The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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February 2, 2001 Issue
Bishop Morneau's Column
"Reflection on the Readings"

Bishop Robert Morneau
Bishop Robert Morneau

Confession of sin is sound psychology

The penitential rite is a moment of honesty filled with hope and promise

February 3-4, Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

By Bishop Robert Morneau

Questions for reflection:

1. What sin do you constantly present to the Lord for forgiveness?

2. How have you experienced the mercy of God?

3. Is the sacrament of reconciliation a regular part of your spiritual life?

It is no accident that we begin Mass with the penitential rite, a time in which we ask for God's mercy and forgiveness. In our more honest moments we are keenly aware of the dark, sinful side of our personal life and of our society. Not only is confession of sin good theology, it is also sound psychology (though we should note that confession may be good for the soul, but it is very bad for one's reputation!).

Isaiah, St. Paul and St. Peter all knew this. The prophet Isaiah, encountering the glory of the Lord, cries out: "Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips ..." Is this high drama, an exaggerated response to the fearful presence of God or is it the raw truth? We know the story: The angel came, purification happened, and the prophet offers himself to be sent.

A contemporary writer, Jim Wallis, claims that a prophet has a double task: "to name the idols and to call the people back to the Lord," Isaiah did that first with himself and then for the people. In the penitential rite we try to name our idols - power, prestige, possession - and then, through grace, turn back to the Lord through conversion of mind and heart.

St. Paul made his confession: "For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God." Nor is this an attempt at false humility but the primal honesty of a disciple who took ownership for his sins. Persecution leaves many scars not only on the victims, but also on generations to come. Paul had to deal with this thorn in his soul as we all do because of our offenses. Paul would never think of skipping his penitential rite in the name of an "I'm OK, you're OK" psychology.

Then there is Peter. Amazed at the power of Jesus, this fisherman falls to his knees and confesses: "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." Later we will see Peter's sin of betrayal; here we are not sure what his specific sin is. What we are told is that this new disciple was deeply aware of the darkness in his soul.

There is a danger in focusing in on personal and collective sinfulness. That is why the Church constantly draws our attention to God's mercy. Jesus says to Peter (and Paul and us): "Do not be afraid." Like Isaiah, Paul and Peter are challenged to get off themselves and volunteer to be sent, sharing the good news of God's extravagant love and unlimited mercy.

The penitential rite is a moment of honesty. It acknowledges that all is not well, that we all need healing and reconciliation, that God longs for us to lay before him our guilt and sorrow that we might be free. This rite is filled with hope and promise.

The great theologian Romano Guardini says it well: "In Christ, something of that other world manifests itself in the world in which we are. God, who became man, rises amongst us and says to each one of us, to me also: 'I wish to redeem you from your condition of abandonment. I wish to be your salvation.' To hear these words, to believe in the possibility of this promise and to trust in it despite everything inside us and around us which opposes it - this is Christian hope."

(Bp. Morneau is the auxiliary bishop of the Green Bay Diocese.)

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