27 January 2012

Will your penance bear fruit?

St. Angela Merici
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

In the newly translated Confiteor we confess, “I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do. . .” In that way that only Catholics can truly appreciate, we cover all the bases! Thought, words, deeds, and deeds we didn't do. This penitential prayer isn't just some casual way to start the Mass, nor is it an easy-cheesy wink at our sins. In that one sentence we rehearse not only the typical progression of sin but we also practice a way out of whatever sin we may have committed. Sin usually starts with a thought, then progresses to a word—to ourselves or someone else; then we move to the deed itself. How do we “reverse” this progression once it's finished? We start with a deed—going to confession. Then we move to the words—we confess, pray the act of contrition, and receive our penance. Then we move—literally, physically—out of the confessional and complete our penance, the final deed. Rightly conceived and executed, that penance can be the very seed of next witness; that is, our penance—whether public or private—can be both a seed planted for our own growth in holiness and the beginning of a holy life for someone else. Let me give you a very stark example. . .

In 1981, my high school Spanish class went to Mexico City to visit the newly built Shrine of Our Lady of Guadeloupe and the National Cathedral. I knew exactly nothing about Catholicism. Our tour bus pulled up into the plaza in front of the shrine and the cathedral and we all piled out to gape at all the weird stuff around us. Just as I stepped out, I heard this low moaning, a sort of chant coming from the right. The locals gathered for prayer parted and from among them came about 200 abuelas, grandmothers, crawling on their knees toward the shrine. They were all holding these strings of beads and muttering out loud. Never in my 17 years had I ever seen anything so bizarre! We all stopped and stared at them. They were dressed in loose-fitting black shawls with their heads covered and. . .the worst part. . .their knees and legs were covered in blood. They had been crawling over asphalt and gravel for miles. I asked my teacher, a Catholic woman, “What are they doing?” She said, “They are doing penance for their sons who are in jail.” Thirty years later, that image—those grandmothers on their bloodied knees doing penance for the sins of their sons and grandsons—remains a vivid image for me of what we are capable of when believe in the power of repentance. Though none of the abuelas know this, their witness that day put me in the Dominican habit. They planted the seed of my priestly vocation.

The new translation of the Confiteor is not all that different from the old one. The bishops restored the triple mea culpa, and thus reasserted the role of our free will in committing sin. This isn't a move toward darkening the joy of our celebration; this isn't a way for the clergy to “beat up” on the laity for your lack of holiness. Quite the opposite! That you are reciting the Confiteor at Mass in the first place is evidence enough that you are fully aware of your sin. The Confiteor is your chance to tell the truth about your spiritual state and to receive the mercy that God freely offers. How can you receive if you do not ask? When you leave here this evening, what penance will you perform? How will you show the Lord that you are repentant? Whatever you choose to think, to say, or do, let it be a witness that plants a seed, a seed that produces a marvelous harvest for the glory of the Lord!

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1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:21 PM

    This was an astonishingly fine sermon, especially the middle paragraph. Thank you, Father.