By Cardinal Justin Rigali
The U. S. Government’s official web portal (USA.gov) lists the following top five New Year’s resolutions made by Americans this year:
1) Lose weight
2) Manage debt
3) Save money
4) Get a better job
5) Get fit
If any, or all, of these sound familiar to many of us, it tells us that we have a great deal of company if we have made some or all of these resolutions. There is another aspect of these resolutions that many Americans may also have in common. This is the fact that while these resolutions have been made by many, they probably have also been broken by most. This is not a discouraging or cynical thought, it is merely realistic. Perhaps this is why the concept of a New Year’s resolution is not part of Christian spirituality.
Spirituality must be based on what is true and possible. It also has within it the constant opportunity to change and begin again. This is the message of Jesus. We have just completed the Christmas season, and while that liturgical celebration has come to an end, its benefits never end. While the liturgical celebration takes place at a particular time, the benefits of that event make up the life of the Church. We call this life grace and while it can be lost by sin, it can always be restored through sorrow and the mercy of Jesus.
This week, I would like to address that wonderful sacrament which makes it possible for us to begin again whenever we wish or need to. In the Sacrament of Penance, which is also called the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Confession, we can always be renewed, forgiven and be given the opportunity to make a good resolution for the future in our relationship with God and our neighbor.
Basic beliefs concerning sin and forgiveness
In discussing this week’s topic, there are three very basic truths that need to be affirmed at the beginning: first, that we believe that there is a reality called sin; second, we also believe in forgiveness and third, the mercy of God which makes forgiveness possible is without limits as long as we are sorry. Why is it necessary to proclaim these basic truths? Because they are often misunderstood or forgotten.
In order to highlight the Sacrament of Reconciliation in our own times, the Apostolic Penitentiary, the internal Tribunal of the Church, sponsored a two day conference two weeks ago highlighting its activities. In the course of a paper he delivered at the Conference, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Papal Secretary of State, stated: “Today it seems that the sense of sin has been forgotten.” This sums up why we need to affirm its reality.
The Apostle John writes in his first Letter: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Jesus affirmed our sinful inclinations when he taught us to pray using the words: “forgive us our trespasses” (cf. Luke 11:4; Matthew 6:12).
In a talk given to the young people of the Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona in 2005, Bishop Thomas Olmsted said: “Popes this last century have described a loss of the sense of sin as a phenomenon that is accompanied by the loss of the sense of God. We become truly eager for the grace of conversion when deep down inside of us we feel real shame and real sorrow for our own sinfulness and the hurt it causes others.” These words remind us that an awareness of sin is not an end in itself, nor is it a completely negative reality.
An awareness of sin should lead to sorrow. Sorrow should lead to seeking forgiveness. Forgiveness should lead to a desire for conversion, and the grace that we receive in the Sacrament of Penance strengthens our good resolutions to bring about that conversion. Just as we may feel the “weight” of overindulgence after the Christmas season, which leads us to a good resolution, so when we experience the weight of our sins we should be led to seek forgiveness and pursue a conversion of life. What can first be perceived as something negative then leads to what is positive.
Belief in sin is liberating
It can be attractive to accept the philosophy of much of what we see in modern society, which seeks to eliminate any notion of sin from our thought process. The idea of not having to worry about what our consciences are telling us, or about being faithful to how we have been brought up, or about being required to keep God’s commandments can all seem to give us a great freedom. However, if we accept this way of thinking, we will often be left confused and lonely.
We will also notice that the sources of communication and entertainment which seek to blur our notion of right and wrong often replace those ideas with their own concepts. Isn’t it better to place our trust in our God, who “can neither deceive nor be deceived,” as the Act of Faith tells us, and who also has promised us mercy and forgiveness when we transgress His laws than to submit ourselves to subjective and arbitrary judgments?
I am told that one rarely sees anyone smoking in movies or television shows today and that most characters in these shows are shown to carefully buckle their seat belts when they get into a car. These are examples of praiseworthy conduct, which encourage the health and safety of the viewer. However, the same care is not taken when it comes to upholding virtue or the institution of marriage and the family and the things of God in these same vehicles of public entertainment.
In our recognition of sin as a transgression of God’s law and a rupturing of our friendship with Him, we do not give ourselves over to arbitrary and fickle definitions but clearly recognize reality for what it is. When we have done that, we can embrace God’s infinite mercy with sincere sorrow and be assured that His mercy will forgive us and allow us to begin again. This is true freedom and liberation.
The sacrament of forgiveness and of a new beginning
We know that all sin is personal and inspanidual. Even the sins of nations or societies involve inspaniduals who have made choices. Since sin is personal, forgiveness must also be personal. This personal forgiveness and the opportunity for us to have a new life in God was accomplished by Jesus through the Paschal Mystery of His Death and Resurrection. In all of the actions that brought about our salvation, Jesus was able to look down through the ages, unencumbered by the limits of time, and see each inspanidual who ever lived. For each one, He suffered and died. In order to bestow His forgiveness in time to inspaniduals who have sinned, He has entrusted the Sacrament of Penance to His Church.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we read: “Only God forgives sins. Since he is the Son of God, Jesus says of himself, ‘The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ and exercises this spanine power: ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ Further, by virtue of his spanine authority he gives this power to men to exercise in his name (cf. John 20:21-23)” (CCC, 1441).
The Catechism is explaining that beautiful Sacrament of Penance, which affirms the reality of personal sin by asking that the inspanidual confess his or her own personal sins in a specific manner, with sorrow for them and an intention to make every effort to avoid sin in the future. The priest, who receives from the Church the power to forgive sins that the Church has received from Christ, then applies the personal love, mercy and forgiveness of Jesus to the inspanidual penitent. What a beautiful way to affirm that Jesus wants to have a personal relationship with us and that, when we offend Him, He is always prepared to allow us to start again once we have been forgiven.
New Year’s resolutions are not bad things. However, they are often somewhat unrealistic. What do we do when we break a resolution, as many have probably done since January 1? Do we have to wait until next year? In the Sacrament of Penance, God permits us to receive His mercy and forgiveness whenever we need it. He then allows us to begin again. He does not leave us on our own when we leave the confessional but gives us the strength of His grace to help us in our weakness. What a marvelous way to repair our relationship with Jesus when we have harmed it and to begin again whenever we wish.
29 January 2009