Well, the great feast of all Saints is behind us, and while that has always been a popular feast in the life of the Church, it has been an especially important one for me. I grew up in a parish on the north side of Houston that was blessed to be called the Church of All Saints. November 1st was always a school holiday. That really made a nine year old kid appreciate the sacredness of that day! The parish gave me a first rate elementary education at the cost of approximately $2.50 per month, so I have some reason to be grateful. I would spend the rest of my life celebrating the goodness and generosity of that school and the Dominican sisters who made that education possible. I stay in touch with them, but will never be able to adequately thank them. All Saints was not just a place where I went to elementary school. It was a great beautiful Church in an older part of the city. The current pastor has led a magnificent renovation of this nearly 100 year old structure, and it is now proudly titled the Cathedral of the Heights. I regret I am not able to get to Houston much any more, but when I do, I always insert a brief but very nostalgic trip to this church. I go inside the church- still splendid at the end of a century- and think about the fact that I was baptized- made the brother of Jesus- at that font. The old Communion rail is gone, but there is the spot where I knelt and received Holy communion for the first time. Only a few feet away, old Bishop Byrne confirmed upon me the Sacrament of Confirmation that marked the fact that I was called to walk in the footsteps as a committed follower of Jesus of Nazareth.
I was not a perfect kid! There were times, young as I was, that I acted improperly. The sisters backed up my mother in teaching me the correct moral code for life. When I became conscious of having failed, over on the side of the church was a cute little triple box where I knelt before an ordained priest, admitted the sorrow that I had not lived up to what Jesus has called me to do and to be. But, I never left that little box without a joyous sense of relief and forgiveness.
The Church does not use the Sacrament of Reconciliation today as well as it did then, and that is truly a tragic loss. I pray for a resurgence.
Walking back towards the exit I pass the spot where my father, my mother, and my siblings funeral services were conducted. Then, out the front door, I realize what a magnificent thing is the gift of memory!
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The sacraments are the center and core of the life of the Catholic Church. They provide us with a point of encounter with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and give us the grace and strength to move forward more effectively as we endeavor to walk in his footsteps. I recently talked about the Sacrament of the Last Anointing. I referred to the fact that when it is carried out in a proper liturgical manner (although sometimes that is not possible) it is truly a beautiful experience. That thought, however, got me to realizing that there is a very real symbolic beauty to each of the sacraments and each of them conveys in a physical or outward way the reality that is at the core or heart of the sacrament.
Today I would like to talk about reconciliation. That is the proper name for the sacrament that over the years most of us have simply referred to it as confession. Reconciliation is a much better name because it talks about the very essence of what is happening when this sacrament is celebrated. The act of confessing our sins is an important part of reconciliation but it is actually not of the essence. The essence is in the sorrow in our hearts and that is the absolute condition for reconciliation to be received.
But let’s describe the scene and meditate on it for a while. An individual –man, woman, or young adult, becomes conscious that he or she has failed in one way or another in living out their Christian life. When they become conscious of that failure they have a sense of sorrow and repentance. All of us have experienced this and when we do we are conscious of the fact that in some sense this failure, this sin has separated us more or less from our relation to our Divine Lord and for the Christian community that he has established, the community of faith which is the Church.
When all of this occurs we bring ourselves to the priest who symbolizes the presence of the whole Christian community. Then, in a position of humility, whether kneeling or sitting, we admit our failure, express that sorrow and receive the forgiveness of Jesus Christ which passes through the instrumentality of the Church into our own individual lives. The result is reconciliation. Our failures have been set aside, the grace of Christ is within us and we are prepared to move forward in a determined manner to live better lives. I love the fact that as we leave the confessional, the point of reconciliation, the priest always says, “Please pray for me.” There is reality in action.
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Sin is always with us, and that is certainly true as far as this week is concerned! The other day I talked about the fact that we find ourselves in different situations in our lives, and those situations can generate different temptations to stumble and fall morally, and different responses to those temptations.
First, I mentioned older Christians (and I be one!). Now, I’d like to say a few words about those people who find themselves in what, in my opinion, are the most difficult years. I mark this arbitrarily as between 30 and 50 years of age. For most of us, are careers have been launched, and their future prospects fairly identifyable. Our children are half grown. Our parents are sick and in need of help. Problems associated with work often do not seem to be solvable. It’s a tough time.
These are the years that put great strain on marriage- a strain that occasionally leads to missteps. Adultery is an obvious example, and so is dishonesty or theft in our workaday world. If these sins are entered into freely, rupture our relationship with God until we have atoned through our sorrow and reception of the Sacrament of Penance. These are the years that seem to be extremely difficult, while at the same time, easy escapes from our burdens are not on the horizon.
Persons in these years can sometimes be terribly disheartened, discouraged, bitter, and lose their motivation. These reactions are counterproductive and sometimes destructive, but not SINFUL. These are the years that call for heroism and generosity, and not a preoccupation with sin.
God bless the middle ages!
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We’re still on SIN. I began this by mentioning that many are curious about what the priest hears in the confessional, hour after hour and year after year. I usually answer that question with something very true, but for me, at least, is a cliche. There is not much variety! While we have received 10 Commandments from GOD, most human beings have serious trouble with only two or three of them. We DO honor our parents. We do NOT steal. We DO try to worship God. But some of us have more difficulty with the 6th, 7th, and all that coveting business.
