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Archbishop Timothy Dolan on Realizing the Seriousness of Sin

By Deacon Keith Fournier
March 21st, 2011
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

We need to be shocked by our sins, as the Holy Father says, and also be shocked that Jesus keeps us in His hand. The Sacrament of Penance accomplishes this in a supreme way. We prepare for confession by examining our consciences - looking hard, as it were, at the wretchedness in our heart. Then we receive absolution of those sins, and through the ministry of the Church are invited once again to be shocked at the mercy of God!

NEW YORK, NY (Catholic Online) - Readers of Catholic Online know of my deep respect and admiration for Archbishop Timothy Dolan. This is a Bishop who loves the Lord and the Church with an infectious enthusiasm borne of a sincere, living faith. Anyone who has been around him for any period of time experiences the obvious, he is filled with the joy of the Lord and an evangelizer, to the bone. He is a man comfortable in his own skin, at ease with the use of the media, filled with the Holy Spirit, and eager to share the Gospel, as it is found in its fullness within the Catholic Church.

No matter where an attack or a challenge comes from, this gutsy but gregarious Bishop goes out to greet them and does not back down. He is fearless. He is also willing to fight the enemies of the Church, but does so with velvet gloves! He confounds his opponents with Truth and wins them over with the Love of God, often making them friends. Wherever he has served he has been dearly loved by his priests and deacons. That is because he has a pastor's heart and knows the importance of a Bishop's relationship with his clergy. He is also a dynamic and inspiring communicator and solid teacher of the truths as taught by the Magisterium of the Church.Finally, he is a true leader, naturally and supernaturally.

When Archbishop Dolan was elected to the office of President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops I called it an historic turn of events and a sign of the Lord's continued guidance of the Church in the United States. I wrote "Truly, God has not forgotten His people in the Church in the United States.This is a day for rejoicing!" I also said then - and repeat it now - the United States of America has become mission territory. The Catholic Church in the United States is in need of the "New Evangelization." Archbishop Timothy Dolan is a wonderful instrument of this New Evangelization, a trumpet in the hands of the Lord.

The Catholic Church and the message of authentic freedom which she proclaims is the only hope for this age being ravaged by a hungry darkness. In the wake of the absolute tragedy of the President of the United States, Barack Obama, unilaterally deciding on February 23, 2011 to no longer defend marriage, I awaited what kind of statement would come from our Bishops, now under the leadership of this great man, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.It was strong, clear and clearly written. Under his leadership, the Bishops have taken a strong posture in this vital defense of marriage and for that we should all be grateful. 

In an age when too many are focusing on the few clerics who have committed egregious sin - and some have - too few are focusing on the extraordinary gift of faithful Bishops, priests and deacons. One such extraordinary gift is Archbishop Timothy Dolan of the New York. Here is one excerpt from his St Patrick's Day post on his weblog, "The Gospel in the Digital Age", entitled "Saint Patrick's Day Pastoral Letter to the clergy, religious, and lay faithful of the Archdiocese of New York." This section is subtitled "Realizing the Seriousness of Sin". The entire teaching can be found here 

Archbishop Timothy Dolan is obeying the clear direction of the Holy Father to all Clergy to use the digital media in their ministry. In essence, his "blog posts" are the equivalent of an encyclical from a Bishop in the early church. Those handwritten letters of the successors of the apostles were circulated on foot, carried from town to town. "Encyclical" means "circulating letter". This is precisely what we are doing in making this wonderful teaching available digitally for all of our readers during this season of Lent:

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Realizing the Seriousness of Sin
Archbishop Timothy Dolan

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."(Venerable John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 2 December 1984, #18).

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." ( Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, "The Position of My Mind since 1845" in  Apologia Pro Vita Sua, 1864.)

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.

The World Speaks to Us of Our Sins

"In the midst of scandals, we have experienced what it means to be very stunned by how wretched the Church is, by how much her members fail to follow Christ. That is the one side, which we are forced to experience for our humiliation, for our real humility. The other side is that, in spite of everything, he does not release his grip on the Church. In spite of the weakness of the people in whom he shows himself, he keeps the Church in his grasp, he raises up saints in her, and makes himself present through them. I believe that these two feelings belong together: the deep shock over the wretchedness, the sinfulness of the Church - and the deep shock over the fact that he doesn't drop this instrument, but that he works through it; that he never ceases to show himself through and in the Church." (Pope Benedict XVI, Light of the World, 2010, p. 175.)

Perhaps the trauma of the sexual abuse scandals has taught us again, in a most painful way, of the reality of sin. Pope Benedict XVI makes that point above in his recent interview book, Light of the World. Yet if we only see the wretchedness in the Church, the wretchedness in the world, the wretchedness in my own life, then we are condemned to discouragement, even to despair. We need to be shocked by our sins, as the Holy Father says, and also be shocked that Jesus keeps us in His hand. The Sacrament of Penance accomplishes this in a supreme way. We prepare for confession by examining our consciences - looking hard, as it were, at the wretchedness in our heart. Then we receive absolution of those sins, and through the ministry of the Church are invited once again to be shocked at the mercy of God!

At the height of the sexual abuse controversies last year, the Holy Father reminded us that repentance itself is a grace. It is not a burden to repent of our sins, but a blessing: "Repentance is grace; it is a grace that we recognize our sin; it is a grace that we realize the need for renewal, for change, for the transformation of our being. Repentance, the capacity to be penitent, is a gift of grace. And I must say that we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word penitence - it seemed to us too difficult.

"Now, under the attacks of the world that speak of our sins, we see that the capacity to repent is a grace. And we see that it is necessary to do penance, that is, to recognize what is wrong in our lives, open ourselves to forgiveness, prepare ourselves for pardon by allowing ourselves to be transformed." (Pope Benedict XVI, Homily for Mass with Members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Pauline Chapel, Apostolic Palace, 15 April 2010.)

Is that not exactly the case? That we have shied away from words like penance, repentance, contrition - even the basic reality of sin? We have failed to speak about them, and the now, as we have experienced so painfully, to our shame and embarrassment, we face the "attacks of the world that speak of our sins". The attacks are real, and so too are our sins! The Christian should not wait for others to speak of his sin; we should confess it simply, repent sincerely, and be forgiven quickly!

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