Recognizing ourselves as sinners

| Bishop Andrew Cozzens | August 10, 2017 | 1 Comment

Last Friday, the archdiocese celebrated the feast day of our secondary patron, St. John Vianney, the famous Curé of Ars and the patron of all parish priests. He was designated secondary patron — after our primary patron, St. Paul — in 1962 at the request of our fifth archbishop, Archbishop Leo Binz.

Because he was previously the archbishop of Dubuque, Iowa, Archbishop Binz knew of the strong connection we had to St. John Vianney. Before we became the diocese of St. Paul, we were part of the diocese of Dubuque, whose first bishop was Mathias Loras. Bishop Loras had been a seminary classmate and close friend of St. John Vianney, and before then-Msgr. Loras became a missionary in the United States, St. John Vianney invited him to his small church in Ars to bless the new confessional.

That confessional in Ars became one of the most famous pilgrimage sites in France during St. John Vianney’s lifetime. In fact, so many people wanted to go to confession to the saintly priest that the government had to issue special train tickets for pilgrims from Paris to Ars, a small town about 275 miles southeast, near Lyon. Those pilgrims would arrive in Ars and take a number, hoping to get a chance to make their confession to St. John Vianney within the week. The priest found himself spending sometimes as many as 16 hours a day in the confessional.

It may seem crazy to us today that people would make a week-long pilgrimage just to go to confession. Perhaps this is because we have lost a sense of how much we need God’s mercy and how much healing can come from acknowledging our sins in the sacrament of confession. It is important to remember that Jesus’ whole mission was summarized by his very first words in the Gospel of Mark: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Jesus invited everyone — sinners and religious people — to repentance.

We often say today that Jesus welcomed everyone, and this is true. But he also invited everyone to repentance. He was especially welcoming to sinners like the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8) or Zacchaeus the tax collector (Lk 19:1-10), and he invited them to leave behind their sinful ways of life and offered them a new life in his love. It is very clear that Jesus never condoned sin; rather, he hated sin: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna” (Mt 5:28-29). Jesus came to free us from our sins through repentance, so that we might discover new life in his mercy.

This is the great grace of the sacrament of confession. It causes us to acknowledge the painful reality of our sins by speaking them to the priest. Then, through this sacramental encounter with Christ in the confessional, we get to receive the healing power of the mercy of Jesus Christ, which allows us to begin to live anew, free from sin.

Pope Francis has been one of the biggest promoters of the importance of confession. In “The Name of God is Mercy” he said, “Confessing to a priest is a way of putting my life into the hands and heart of someone else, someone who in that moment acts in the name of Jesus. It’s a way to be real and authentic: We face facts by looking at another person, not by looking in the mirror.”

The pope argues that we should pray for the grace of feeling like a sinner, because only when we truly experience that we are sinners will we experience truly the power of what the Lord did for us on the cross.

“Recognizing oneself as a sinner is a grace. It is a grace that is granted to you,” Pope Francis said. “Without that grace, the most one can say is: I am limited, I have my limits, these are my mistakes. But recognizing oneself as a sinner is something else. It means standing in front of God, who is our everything, and presenting him with ourselves, which are our nothing. Our miseries, our sins. What we need to ask for is truly an act of grace.”

St. John Vianney is a wonderful patron for our archdiocese, because he knew the power of the sacrament of confession to help people change their lives and live free from sin. Let us pray to him and ask him to renew within the Catholics of this archdiocese a greater awareness of our need for mercy and our need for repentance. Let us pray that many people, especially those who have been away from the sacrament for a long time, might find in confession new life in God’s mercy.

St. John Vianney, pray for us!

Reconociendo a nosotros mismos como pecadores

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Category: Only Jesus

  • Paula Ruddy

    Are seminarians taught to model themselves on the Cure of Ars? I was at a retreat morning at the Cathedral recently and heard the announcement that there was a shortage of confessors so people should be brief. How important is the sacrament of reconciliation to priests?
    Bishop Cozzens, will you write an article for the Catholic Spirit explaining how the seminarians are trained to be confessors? How does the confessor make the sacramental ritual of merciful forgiveness meaningful to 21st Century people? Is it about conversion of life? Is it about spiritual direction? Is it about maintenance on the straight and narrow for people who are dedicated to Jesus? Is it a celebration for the already present redemption? What are people expected to say to the priest? And is he prepared to listen and engage? As you suggest, there is a lot of work to do to make the sacrament comprehensible.