At the beginning of Lent we hear afresh the call to reconciliation with God. It is the period in the Church’s liturgical calendar when there is a particular focus on God’s sacrificial love for us. During this time we focus on what God has done for us. We take stock of our lives and assess how we are living the ideals of the Christian life. St Paul reminds us: “It was God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the work of handing on this reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18).
In the Lord’s death on the cross God has reconciled humanity to himself. St Paul is conscious that he has been entrusted with the ministry of proclaiming this reconciliation. He understands that he, as an apostle and evangelist, has the role of calling people to be reconciled with God. This is the mission of the Church in the world. St Paul emphasises the urgency of his mission when he says later, “Now is the acceptable time; this is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor 6:2).
Reconciliation with God is necessary because of the sin of humanity. Through the original act of disobedience our first parents fractured humanity’s relationship with God. As a result, among other things, we now experience an internal disunity, we want to do what is good and right but find ourselves unable always to do this.
There is a story about the Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton. A newspaper reporter asked him what was wrong with the world. His answer was not a list of national and international problems, but he answered simply in just two words: "I am."
Lent provides the opportunity for each of us to again acknowledge this truth. We should not look beyond ourselves in responding to the issue of evil in the world. We need to look at our own heart, our own lives and honestly admit that sin lies within us. It is not an easy thing, but it is a most freeing thing to be able to say, “I am a sinner”.
However sin is not the end of the story, but it is only through admitting our sin and seeking forgiveness that we can receive God’s mercy and live in a fuller union with him. It is by recognising our sinfulness that we invite God to carry out his saving work in us.
How do we personally respond to this call to reconciliation with God? Perhaps we find ourselves struggling with it. Maybe we feel that God understands us and is lenient enough with our shortcomings. Or perhaps we feel God expects too much for us, beyond what is possible. Some may feel as though God is somehow pressuring us, while others may feel that they are not that bad and therefore do not need such a reconciliation.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is not like the police car waiting for speeding drivers. It is not there to catch us out and penalise us for the wrong we have done. This sort of attitude causes us to approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation with reluctance, or we find that we cannot bring ourselves to use it at all.
Of course, in moments of proper reflection, we know that these attitudes are wrong. They do not capture a proper understanding of God and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but we cannot help how we feel. At times we can find it so hard to go to Confession, even when we know we are in need of the sacrament and healing grace it offers.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation properly understood is not a sacrament of penalty but a sacrament of healing, it is a sacrament of love.
We know conceptually that God is love. We know that God desires our good. We know that we will be forgiven in the Sacrament, but still we resist and hope that the call will go away. Lent can be an uncomfortable time for us each year.
Any parent knows that though a child may have rejected them or done something seriously wrong, they will never give up loving their child. Their love is constant and not dependent on the behaviour of their child. Thus, it is with God, only infinitely more so.
A parent longs for their child to return after they have taken the wrong path in life. This truth is captured so poignantly in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The father waits, and hopes, and responds with overflowing joy when his son returns. The message of the parable is evident – God waits for us to return to Him.
God waits because he wants to free us and heal us, and be in relationship with us. Our sin has damaged us. We need healing and this is what God wants to do for us. In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “That which is wrong, the reality of evil, cannot simply be ignored; it cannot just be left to stand. It must be dealt with; it must be overcome. Only this counts as a true mercy. And the fact that God now confronts evil himself because men are incapable of doing so—therein lies the ‘unconditional’ goodness of God.”
God was not satisfied with merely forgiving humanity’s sins; he did infinitely more than that: he took those sins upon himself, he shouldered them. The Son of God, says St Paul, became sin for us (see 2 Cor 5:21). This is hard for us to grasp but it is one of the central truths of our faith. St Bernard of Clairvaux commented, “What pleased God was not Christ’s death but his will in dying of his own accord: It was not death, then, but love that saved us!”
Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, Preacher to the Pope, has commented in one of his Lenten homilies, “The love of God reached human beings at the farthest point to which they were driven in their flight from him, death itself. The death of Christ needed to demonstrate to everyone the supreme proof of God’s mercy toward sinners. That is why his death does not even have the dignity of a certain privacy but is framed between the death of two thieves. He wants to remain a friend to sinners right up to the end, so he dies like them and with them”. At Calvary sin, death and love all meet and all are transformed in this encounter.
The sins of leaders
The sins of many priests and bishops in the Church have become public as the Royal Commission sums up its findings. The Catholic faithful are rightly outraged by what has been revealed. The lives of both victims and their families have been very seriously damaged, and in some cases destroyed, by the action of men who betrayed their vocation and their superiors who failed to adequately respond to these crimes. As Archbishop of Hobart I want to apologise for the terrible harm and suffering that has been done as a result of poor governance and inaction by the Church.
I have made a fundamental commitment to ensure that all necessary resources are being provided to safeguard young people and the vulnerable from abuse by clergy and staff of the Archdiocese. To this end I have initiated the Safe Communities project which will put in place the necessary structures, policies and procedures to meet and exceed national standards. During this Lenten period I would ask you to join with me in prayer for the victims and their families and would ask you to do all that you can to support the Safe Communities Framework when it is in place.
Please join in partnership with me to help safeguard young people and the vulnerable.
Acts of penance
The tradition of Lent is one of offering sacrifices and sufferings up as acts of penance for the forgiveness of sins. This practice is based on the notion of “redemptive suffering” which allows us to make up for the wrongs we have done, and, as St Paul teaches, “in our flesh complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24). We are able to do penance not only for our own sins, but also for the sins of others. In this way we participate in the mercy of God. This could include offering up every suffering as a sacrifice throughout this holy season. We can offer up every act of penance and every personal suffering for the Church, praying that it will be purified and raised up in holiness.
St John Paul II explains, “Christ, precisely as the crucified one, is the Word that does not pass away, and He is the one who stands at the door and knocks at the heart of every man, without restricting his freedom, but instead seeking to draw from this very freedom love, which is not only an act of solidarity with the suffering Son of man, but also a kind of ‘mercy’ shown by each one of us to the Son of the eternal Father” (DM, 8).
This is a profound thought. Christ calls forth not only love for Him and for humanity, but He invites us to be in union with Him in His suffering. Our meager sufferings can be united with His on the cross. During this Lent we can take on some small sufferings through our acts of self-denial and penance precisely in a desire to share in the sufferings of Christ.
A holy season
Lent is a holy season. It is a season of grace. It is a time for spiritual renewal. This year, as we enter into this holy season, let us offer our efforts of penance and self-denial for the purification of the Church. Let us unite our Lenten disciplines with the sufferings of Christ.
Let us pray not only for ourselves but for the Church during this Lenten time. Let us pray that God in his mercy will purify and renew the Church. That the Church will rise up in renewed holiness and be the instrument of love and life for the world.
Archbishop Julian Porteous