From St. Patrick's Day Pastoral letter to the clergy, religious and lay faithful of the Archdiocese of New York:
+ Timothy M. Dolan
Archbishop of New York
"If the Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of Penance are at the very heart of the Christian life, why is the latter neglected? It is a lamentable characteristic of the Church’s life in our time. Almost thirty years ago, soon to be Blessed Pope John Paul II convoked a Synod of Bishops addressed to the very topic of Reconciliation and Penance in the Mission of the Church. The penetrating analysis of the Holy Father’s subsequent apostolic exhortation retains its force today. He wrote in 1984 that, in an age when God is pushed to the margins, the awareness of our need for forgiveness will diminish, for “the loss of the sense of sin is thus a form or consequence of the denial of God: not only in the form of atheism but also in the form of secularism.”
We do not only observe a diminishing sense of sin in the secular culture around us. We find it in the Church herself. Perhaps it is an over-reaction to an earlier period, as the late Holy Father suggests:
“Some are inclined to replace exaggerated attitudes of the past with other exaggerations: From seeing sin everywhere they pass to not recognizing it anywhere; from too much emphasis on the fear of eternal punishment they pass to preaching a love of God that excludes any punishment deserved by sin; from severity in trying to correct erroneous consciences they pass to a kind of respect for conscience which excludes the duty of telling the truth.”
Fair enough. Not everything was perfect decades ago when most Catholics routinely went to confession – perhaps too routinely. But whatever problems existed in the 1950s are now a half-century in the past, and subsequent generations have grown up without any knowledge of whatever excesses may have existed. They have indeed grown up without what belongs to them as part of the patrimony as Catholics – the liberating, joyful experience of God’s mercy in the sacrament of penance.
We receive the gift of mercy to the extent that we realize our need for it. We desire forgiveness only if we acknowledge the seriousness of sin. The recently-beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman expressed the magnitude of sin with his characteristic literary force:
“The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.”
Do we think today that Blessed John Henry Newman is right? How many of us would argue that opposite – that a little sin here and there is no big deal? How many, both inside and outside of the Church, argue that a little sin here and there is worth this technological advance, or that public policy goal, or is an acceptable means to some desired end? As someone jokingly observed to me, “It’s the Lamb of God, not our culture, that’s supposed to take away the sins of the world!”
We just heard this past Sunday, the First Sunday of Lent, the account of the temptations of the Lord Jesus. Satan offers to Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if He would just bow down in worship. A little “devil worship” and Jesus would have the whole world! Wouldn’t that be more efficient than God’s own plan – the passion, death, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost, and two thousand years of evangelization? But no sin is worth even all the kingdoms of the world.
Blessed Cardinal Newman is only one in a tradition of saints who have spoken with great ferocity about the horror we should have for sin – including our own beloved Saint Patrick, who emphasized the essential role of penance in his conversion of Ireland.
We can speak so boldly about the horror of sin because the good news is that the Lord Jesus did not just die for sin in general, but for my sins, and yours. So our horror at sin should be accompanied by a serene confidence that forgiveness is ours should we ask for it with true contrition. Together with Saint Paul we can give thanks that where sin increases, grace abounds all the more (cf. Romans 5:20)! We’re not “hung-up” on guilt and sin; no, we’re obsessed with God’s mercy."