This week the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops holds its Plenary Assembly in Baltimore; during this morning’s opening session, USCCB President Cardinal Timothy Dolan addressed his fellow bishops (Rocco Palmo has the full text here).
Acknowledging that the bishops—collectively and individually—have “a lot on our plate,” Dolan mentioned specifically, “the suffering in vast areas not far from here caused by the Hurricane of two weeks ago, the imperative to the New Evangelization, the invitation offered by the Year of Faith, and our continued dialogue, engagement, and prophetic challenge to our culture over urgent issues such as the protection of human life, the defense of marriage, the promotion of human dignity in the lives of the poor, the immigrant, those in danger from war and persecution throughout the world, and our continued efforts to defend our first and most cherished freedom.”
All those challenges having been mentioned at the outset, Dolan exhorted his fellow bishops: “First things first.” The rest of the cardinal’s address focused on the need for the bishops to “fully embrace” the Sacrament of Penance.
What an irony that despite the call of the Second Vatican Council for a renewal of the Sacrament of Penance, what we got instead was its near disappearance.
We became very good in the years following the Council in calling for the reform of structures, systems, institutions, and people other than ourselves. That, too, is important; it can transform our society and world. But did we fail along the way to realize that in no way can the New Evangelization be reduced to a program, a process, or a call to structural reform; that it is first and foremost a deeply personal conversion within? “The Kingdom of God is within,” as Jesus taught.
The premier answer to the question “What’s wrong with the world?”, “What’s wrong with the church?” is not politics, the economy, secularism, sectarianism, globalization or global warming…none of these, as significant as they are. As Chesterton wrote, “The answer to the question ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ is just two words: ‘I am.’”
I am! Admitting that leads to conversion of heart and repentance, the marrow of the Gospel-invitation. I remember the insightful words of a holy priest well known to many of us from his long apostolate to priests and seminarians in Rome, Monsignor Charles Elmer, wondering aloud from time to time if, following the close of the Council, we had sadly become a Church that forgot how to kneel. If we want the New Evangelization to work, it starts on our knees.
Cardinal Dolan also mentioned some particular initiatives the USCCB will be undertaking in its efforts to revitalize penitential practices, including the possible re-introduction of “meatless Fridays” throughout the year:
And we’ll have the opportunity during this meeting to approve a simple pastoral invitation to all our faithful to join us in renewing our appreciation for and use of the Sacrament. We will “Keep the Light On” during the upcoming Advent Season!
The work of our Conference during the coming year includes reflections on re-embracing Friday as a particular day of penance, including the possible re-institution of abstinence on all Fridays of the year, not just during Lent. Our pastoral plan offers numerous resources for catechesis on the Sacrament of Penance, and the manifold graces that come to us from the frequent use of confession.
Dolan concluded his address with a reminder that the bishops must provide their flocks with “good examples of humble, repentant pastors, aware of our own personal and corporate sins”:
Remember the Curé of Ars? When a concerned group of his worried supporters came to him with a stinging protest letter from a number of parishioners, demanding the bishop to remove John Vianney as their curé, claiming he was a sinner, ignorant, and awkward, St. John Vianney took the letter, read it carefully … and signed the petition! …
With this as my presidential address, I know I risk the criticism. I can hear it now: “With all the controversies and urgent matters for the Church, Dolan spoke of conversion of heart through the Sacrament of Penance. Can you believe it?”
To which I reply, “You better believe it!”
First things first!