DAILY CATHOLIC    TUESDAY     December 22, 1998     vol. 9, no. 247


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         Below is a special Pastoral Letter by the head of the Archdiocese of Denver, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap. released December 2, 1998 on the Sacrament of Reconciliation and our need to return to the roots of this special Sacarament of grace as the Archbishop, one of the shining lights of the American episcopate, calls for more frequent Confession as we near the millennium in preparing the state of our souls. Below is the first part of this two part segment. The second part will be brought to you in next Tuesday's issue - volume 250. The full text can be found at Archdiocese of Denver website.

Pastoral Letter by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap.
Part One


"Christianity is the religion of the coming of God, of his breaking through into human history and life . . ." Karol Wojtyla, Advent homily, 1974

    Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

    1. The season of Advent, which begins this week and which opens the Church's liturgical year, has a threefold meaning for Christians. It invites us to reflect on the past, as we follow the history of salvation from humanity's creation and fall, through God's covenant with the Chosen People, to the birth of Jesus the Messiah. It encourages us to prepare in the present, as we ready ourselves to encounter Jesus in the sacraments and receive the Christ Child at Christmas. And it calls us to look to the future, in anticipation of the Lord's Second Coming at the end of time. It's a season of prayer, hope and self-examination. It's also a time of great joy. As Karol Wojtyla preached even before his election as pope, "Let us go with joy to meet Christ: This describes the atmosphere of the mystery of the Incarnation and of Christmas, and also that of the period of waiting for him, which the Church enters on the First Sunday of Advent."

    2. This "Advent joy" has marked every moment of John Paul II's pontificate. From his very first encyclical, "Redeemer of Man" (Redemptor Hominis), and repeatedly in the years since, he has urged us to "be not afraid." He has encouraged us to live the period leading up to the Great Jubilee 2000 as a new Advent, ". . .[f]or Advent prepares us to meet the One who was, who is and who is to come." It is this Advent spirit which separates Catholics fundamentally from the fear which seems to grip so much of the world as we approach the new millennium. It is this Advent spirit which the Holy Father invites each of us to welcome into our lives.

    3. And yet, how do we do that? How do we lay claim to a joy that seems so often contradicted by the sorrows and confusions of daily life? The answer is, we can't lay claim to this joy not without a radical conversion of heart. This is only possible through faith in Jesus Christ. But because of Christ's coming, it is within our grasp. Therefore, what I want to suggest is that today, right now, is exactly the "acceptable time" to receive the joy of the Great Jubilee. The way is open, and the moment is at hand. But the cost of passage is conversion, a change in the direction of our lives at their root. We need to see with new eyes, illumined by a new light. We need to turn away from our selfishness, our pride, our distractions and false freedoms, and toward the real freedom, the freedom only found in Jesus Christ. Advent 1998 brings us to the threshold of a new millennium. The Holy Father describes it as a "threshold of hope." The liturgical year we begin (1999) designated by John Paul II as the year of reconciliation with the Father, bearing fruit in the virtue of charity or love is God's invitation to the conversion we need, and the final step toward the Jubilee. So let us turn to what crossing that threshold requires.


    "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord' . . . " (John 1:23).

    4. A central irony of our age, particularly in the developed countries, and most especially in the United States as we close "the American century," is this: Many of us have more power, luxuries, opportunities and liberties than at any previous time in history. Yet we are not happy, and we have no peace. The 20th century has seen more bloodshed than all others combined. War continues. Crime continues. Oppression of the poor continues. Suicide, divorce, abortion and family breakdown rates have climbed steadily throughout the developed nations. And even the very success of the U.S. economy has brought about a permanent culture of apprehension a society where both parents frequently must have jobs outside the home; a society of more work and more pressure, often driven by the excessive consumption of goods, which is fueled by the relentless marketing of products, which creates more consumer debt, which generates the need for longer work hours, in order to make more money. And so the cycle goes, cutting through marriages and families like a hurricane.

    5. In the midst of our prosperity, at the heart of modern society, is a drift toward reducing the human person to a purely economic animal; a coarsening of our attitudes toward the sanctity of human life; and a growing sense of powerlessness fueled by the size and seriousness of the problems we face. At the same time, science has appeared to undermine the supernatural claims of religious faith, while weakening our notions of truth and sin. This led Pope Pius XII more than 40 years ago to describe the paramount sin of this century as "the loss of the sense of sin." Thus, while we sense that something is gravely wrong with modern life, we no longer seem to possess the vocabulary to describe and correct it.

