5th Sunday of Lent
April 10, 2011
Among priests one hears a joke in which a pastor tells his parishioners that he is terribly afraid of dying in the confessional. “Why?” they ask him. He replies, “Because no one would find me for days!” Another priest told me that, after six months in his new parish, he announced to the people that he was asking the bishop for a transfer. “You don’t need me. I’ve sat in the confessional for half-a-year, and nobody has come. You must all be saints. I want to serve sinners.”
These stories are not mine. These are from Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York in his pastoral letter issued last month entitled “The Altar and the Confessional.” We may laugh at these stories. But this is no laughing matter. The sacrament of Confession is not anymore popular among many Catholics. Thousands receive Holy Communion, but only a handful of them go to confession. It is either many Catholics are becoming holy, or they have totally lost the sense of sin.
One major factor for this sad reality in the Church is the do-it-yourself mentality so prevalent among people nowadays. The present culture has successfully ingrained in our minds and behavior the attitude of self-sufficiency and autonomy, making one’s absolute independence the primary goal in life. We often hear people saying, “I want to do it my way” or “I can handle this myself. I don’t need anybody’s help.”
This attitude caters to a selfish behavior, and has made so many people lonely and isolated. This is not what our Lord wants for us. He wants us to live in peace, harmony and happiness. That is why He created us as social beings. In the Book of Genesis, after creating Adam, God said, “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him” (Gen 2:18).
In our spiritual journey, we are not – and should not be – alone. As pilgrims, we travel together as members of one community, one family of God. We need one another; we are not meant to be independent, but interdependent. This particularly becomes evident when we fall into sin. Mortal sin cuts us off from the grace of God and from community life. We cannot rise up by our own power. We need the help of others, the Church, so that we can approach Jesus and regain our freedom and life.
This is clearly illustrated in the Gospel this Sunday. Lazarus was a close friend of Jesus. He died and was entombed for four days. When Jesus came, he raised him up from death by just calling out to him, “Lazarus, come out!” What is noteworthy is that afterwards, Jesus gave out an order to his disciples, “Untie him and let him go.” Though raised from death, Lazarus could not move because of the burial cloths that bound his hands and feet. Someone had to untie him to free him from this bondage. Jesus sought the cooperation of his disciples in giving to Lazarus the fullness of his new life and freedom.
This Gospel event alludes to the sacrament of Penance or Confession. When we are in mortal sin, we are spiritually dead. Though God wants to forgive us and give us new life, He waits for our assent in freedom. Yet no matter how great is our desire to go back to God, we cannot move on our own for we are paralyzed by sin; we are spiritually shackled by the bonds of sin. This is where the Church, the community of believers, comes in. Through the ministry of the Church, in the sacrament of Penance, the priest cuts loose the oppressive bondage by the words of sacramental absolution.
So, for those who espouse the idea of “direct-to-God confession”, it is simply not possible according to the mind of God. Worse still, it is just a lame excuse of proud and selfish persons who refuse to humble themselves and ask the help of another. Undoubtedly, it is one of the attractive inventions of a culture that has lost the sense of sin.
The loss of the sense of sin is such an unfortunate thing to happen to any believer. But, has the world really lost it? Archbishop Dolan does not think so. In his pastoral letter, he noted that, on the contrary, people have become more sensitive to sin. Proof of this is the fact that scandals, misdemeanors, crimes and sinful behaviors of famous personalities are the regular fare of television, magazines and newspapers. The media is very busy poking its nose into the private lives of politicians, celebrities and even priests, hoping to bring out into the open all their dirty linens and skeletons in their closet. And the people eagerly patronize such unsavory news and nasty gossips.
Ironically, while this present culture is drifting away from the sacrament of Confession, it has also, at the same time, adopted the “confessional culture,” as Archbishop Dolan called it. Reality shows, talk shows and social networking sites reveal the personal lives and sinful behavior of people who unabashedly “confess” to the worldwide public. These are confessions, that’s true, but not in the sacrament, and so there is no absolution, no forgiveness and no redemption. These end up in more sorrow and despair, and the sins that are exposed in the media are trivialized and even romanticized.
As Christians, we are not without hope. In His unfathomable wisdom and boundless love for sinners, God has given us the sacrament of Penance. We are never alone in seeking His mercy and forgiveness. The Church, through the priest, works with Jesus in this sacrament to untie the bondage of sin and give us freedom.
We are now on the fifth week of Lent. Next Sunday, we will begin the Holy Week with the celebration of Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday. If until now we have not yet availed of the sacrament of Confession, what are we still waiting for? We may be running out of time. We are serious about filing our income tax before the deadline, and we know when the deadline is. But in matters of the soul, nobody knows the deadline – it may come when we least expect it.
Fr. Mike Lagrimas
St. Teresa Church
141 Henry Street
New York, NY 10002