My dear People of God,
In my three previous pastoral letters for Lent, we have reflected upon the Sacrament of Penance. What we call commonly “confession” or “reconciliation” is the sacrament by which sin is forgiven and we experience the loving embrace of our Heavenly Father. This love prompted the Father to send the Son, who died for our sins, and extends loving mercy in the sacrament He gave to His Church. To His Church, in the person of His apostles, Jesus said on that first Easter night, “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:22-23). The Church continues His work and mandate of forgiving sin for salvation’s sake. However, we must seriously ask ourselves a question. What do we do with our lives once we have experienced the grace of conversion, repentance and forgiveness? The answer is, of course, to strive ceaselessly to cooperate with this grace in a life of holiness.
Jesus calls us to holiness, each and every one of us. He speaks of this call to holiness a number of times but particularly in the Sermon on the Mount. In this principle teaching moment of His life, Jesus says, “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). This is the preface statement to an entire set of teachings on a certain number of key commandments—on anger, adultery, divorce, swearing, justice and love of enemies. Jesus concludes with this central statement: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). We are called to perfection, not mediocrity.
When we hear those words, “be perfect,” our reactions vary. As a pastor, I listened to many a complaint. Some would say, “I’m not a monk. I live in the world and have to make a living. I must be realistic”—as though in some way making a respectable living for your family meant that out of necessity you had to commit at least a few sins from time to time. Still others would say, “Jesus was speaking about an ideal. The best I can do is live with my weaknesses and hope for the best”—which often became an excuse for continuing to live in sin. Finally, some defeated souls said, “I have tried and tried and fail every time. I give up”—which was the saddest response of all because of its hopelessness. The common element missing in these and any other response was the commitment needed for change. To pursue perfection requires change that is a result of conversion. This is essential but it is this change that frightens us the most. Fear, however, must be eliminated so that the grace of conversion can do its work. If not, the universal call to holiness will never receive our full and adequate response.
For this reason we need Lent and its call to conversion. We need also the Sacrament of Penance with its reminder of God’s love and forgiveness, not just in Lent but year round.
The universal call to holiness is not only the chief message of the Second Vatican Council but also the continuous teaching of the Church through the centuries. In explaining the instruction of Jesus to “be perfect,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoted the Second Vatican Council. “In order to reach this perfection the faithful should use the strength dealt out to them by Christ’s gift” (Lumen Gentium 40, 2). This perfection means striving to do the Father’s will in everything. That will is rooted in love, a real self-sacrificing love that places God and neighbor above self, not what so many commonly think of when they speak of love these days—a kind of comfortable, cozy fellowship that issues no challenge but rather opens the door to permissiveness. Real love, which is the way of perfection, comes only by way of the Cross. The Catechism says plainly, “There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2015).
When we began the new millennium, the Venerable, soon-to-be Blessed, John Paul II issued an apostolic letter, At the Beginning of the New Millennium (Novo Millennio Ineunte), in which we are challenged to consider where we have been and where we are going. The Holy Father spoke of a “program” for Christianity. He stated that there was no need for a “new program.” The “program” for Christianity already existed. He wrote, “…it has its center in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfillment in the heavenly Jerusalem.” In speaking in this way, the Holy Father reminded us that holiness is not only a state of being but for our purposes a task to be embraced. We must come to know, love and imitate Jesus Christ. This is a holiness that requires work, effort, and conversion. In another source, Pope John Paul II reminded us: “Christian holiness is not sinlessness but to always fight not to give in and be ready to start over again after each fall. Holiness is not the result of a person’s will power, but of his effort not to impede the action of grace in his soul, and to be the Holy Spirit’s humble collaborator.”
That statement brings me back to the Sacrament of Penance. Let us speak practically and personally. When I admit my guilt and ask forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance, I make what we as Catholics call “a firm purpose of amendment.” What is this? “A firm purpose of amendment” means that I will cooperate with the grace of conversion and strive to know, love and imitate Christ more fully. For example, when we confess that we have “missed Mass on Sunday,” we must ask why? Was it laziness or a soccer tournament or simply indifference? Some sins require more effort to determine the cause—like hatred of neighbor or denial of the faith. For others the cause is rather obvious—like stealing or pornography. When we have discovered the reason, then we will know what it is we must do. Perhaps we must reset our priorities. Perhaps we must learn to love Christ more than our pleasures. Whatever the reason, the truth is challenging, but this is what conversion is all about and it comes through “Christ’s gift” that has been given to us for our perfection. “There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle.” And there is no transformation of family and community, much less history, without holiness.
Many ask today, “Where am I going? What am I doing with my life?” They seem lost. It is a feeling with which all of us can identify at times. This sense of being lost comes from sin and alienation from God. The only remedy is God’s grace and a willingness to cooperate with that grace which is conversion. Prayer can help us.
The life of holiness, about which we have been speaking, requires prayer. Prayer is simply being present to God. Jesus left us numerous examples of His prayer in the Gospels. He often went off to a deserted place or up a high mountain to be alone in prayer. What were those moments of prayer like? About the prayer of Jesus, one thing is certain. He began by calling upon God as “Father” (cf. Mark 14:36 or John 17:1). And we by adoption do the same. As St. Paul so beautifully described it, “… you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, Abba, ‘Father!’” (Romans 8:15).
As a priest, I have often been struck by the silent stillness that descends on the congregation at the moment of the Consecration in the Eucharistic Prayer. As the sacred host is lifted, all eyes are fixed upon the altar and there is a silence like no other. What prayers are we joining to Christ at this sacred moment? What needs and petitions, what praise and adoration, are we bringing to the “Father”?
Another “Abba” moment for me as a priest is the moment at which the penitent enters the Reconciliation Room. The sinner is preparing to say, “Father, forgive me for I have sinned,” and I am preparing to listen as Christ would listen and to speak as Christ would speak. I have rarely felt so humbled and inadequate.
And in the quiet of our churches before the Blessed Sacrament or in our own homes late at night or early in the morning at some moment of personal encounter with our Lord, when we lift our voices in prayer and say, “Father, your will be done,” these are the moments of intimacy that confirm the life of conversion to which we are called. They are “Christ’s gift” to us, for He taught us how to pray.
May your Lent be filled with many graces and may you know and live the call to holiness.
Devotedly yours in our Lord,
+Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles