, allows the Church to speak “in the person of Christ” the words of forgiveness. Grace opens the door to eternal life. It is through this Sacrament of Penance that the Catholic experiences the “justification by faith” spoken of in St. Paul’s writing.
Lent invites us to participate more fully in the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. I would strongly suggest that one way to do this is the regular reception of the Sacrament of Penance, not just in Lent but throughout the year. Through this Sacrament I embrace the “dying to self” that Jesus announces in the Gospel. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). These words take on new meaning every time I encounter God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Penance.
Extending to you my prayers for a holy season of Lent, filled with the rich experience of God’s mercy, I remain
Sincerely yours in our Lord,
+Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles