My dear friends in Christ:
On this Feast of Saint Patrick, I wish the entire Archdiocese of New York an abundance of God’s blessings. May our great patron saint intercede for us, obtaining from the Almighty Father all the graces that we need as disciples of His Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ!
Is there one particular grace which we can ask Saint Patrick to obtain for us? Might I suggest this year a return to the Sacrament of Penance? My fervent prayer for the Catholics of the Archdiocese of New York is that they will hear in the next weeks the beautiful, profound words of absolution pronounced in the confessional:
God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to Himself, and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you of yours sins, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
How easily those words come to the lips of every priest; how ingrained they are in his mind; how deeply do they reside in his heart! The consoling, simple words of absolution are powerful beyond imagining!
To pronounce the sacramental absolution by which our sins are forgiven is one of primary reasons the Church and the priesthood exist. The Church is an instrument of mercy and reconciliation, for Christ Jesus, the Head of the Church, came to reconcile us to the Father. We call this sacrament “penance,” “confession,” or “reconciliation”. Call it what you will, the sacrament is essential for the life of the Catholic disciple. Every Catholic should be eager to hear those words; every priest should be eager to say them.
We have to be frank, though. Those words are not heard as often as they should be in the Church in New York. We can’t imagine Catholic life without the words of consecration – This is my body! This is my blood! Likewise Catholic life cannot be lived properly without the Sacrament of Penance. We need the forgiveness of our sins. We need the grace of this sacrament to grow in virtue.
Last year was my first Saint Patrick’s Day as Archbishop of New York, and I took advantage of our patronal feast to address a letter to the Archdiocese on the importance of Sunday Mass, Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy. I am grateful for the favourable reaction to my letter, with many priests and parishioners kindly telling me that it helped them think again about the gift of the Lord’s Day. That Sunday rest and Mass rightly orient all of our time toward our final goal as Christian pilgrims, the definitive Sabbath rest with the Lord Jesus in the company of all the saints in heaven.
This year I wish to address another fundamental part of our Catholic life which has been neglected by too many – both priests and parishioners – for too long. Given the coincidence of Saint Patrick’s Day with the season of Lent, I hope that my encouragement might bear fruit this Lent. Please God, this letter might encourage Catholics to keep the tradition of making a good confession before Easter.
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. “Because no one would find me for days!” he replies. 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.” We can laugh, but I am afraid there is too much truth here. So in this Lent, on this Saint Patrick’s Day, I exhort the entire Archdiocese of New York: Experience the joy of forgiveness! Experience liberation from sin! Keep those confessionals busy! Keep your priests busy about the great work of dispensing the Lord’s mercy! Keep the Sacrament of Penance at the heart of Catholic life!
The Altar and the Confessional
Catholics the world over were both outraged and heartbroken by the massacre at the Syriac Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad last October. Terrorists, claiming to be part of a group called the “Islamic State of Iraq”, stormed the church during a Sunday evening Mass, and began to kill those present. Some 58 were murdered, and more than 70 injured. It reminded us that there are those so filled with hatred for Christ and His Church that they will kill Christians.
When the terrorists entered the church, Father Saad Abdal Tha’ir was offering Mass. Another priest, Father Waseem Tabeeh, came out of the confessional, and attempted to persuade the terrorists to let the people go, offering his life and that of Father Tha’ir in exchange. How courageous were these two young priests, Father Tha’ir only 32, and Father Tabeeh, 27! The killers rejected the plea for mercy, and both priests were then martyred. The last words of Father Tha’ir, who died before his own mother’s eyes, were, “Jesus, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
How can we not see here an image of the Lord’s own passion, His own words from the cross? The new martyrs of Baghdad have something to teach us about the Lord’s passion and the work of the Church. Is it not deeply moving to note that these two young priests were at the altar and the confessional at the moment of their supreme witness? The altar and the confessional are the two most important places in a priest’s life. Those two young priests died doing what every priest should live for – to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at the altar, and to forgive sins in the name of Jesus in the confessional.
According to one account of the massacre in Baghdad, a voice cried out in the midst of the horror, “We die? Okay, we die. But the Cross lives!” That speaker was immediately killed.
Yes, between the altar and the confessional, amidst the blood of the martyrs, the Cross lives!
Timothy M. Dolan, Archbishop of New York