Lenten Pastoral Letter 2010

Dear Faithful,

“…Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20), St. Paul exhorts the faithful of Corinth and at the same time all of us. We need reconciliation with God, His forgiveness for our sins. The exhortation of the apostle seems timely, especially during Lent which prepares us for Easter.

Before great feasts it is common to clean our homes more and more carefully than at other times, in order to celebrate the feast with joy and festivity. The Lenten call for conversion presupposes the cleansing of the heart of each person. During a longer period of time, the heart easily becomes the home of all kinds of filth and stains of which we must rid ourselves. Thus the sentence “be reconciled to God” suits well the time of preparation for the feast of Easter, as we know that only God, in His love for us, can remove our wrong actions, words, thoughts, and omissions. Because of His love for us He can also make us whole in relation to ourselves, the people around us and Himself.

There are various ways to ask God for His forgiveness. Such are prayer, the penitential rite in the beginning of Mass, and reconciliation services. In addition, each act of love toward another, mends the harm that has been caused. The reconciliation between humans—forgiving others, and asking for forgiveness—brings out in God the wish to forgive, likewise, reconciliation.

However, our Church has a great means of mercy: the Sacrament of Reconciliation, that is, Confession. It is meant for those, who have committed a serious sin. However, even without serious guilt, everyone must receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation at regular intervals, at least once a year, and preferably more often. Reconciliation gives the chance to repent of sins by calling each by its name. In this way the penitent can put distance between himself and the matters weighing upon his conscience by saying them out loud.

Confession must be preceded by an examination of conscience and awakening contrition for all transgressions for which one is blamed by one’s conscience. It is this contrition that is essential in order to receive God’s forgiveness and for making a fruitful confession.

Often times it is not easy to confess one’s sins. Also, there are certain circumstances in life which prohibit one from receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, e.g. those who have been divorced and have remarried.

However, even in these situations there is the possibility for a pastoral discussion with a priest, which can be an occasion for prayer, as well as for receiving a blessing from the priest. I hope in my heart that this possibility could be wider utilized.

As a matter of fact, we all have difficulties with confessing. Some who have been received into the Church at a later age and those who have not received the Sacrament of Reconciliation for quite some time may complain of the unfamiliarity of the situation and of encountering the priest in confession. I would like to warmly encourage them to turn to their confessor with trust, to make the decisive step recalling that each ordained priest is obligated to absolutely maintain the Seal of Confession and that, in the end, Confession is all about meeting with the merciful Savior. It is also good to remember that, naturally the Sacrament of Reconciliation applies also to priests. Priests, bishops and even the Pope himself go to Confession.

Most of us also have the human difficulty that we do not like to admit our faults, weaknesses and shortcomings. We all prefer to show forth our strengths and, conversely, are silent about our weaknesses. Oftentimes we blame for our sins our circumstances or the problems of the past. It is also a specific form of denial of guilt to blame others. Already in the first pages of the Bible, in the story of original sin, we see a description of this human tendency of ours. There, in the Garden of Eden, God encounters Adam, who is guilty of having committed an act against God’s will. When God asks Adam if he has eaten of the forbidden fruit, Adam responds that it was the woman, whom God had given to him as a companion, who offered it. When God turns to Eve, she puts the blame on the snake who betrayed her. Thus, both Adam and Eve rejected their own guilt. Exactly this happens again and again both in the personal lives of people as well as in the public forums of society. People have almost invincible hindrances to admit: I myself am guilty.

It is to this honesty about our own guilt that God calls us. In Confession we can, so to speak, abandon the attitude of the Pharisee, who in the Gospel praises himself in front of God in the temple. Instead, we see truthfully—without the veil of innocence—our guilt as we stand back like the repentant Publican (cf. Luke 18:9-14). In the confessional we get to freely be guilty and vocalize our admission.

The forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is based on Christ’s work of salvation, His death on the cross and His resurrection. Apostle Paul says that the bond against us, with its legal claims, was nailed to the cross (cf. Col 2:14).

Meeting his disciples for the first time after His death, the risen Christ says to them: “Peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained”(John: 21-23). The early Church Fathers say beautifully that ”the forgiveness of sins has risen from the dead.” The risen Lord gives the apostles the power to function in his stead in absolving sins. The apostles have given this same right to the bishops and they share this task of acting as confessors along with other priests.

Confession tells us that forgiveness, reconciliation and peace of the heart can happen. Relieving the weight of one’s conscience, finding new courage and joy, achieving a sense of freedom, as well as gaining new beginning in life are all possible. Faith, love, and gratefulness towards God can grow from the absolution of confession. In this way even guilt can become our “Felix Culpa,” or Blessed Fault. In the Exsultet hymn of Easter night, the blessing of the Easter candle, it is sung: “O Happy Fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!”

Let yourselves be reconciled to God.

During the Season of Lent 2010

+Teemu Sippo SCJ
Bishop of Helsinki