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ARTICLE TITLE: In Washington, a bold pastoral initiative
ARTICLE: Feb. 08 (CWNews.com) - In a pastoral letter to the faithful of Washington, DC-- the first such message since he became head of the Washington archdiocese last June-- Archbishop Donald Wuerl has made a powerful push to restore the use of sacramental Confession.
Archbishop Wuerl has come in for some criticism on this site lately because of his "laissez-faire" attitude toward pro-abortion Catholic politicians. Without rescinding the legitimate questions that have been raised on that subject, let's give credit where credit is due. In this pastoral letter, the archbishop had provided a fine teaching document-- but more importantly, he has announced a dramatic practical initiative.
The 10-page letter, entitled "God's Mercy and the Sacrament of Penance", offers a thorough explanation of the sacrament: its Scriptural and theological underpinnings, its practical use, and its spiritual impact. Then it concludes with a welcome surprise.
(The full text of Archbishop Wuerl's letter can be found on the web site of the Washington archdiocese.)
As the Catholic world prepares to enter the season of Lent, the archbishop invites the faithful to reflect on the roots of sin and alienation. The central truth of Christianity, he reminds readers, is that Jesus redeemed men of their sins:
"The central role of Christ's Cross and Resurrection in the good news that the apostles preached is evident. There is much more to this statement of faith than the simple recognition that Christ died. If by his cross Christ had not redeemed us, his death would have had little meaning. It is with the eyes of faith that the apostles and every believer after them gazes on the Cross and sees much more than just the instrument on which Jesus hung until he died."
To claim that redemption, however, requires a response from the faithful. Weakened by sin, we cannot reach salvation on our own merits. But Christ has founded his Church, giving us the means to overcome our sinful nature. In Baptism the stain of Original Sin is removed. After Baptism, sacramental Confession frees the sinner of his guilt.
In his pastoral letter, Archbishop Wuerl notes that the sacrament is known by various titles: Confession, Penance, the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He generally uses the first, because confession-- the sinnerâ€™s candid admission of his own transgressions-- is at the heart of the sacrament.
There are different impulses that might lead a sinner to Confession, the archbishop observes; but they all have a common element:
"What leads a person to the sacrament of Penance is a sense of sorrow for what one has done. The motivation may be out of love for God or even fear of the consequences of having offended God. Whatever the motive, contrition is the beginning of forgiveness of sin. The sinner must come to God by way of repentance."
After explaining the "why" of the sacrament, the archbishop turns to the "how." There are two rites, he explains. The first and most common use is individual confession. The second is a communal celebration, into which individual confessions are incorporated. Archbishop Wuerl says that the second rite is preferable bcause it "shows more clearly both the social impact and the common experience of sin and the ecclesial nature of penance and reconciliation." However, he stresses that a communal service must include individual confessions; general absolution is not an option except under rare circumstances.
Moving toward his practical conclusion, Archbishop Wuerl announces that the Washington archdiocese will begin a concerted drive to encourage use of this valuable sacrament. The archdiocese will prepare brochures to help people prepare for Confession, and provide priests with material for homilies on Confession.
Then comes this wallop:
"In addition, during this Lenten season, beginning with the Wednesday of the first week of Lent until the Wednesday of Holy Week, priests will be available in every church throughout the archdiocese from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in order to hear confessions."
Think about the impact of that announcement! Any Catholic in Washington-- or, for that matter, outside Washington-- now knows that he can go to Confession in any parish there, on any Wednesday evening.
There is no uncertainty: no need to scramble through parish bulletins and make phone calls to ascertain the hours when a priest will be available. The hours are easy to remember. There is a generous window of time: 90 minutes each week, rather than the 15 minutes allotted on a Saturday afternoon in so many American parishes.
Someone who has not been to Confession in years now knows that, in Washington, he can slip quietly into a church on the other side of town, where he will not be recognized, and unburden himself to a priest he does not know. More observant Catholics can make a Lenten resolution to use the sacrament frequently, making a regular visit on Wednesday evenings. The fundamental point is that this initiative, which the archbishop has dubbed "The Light Is On For You," welcomes Catholics to Confession.
Making the program work-- manning the confessionals for all those hours in all those parishes-- will require a real sacrifice from the clergy of the Washington archdiocese. But it will be Lenten program for them, too, and a valuable means of reaffirming their own priestly vocation.
The archbishop's program is neat, simple, and imminently practical. He has responded to a crying pastoral need with a bold offensive. And the program is bound to work.
Priests who served in Rome during the Jubilee Year have told me that they heard many, many more confessions than usual. Pilgrims visiting the basilicas used the sacrament simply because they were invited.
In Washington, during Lent, the faithful are invited.
The logic of that invitation is so clear and simple, one wonders why other bishops haven't tried the same sort of initiative. But for now let's give credit to Archbishop Wuerl for taking the lead, and hope that others will follow.
This news story originally appeared on the Catholic World News site.
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