Confess and be free

“Conversation with God from the depths of the heart”—this is how the newest doctor of the Church, St. Gregory of Narek, began every one of the 96 prayers in his most famous work, “Lamentations.”

On Feb. 23, Pope Francis declared St. Gregory of Narek, an Armenian monk and poet, a doctor of the Church. This distinction means that his writings are recognized as having doctrinal insight and being beneficial for the faithful.

One of the hallmarks of this new doctor’s writings is his focus on man’s separation from God and his journey to reunite with him. The very first prayer in “Lamentations” captures this spiritual pilgrimage well. St. Gregory writes, “The voice of a sighing heart, its sobs and mournful cries, I offer up to you, O Seer of Secrets, placing the fruits of my wavering mind as a savory sacrifice on the fire of my grieving soul to be delivered to you in the censer of my will.”

That we all need God’s mercy is a fundamental truth of our existence. It is equally true that he wants to hear your deepest desires and struggles, and he wants to forgive you of your sins.

When he celebrated the Ash Wednesday liturgy, Pope Francis spoke to this reality, declaring, “Dear brothers and sisters, the Lord never tires of having mercy on us, and wants to offer us his forgiveness once again—we all need it—inviting us to return to him with a new heart, purified of evil, purified by tears, to take part in his joy.”

This Lent, I encourage you to receive God’s mercy in the sacrament of confession.

Whenever I have the chance, I encourage people to go to confession at least once a month, and I usually go once a week. Every time I seek reconciliation with God there are three things that I experience and that every Catholic can experience.

The first is that by examining my life I become aware of my sins and how they distance me from the Father’s mercy and love. I experience a new freedom and strength because I am relieved of the spiritual weight of my sins that makes it harder to do the good and avoid evil.

The second is that I am restored to my true identity as an adopted son of the Father. There is nothing like hearing the words of a fellow priest, “through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” In those words I relive the story of the Prodigal Son and experience the love of the Father for me as his son.

Finally, it is a time for me to die to myself, to honestly acknowledge that I had strayed from God’s will and sought my own will. With Jesus I am able to pray, “Not my will, but your will be done.”

As a priest and bishop, it is a blessing to participate in the sacrament of reconciliation. Whenever I hear a thorough, honest confession, I am moved by the humility of the penitent and the beauty of God’s mercy working to restore what has been broken.

Some of you may have taken part in the March 5 “Light is on for You” campaign, when priests in many parishes around the archdiocese heard confessions for three hours. If you missed that opportunity, I encourage you to look in your local parish bulletin or on their website for the next chance to experience God’s mercy.

God cannot be outdone in generosity, so let us trust in his abundant mercy, no matter what our sins are. Once we do, we will be able to say, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. For his mercy endures forever!”

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.