Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for Friday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

Mass for Seminarians of the Diocese of Fort Worth

January 29, 2021
Saint Joseph’s Seminary College
Covington, Louisiana

Hebrews 10:32-39
Psalm 37:3-6, 23-24, 39-40
Mark 4:26-34

We read in the Letter to the Hebrews today, “Therefore, do not throw away your confidence; it will have great recompense. You need endurance to do the will of God and receive what he has promised.” 

Confidence and recompense, endurance and acceptance, are blessings of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. The confidence required for our priestly vocations is nourished by our mature reception of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation requires you to be vulnerable in confessing your sins to Christ and it also requires the willingness to change and be converted. It nurtures confidence in God’s love for you in approaching the Holy Eucharist as one who knows that he is loved by Christ. It requires patience on our part to allow Christ to act in us in His time and on His terms not our own.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation comprises two equally essential elements: on the one hand, the acts of the person who undergoes conversion through the action of the Holy Spirit: namely, contrition, confession, and satisfaction; on the other, God’s action through the intervention of the Church. The Church, who through the bishop and his priests forgives sins in the name of Jesus Christ and determines the manner of satisfaction, also prays for the sinner, and does penance with him. Thus, the sinner is healed and re-established in ecclesial communion.” As we prayed in Psalm 37, “Commit to the Lord your way; trust in Him, and He will act.”

The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is an unequal dialogue between the penitent and Jesus through the instrumental and indispensable ordained ministry of the priest. The Catechism does not refer to this sacrament as “confession” but rather as the “Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.” This is important for our consideration because our temptation is to emphasize the first aspect, that of confession, to such an extent that the penitent subtly ceases to be in humble dialogue with Christ who removes our sins, and instead reduces the sacrament to consecutive monologues of penitent and priest.

When this happens, the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation comes to be mistreated as a form of self-help without true sorrow for one’s sins. Regret is different than contrition because contrition involves a firm purpose of amendment on the part of the penitent. In this situation, the priest is wrongly treated only as a functionary who declares the penitent to be “worthy” again to receive Holy Communion. In the same way, the penitent interprets his “right” to receive Holy Communion as a “demand” to receive the Eucharist on his own terms. Sadly, the penitent ceases to be truly a penitent and remains only one who is discouraged and defeated by sin. He does not believe that Christ truly makes a difference because he lacks trust. As the Psalmist writes, “Commit to the Lord your way; trust in Him, and He will act.”

This devises a notion that can only have its source in the devil’s cunning. This notion is that since one is a sinner, no real and lasting remedy exists for attachment to sin, and so one must remain a sinner with no real hope of conversion and freedom. The penitent settles instead for a momentary reprieve granted by the priest-confessor. The penitent loses confidence and remains hostage to the devil’s lie that Jesus came to save everybody else but him. The result is that the person remains in the isolation of spiritual mediocrity prone to the commission of even greater sin because he refuses to take the risk to trust Jesus’ love that he might love Jesus in return. 

The intimacy offered by Christ in the reception of the Eucharist is refused by the would-be penitent in exchange for distant cordiality. Survival by one’s own power is preferred over the life offered by Christ through the gift of His Body and Blood. The would-be penitent becomes ensnared deeper and deeper into futility and discouragement.

Our confidence is never in our own worthiness set apart from Christ. Our confidence is in the Blood of Christ that He shed for us. The Church is owed in her priests, men who are conscious and grateful for this source of their confidence, the boldness of a true son of the Father and not the brashness of an imposter.

One of the greatest privileges and duties of a priest is to offer himself as an instrument of the Lord’s work of reconciliation. If you want to be a good confessor — and please let me know if you do not want to be a good confessor — the indispensable starting place is to be a good penitent. To be a good penitent requires not only the detailed recitation of one’s sins, but also the enduring trust in Christ’s mercy and willingness to bring us to conversion over time. As the Psalmist writes, “Commit to the Lord your way; trust in Him, and He will act.”

The sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is not merely transactional — it is transformational. In this sacrament, people can meet Christ the merciful high priest who offers them not only forgiveness, but self-knowledge, generosity, humility, and the love needed to help effect a lasting change in their lives — the kind of change that allows them and our Lord to see that they are striving to live His command: “Go and sin no more.”

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