Sins are committed in the face of temptation. IF the temptation is resisted, we are spiritually stronger. If we succumb, we are damaged somewhat. But temptations vary on the basis of age, place in life, and spiritual formation. Let’s talk about elderly penitents today.
They are settled in life. Their day to day experience is often routine. For the most part, they have established good habits, relationships that are suppportive. They have intelligence and free will, so are certainly capable of sin- even grave sin- but most of them are free of grave sins the majority of the time. These people will confess “uncharitable speech”, the telling of risque jokes, failure to say morning prayers. While these weaknesses should be avoided, they are usually not “sinful” at all- just bad manners. Bad manners are to be avoided, but they are NOT sins in themselves.
Onward through the fog!
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I’m going to be talking about the Sacrament of Penance for several days, but I think first and foremost, we have to understand what we mean when we use that simple three letter word called SIN. Most of us throw it around constantly, often jokingly. “A second piece of pie would be sinful!” But the question of SIN involves profound spiritual reality. One is incapable of committing a sin unless he or she uses both of those awesome faculties of the soul in a manner that is at variance with what God expects of us. The first faculty is the intellect, the power by which we KNOW. The second is the WILL- the power which enables us to decide. Both of these faculties must be in play for a sin to be committed.
We must KNOW that something is wrong. We cannot commit a sin “accidentally”. We must freely CHOOSE the evil that is before us. Without that freedom, something terrible may happen, but it would not be sinful. A third component of sinfulness is the matter itself, which can vary from genicide to uncharitable gossip. In other words, the potential for human evil is as wide as the human experience itself.
Let me repeat: You cannot commit a sin unless you know that the issue before us is wrong, and that you freely choose to do it. Without these criteria, there are mistakes, tragedies, mishaps, etc. but not sinfulness.
If a small child slips out of sight and falls into a swimming pool and drowns, this is a tragedy, yes, but not a sin. Frequent daily prayer is a good thing, but many people CONFESS that they missed morning or evening prayers. There is no obligation to pray at a certain time. This is not a sin. But should we PRAY? You betcha!
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One of the great strengths of the Catholic priesthood is the trust that is placed in them by the thousands and thousands of penitents who, when confessing in the context of the Sacrament of Penance, bear their souls regarding what they perceive as sins. No one would ever dare ask me about the specific confession of an individual, but I have been asked on occasion how I see human sinfulness after 55 years of listening to very, very human confessions.
My answer frequently shocks the questioner, because quite frankly, the vast majority of us commit very few really serious sins, and we misconstrue our imperfections as actually being sins. A SIN is a transgression against God’s law. While there is enough of that to go around, most people are too hard on themselves. Grave and terrible sins are to be found among us, but happily, murderers and rapists are in short supply.
As we move through life, we find ourselves in different chapters, and each of these chapters presents its own rewards and dangers. In view of that, manifestations of human weakness vary with the age and circumstances of the penitant. More on that tomorrow.
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Can you celebrate Holy Week without going to the Sacrament of Penance? Not when I was a kid. Until the second Vatican Council, most adult Catholics would make every effort to receive the sacrament of penance, usually on one of the last three days of this week. They would come by the thousands, and they would leave with a great sense of relief, feeling they were properly prepared to receive Communion on that day of days, Easter Sunday morning.
To me, it was a beautiful scene, as by the tens of thousands, we knelt before another weak human being, and confessed our own failings. We rose up, however, with calm confidence that whatever it was that we brought to the Sacrament of Reconciliation was now behind us, and a new beginning had been found.
Today the Sacrament of Penance, “Confession”, continues to be very important in the life of the Church, but it is used less frequently. This is not all bad. In the Church of my childhood, Confession was frequently superficial, repetitious, and lacking a determined effort at reform. Today, I find adult penitents far more thoughtful, more serious, and committed than was true prior to the Council.
It would be good if you could celebrate Reconciliation this week, but even if you do not, let the glorious thought of God’s infinite, personal love for you overwhelm you as you celebrate the Resurrection.
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You must have read about it! Everybody is talking about it. Some people are intrigued. Most just laugh.
What will they think of next? The story I’m talking about is that some bright young techie at Notre Dame has developed an App for use in receiving the Sacrament of Penance. I’m very limited in my computer skills, so I don’t know exactly how it works, but I do know that it is being marketed as a means of keeping track of ones sins.
To me, that is really funny. I don’t mean that sinfulness is funny, but this project assumes that there is a divine computer in the sky keeping track of our individual transgressions and that God expects perfect harmony between our record and His.
Some sins can be very serious, but happily, most adult Christians find that the majority of their transgressions come under the category of “venial”. We are petty, proud, insensitive, and inappreciative. We lie a lot socially. when we look back over a day or week, we can see an almost countless number of petty failures. God does not care! What He WANTS from us is love and faithfulness.
When we go to the Sacrament of Penance, in our preparation we should stress whether or not we are deepening our love for our Creator. Really, whether or not we are responding to His infinite love for us. There is no place for that on the keyboard.
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