The Joy of Forgiving and Being Forgiven
Years ago, I was having dinner at the rectory of a parish where I was in residence. It was Holy Saturday evening. When we sat down to dinner, the Pastor told us how relieved he was that he had allowed ample time for confessions throughout Holy Week and had clearly informed his parishioners that no confessions would be heard prior to the Easter Vigil which was scheduled to begin at 9:00 p.m. We all applauded his foresight and began to eat.
Then the doorbell rang. The housekeeper answered the door and told the Pastor that a parishioner needed to speak to him right away. The Pastor left the dinner table and returned, crestfallen, to tell us the news that many people were waiting in church to go to confession. The parochial vicar offered to go over to church to tell parishioners that the scheduled time for confessions was over and that none would be heard that evening. But the Pastor, already advanced in years, quietly said, "No, we can't do that. I'm going over." Grudgingly, I agreed to do the same.
Business was brisk. Three of us priests continually heard confessions for over two hours. And then came the last of my penitents on that memorable evening. He hadn't been to confession in over forty years. His voice was gruff and he smelled of tobacco. He told me he didn't know where to begin but with just a little encouragement on my part, he let loose with a torrent of sins mixed in with life's tragedies and setbacks. There he was, pouring out his soul on the other side of the screen. This penitent then summed his heartfelt confession with words like these: "Father, I'm just a God-forsaken sinner!"
Many emotions crowded in on my mind and heart at that moment. I found myself asking God's mercy on my own soul for having been reluctant to hear confessions that evening. My remorse was coupled with wonderment over God's working in that man's soul. I was humbled to be an instrument of his reconciliation with God and the Church. And when he departed, I sat in the confessional utterly grateful to God for the gift of my priesthood and asked for the grace always to be a generous and loving confessor.
For the past two Lenten seasons, the priests of the Diocese of Bridgeport have provided access to the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Penance every Tuesday in Lent from 7:00 until 9:00 p.m. in all the parish churches in Fairfield County. They have demonstrated again and again their generosity as confessors and their deep pastoral charity as stewards of the forgiveness which Jesus won for us by His Cross and Resurrection and which He communicates to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. As a result, many people have returned not only to the Sacrament of Penance but also to the practice of the Faith.
I am deeply grateful to my brother priests for helping to conduct what has become an annual Lenten Penance Campaign in the Diocese of Bridgeport. Soon you will see billboards on major thoroughfares, on busses, and at train stations inviting one and all to be "reconciled to God." The invitation is to stop in at any Catholic Church in Fairfield County on any Tuesday in Lent between 7:00 and 9:00 p.m. to take part in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Once again, easy-to-use guides for examining one's conscience and for going to confession will be provided. All this is courtesy of the generosity of the Knights of Columbus and, above all, the goodness of our priests who stand ready to be the sign and instrument of God's forgiveness.
We, your priests, are deeply aware of our own need for God's mercy. We see the importance of the Sacrament of Penance and sound spiritual direction in our own lives and ministries. We also know from personal experience and from our pastoral experience, that the Church's teaching on sin and forgiveness is not about laying a guilt trip on people for breaking arbitrary, old-fashioned rules. The truth is that sin and what follows in the wake of sin never makes people happy and never leads to their fulfillment. Sin has a way of isolating us, cutting us off from authentic love, paralyzing us from doing what our conscience tells us is both right and good. Sin has a way of corroding our human dignity and blocking us from fulfilling our God-given potential. Not only is sin morally wrong it can also make our lives chaotic and sad and, in the process, bring chaos and sadness to other people, especially to our families, friends, and fellow parishioners.
Tragically, many people do not see the effects of sin in their lives until much damage has been done. So often we can go through life bearing enormous burdens sin imposes, not merely on our external relationships with others, but also on our interior selves, our inmost mind and heart. Yet we need not be paralyzed by our sins. Calling sin by its proper name, recognizing the harm it has caused, and then unburdening ourselves in a contrite confession followed by absolution helps us to break the power of sin and evil in our lives, making us free to embrace what is truly good and beautiful. God's reconciling love helps us to forgive others who wronged us and gives us the joy of being agents of forgiveness and peace to those around us. For when the priest says, "...through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and, I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit..." – in that moment of grace we are truly freed of our sins whether they be big or small, old or new. Indeed, the only things that escape God's mercy are those things which we hold back from his love.
These past two years, I have taken part in the Lenten Penance Campaign by going to various parishes on Tuesday nights to hear confessions. The first year, I brought along a prayer book known as the Liturgy of the Hours, thinking that there would be ample time for prayer while I waited for the next penitent. Like many of my brother priests, however, I found myself continuously hearing confessions, sometimes until well after 10:00 p.m. And the penitents whom I encountered and served in the Lord's name filled me with gratitude to our God who is rich in mercy.
Through the years, I have often thought of that Holy Saturday penitent who called himself "a God-forsaken sinner." In fact, no one is God-forsaken except those who cut themselves off from his mercy. No sin is too great or too small to be remedied by God's mercy and each one of us stands in need of the Lord's reconciling love. I urge all of you to take advantage of the 2011 Lenten Penance Campaign by making a heartfelt confession and by welcoming into your hearts, ever more deeply, the Lord's forgiveness and loving kindness. As a diocesan family of faith, may we unite in seeking the Lord's mercy and in rejoicing over His reconciling love.