    6. This results in two predictable temptations. The first is collective: We seek structural solutions for structures of sin. Herein lie the roots of the great totalitarian projects of our era: National Socialism, Marxism-Leninism, and others. The second is individual: We absolve ourselves from responsibility for problems which we feel we cannot control, and withdraw into self-absorption. This individualism is the engine of today's consumerist materialism, the "atheism with a happy face" which dominates the developed world and buries moral issues and yearnings under a landslide of goods and services. The first temptation involves pride: the idea that we can, by our own ingenuity, remedy the effects of sin. The second implies despair: the abdication of work for the common good out of unwarranted fear, futility and self-interest.

    7. Both of these temptations have led, in our day, to the destruction of human freedom and happiness. The first crushes the individual in the name of the greater good, replacing community with the machinery of social control. The second fragments community in the name of individual sovereignty. It then isolates and reduces individuals to the sum of their appetites, replacing true freedom with an idolatry of distractions which masquerade as meaningful choices.

    8. Against these temptations, the Church speaks the simple truth of human dignity. God created us out of His infinite love, and endowed men and women with the gift of free will. Man freely chose to abuse that freedom and reject God's love through disobedience to God's will in other words, through sin. In separating himself from God, man darkened his reason, weakened his own will and his ability to see the truth, and inherited "the wages of sin [which] is death" (Rom 6:23). But again from His infinite love, God sent His only son to redeem us and restore human dignity. It is now our free choice to accept that redemption and its implications, or persist in sin. Explicit in the drama of salvation is the fact that we are infinitely valuable because of our creation by God; that we are genuinely free to choose right or wrong; and that our choices matter. We are responsible for ourselves, and for the world, as active moral agents.

    9. What's right and wrong with the world, therefore, is not something remote from our daily lives. We are each in part accountable for it. This is why John Paul II, in his 1984 apostolic exhortation "Reconciliation and Penance" (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia), writes that ". . . cases of social sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins." And he notes that ". . . there is no sin, not even the most intimate and secret one, the most strictly individual one, that exclusively concerns the person committing it. With greater or lesser violence, with greater or lesser harm, every sin has repercussions on the entire ecclesial body and the whole human family" (16).

    10. This is why issues of personal conscience have much wider impact than an individual's private spiritual health. Just as we can speak confidently of a "communion of saints," so too there is a "communion of sin, whereby a soul that lowers itself through sin drags down with itself the Church and, in some way, the whole world" (RP, 16). Unfortunately, in our day, conscience is often distorted to serve exactly the false freedom God designed it to discern and guard against. Therefore, developing a rightly formed conscience is vital not only for individuals seeking to do God's will, but for the entire Church as we approach the Great Jubilee. Right conscience is the cornerstone of reconciliation, for without it, we cannot distinguish sin from virtue. And reconciliation with God and within God's human family is the foundation of Jubilee.

    11. What then is the human conscience? Vatican II's "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World" (Gaudium et Spes) defines it "as man's most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths. By conscience, in a wonderful way, that law is made known which is fulfilled in the love of God and one's neighbor" (16).

    12. The Council Fathers add that, "Through loyalty to conscience, Christians are joined to other men in the search for truth and for the right solution to so many moral problems that arise both in the life of individuals and from social relationships. Hence, the more a correct conscience [emphasis added] prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by the objective standards of moral conduct" (GS, 16). In its "Declaration on Religious Liberty" (Dignitatis Humanae), the council goes on to observe that, "It is through his conscience that man sees and recognizes the demands of the divine law. He is bound to follow this conscience faithfully in all his activity, so that he may come to God, who is his last end. Therefore he must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters" (3).

    13. We are always obligated to follow our consciences. But, if we're sincere in our Catholic faith, we must also acknowledge that conscience does not "invent" truth. Rather, conscience must carefully seek truth out and conform itself to truth once discovered, no matter how inconvenient. Conscience is never merely a matter of personal opinion or private preference. It is not a pious alibi for doing what we want. It is not comfortable or "tame," any more than Isaiah and John the Baptizer were tame for the rulers of ancient Israel. "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord' . . . " (Jn 1:23). As John spoke to Israel, so a right conscience speaks to the individual heart. And always, as the Council Fathers noted in their "Declaration on Religious Liberty," ". . . [I]n forming their consciences, the faithful must pay careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of truth. It is her duty to proclaim and teach with authority [emphasis added] the truth which is Christ and, at the same time, to declare and confirm by her authority the principles of the moral order which spring from human nature" (14).

    14. Exercising right conscience, therefore, is never a matter of balancing what the Church teaches against her theological critics or popular opinion surveys, then doing what we find more attractive. This is evasion. It is a subtle form of self-flattery and we should remember that "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 Jn 1:8). Guilt, after all, is a good and healthy thing and a gift of God's mercy when it corresponds to the facts of a sinful action. Right conscience implies humility before the truth. It directs us toward God and reminds us of our sins. And in doing so, it calls us to repentance.

        Next Tuesday: Part Two.

December 22, 1998       volume 9, no. 247


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