The Priority of Penance
Parenting is a privileged vantage point on fallen humanity. It is the constant observation of one’s own faults and foibles incarnated in miniature. When confronted with our own transgressions (“Did you hit him..?”) it takes years of virtue and grace, or direct divine intervention, not to offer the excuse of the transgressions of others (“But he…. first.”) G.K. Chesterton aptly reminded us that the best answer to the question “What’s wrong with the world?” is “I am.”
Speaking to US bishops, Cardinal Dolan quoted that Chestertonian line in a remarkable address that is likely only to garner headlines for the suggestion that Catholics go back to meatless Fridays. But the logic of his comments goes far deeper.
New York’s archbishop and the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops spoke his words at the bishops’ yearly meeting. If the Church is to respond to the Holy Father’s call for a New Evangelization, it must begin by a recommitment to holiness on the part of Catholics, led by those who have authority within the Church. If we are to take the Gospel off road, we had better get a multiple point inspection, change the oil, replace the filters and check the tire pressure. Cardinal Dolan focused on the need for the Sacrament of Penance.
Why Penance, among other sacraments?
“To be sure, the sacraments of initiation -Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist- charge, challenge, and equip the agents of evangelization. Without those sacraments, we remain isolated, unredeemed, timid and unfed.
“But, the Sacrament of Reconciliation evangelizes the evangelizers, as it brings us sacramentally into contact with Jesus, who calls us to conversion of heart, and allows us to answer his invitation to repentance — a repentance from within that can then transform the world without.”
Cardinal Dolan is fully aware that making this a priority will seem crazy given the problems facing the Church and the world. He addressed his critics at the end of his address:
“With this as my presidential address, I know I risk the criticism. I can hear it now: ‘With all the controversies and urgent matters for the Church, Dolan spoke of conversion of heart through the Sacrament of Penance. Can you believe it?’
“To which I reply, ‘You better believe it!’
First things first!”
The Holy Father has told the bishops, and the bishops are telling us, what any parent tells a child: to admit our faults and not use the faults of others as an excuse. What we most need to do is to change ourselves before we can change the world. For the New Evangelization, Penance is the priority.
The logic of the spiritual life so often runs seemingly counter to the logic of this world. A retreat, for example, is an advance. So, too, the first step in outward expansion is interior purification.
The architects of early churches based their designs on the hull of a ship. This survives in the word “nave” (from the Latin navis, ship.) The most important beam was the center beam which acted as a spinal column of sorts and held the nave together. Cardinal Dolan spoke to the builders of our Church in the US and told them, and us, where we can find the key beam for building the Church and the New Evangelization. The initial step in Evangelizing and in Church building is found, as always, in the Gospel: “Remove the wooden beam from your own eye first.” (Lk 6:42)