Having completed the Year of Faith, it looks like we are now moving along with a Year of Evangelization. As encouraging as this seems to be, careful scrutiny of our
catechetical progression leads us to question whether we have overlooked or downplayed a key dimension of both evangelization and catechesis.
This dimension is that of ongoing repentance. We hear it proclaimed in the Gospels. "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand" (Matt 3:2, 4:17). "Repent and believe
the Good News" (Mk 1:15). Christ even reminds us to remove the beam from our own eye before we seek to remove the splinter from our brother's eye (Matt 7:4-5).
But sadly, in our current cultural climate of self-affirmation, this dimension of the spiritual life is often either neglected or trivialized.
One important reason for this is that we can so easily fall into one of the most common and debilitating deceptions of the devil, which inclines us to choose what is
familiar to us in preference to what is clearly shown to be right. It seems that, if some customs or new fads of a society go against the truth of God's Word, our fallen human nature tends to rationalize complicity with such sin in order to avoid "rocking the boat". We witnessed this in some of the horrendous injustices of the past century. For example, a number of Western societies have experienced great difficulties implementing into their laws and juridical processes the objective truth that each person, though unique, should have equal rights under the law. And we have witnessed the development of secularist societies based on the premise that the progress and the evolution of humanity requires that basic rights be denied to certain groups of people. Women were denied the right to vote. Non-whites were denied equal access to education, to economic opportunity and to the electoral process (segregation and apartheid). Jews were stripped of their basic rights in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. And now, pre-born children, denigrated by abusive use of the "f" word (fetus), are denied the right to live by our judicial system.
Likewise, under the false pretense of enculturation, we have witnessed various Church teachings degraded to the point of having secular relevance trumping Divine Revelation as the standard for the formation of consciences. Such relevance is often used as an excuse to downplay the importance of repentance from sin, which is essential for in order for our dignity as God's children to be brought to fruition in His gracious and loving mercy. It is especially noteworthy that, regarding sexual morality, we have witnessed cowardice, camouflaged as a co-dependent pastoral "compassion", used as an excuse to overlook the serious nature of such objectively grave and mortal sins. In addition, in order to further honor the secular taboo against hurting people's feelings or self-esteem, other serious sins, such as failure to fulfill one's religious commitments and obligations, envy, slander, exploitation of the poor, drug/alcohol abuse and cheating are trivialized as being merely venial. It must be noted
how dangerous such a mentality really is, since God's standards for judgment are more righteous than those embraced by the customs of any society. Two parables of Jesus can serve to illustrate this point.
The first is In Matthew 25:31-46. In this parable, those condemned were not aware that they had failed to minister to Christ, when they had failed to minister to the needy. But Jesus would not accept this as an excuse. Their condemnation is final and irrevocable. They may not have known this, but this ignorance was not inculpable. They should have known and should not have hardened their hearts to the point of refusing to share in the ministries of true compassion, into which God called them.
The second is found in the shocking revelation in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus,found in Lk 16:19-31. Lazarus, being covered with sores, was a leper (Num 5:1-5). This being the case, it was only proper that the rich man expect him to do what the Law of Moses prescribed and dwell on the margins of society. The rich man apparently thought that, if he did not feed him, Lazarus would eventually realize that he should respect the Law of Moses and move away from the entrance of the rich man's house. Yet, in the end, the rich man's insistence on using the Law in order to abort the compassion in his heart led to his own everlasting ruin.
This tragic situation, whereby current cultural customs are allowed to become the norm, by which the meaning of Divine Revelation is to be determined, is extremely dangerous. In effect, it turns the objective incarnate truth of God into a kind of spiritual Rorschach test, whose meaning and proper application is to be determined by each person's "conscience". Its danger is further compounded by the deafening silence by so many pastors concerning the fact that sacrileges are being committed by those who receive Holy Communion without repenting of such sins in a sincere sacramental confession.
As a consequence, it seems that the New Evangelization is being crippled by a tendency to proclaim the Gospel in a way that caters to the demands of sin-seared consciences, rather than to the aspirations of those sincere consciences, which seek that purity of heart, whereby souls can see God more clearly so as to serve Him more faithfully. In view of the above, it seems that, spiritually, the failure to have a Year of Faith or a Year of Evangelization preceded by a Year of Repentance is analogous to a poor medical practice. Imagine a doctor, who bandages a wound without first cleaning and disinfecting that wound. The bandage may be a clean cover for the stench and filth of the festering infection underneath it, but it is not really therapeutic. And the patient could eventually die as the infection spreads. In a similar way, the failure to stress that, to be true to its mission, the Church must always be repenting, leaves many with a false impression. It was thus not without good reason that Our Lord taught us that the one who is forgiven much, love much.
God's mercy is an essential living and life-sustaining dynamic in the souls of the faithful. "Has been" forgiveness leads to a "has been" spirituality and a "has been" love, which is far removed from the ever-regenerative and ever-reconciling mercy shared by Christ with all who are willing to approach Him in the humility and docility of authentic repentance. All this points out the need for the Church to rediscover and reaffirm the true nature of repentance as not merely the gateway, but the only real path, by which one can enter into and abide in the awesome mystery of divine intimacy, and thus come to to share the fruits of that intimacy with others.
As I indicated above, our current secular culture tends to ridicule such repentance as being psychologically harmful. If the proclamation of Church teaching capitulates to this derisive premise, the prospects for the fruition of any New Evangelization will be slim to none. In order to reverse this trend, we need to reaffirm the truth about the covenantal nature and accountability of each human being. Each human being is created by God as both sacred and sanctifying. Thus we are called, in Christ, to sanctify all of Creation in all dimensions of our shared humanity. And thus we need to aggressively confront the secularist lie, which asserts that radical alienated individualism is the icon of integral humanity. And we need to actively oppose the value system of secular society, which asserts that the basis of human dignity is to be found in one's usefulness or functionality. For if we allow such a premise to go unchallenged, we will eventually come to join in the belief that the deepest level of intimacy possible is that of symbiosis. As the song, Sweet Dreams, says, this view of human dignity and human relationships boils down to the perspective, "Some people want to use you, some people want to be used by you. Some people want to abuse you, some people want to be abused by you." And we see the perverse fruit of this perspective
in the Affordable Care Act, which mandates the rationing medical care on the basis of how many years of functional and useful life expectancy HHS guidelines project a patient to have.
In opposition to this lie, the authentic teaching and discipline of the Church proclaims that each human being is sacred. And that sacredness can only be properly reverenced and nurtured in the context of covenantal love. This sacred dignity that transcends all secular ideas of functionality. It is endowed by God on a person from the moment of conception, throughout life, and beyond death into eternity. The awareness of this dignity draws a person to form and foster other sacred and sanctifying covenantal relationships, whereby that person is able, by abiding in God's loving graciousness, to live as a pure and purifying gift to others and with others. Ultimately , all such relationships can only be brought to eternal fruition by being subsumed into the redemptive New Covenant graciously offered to all humanity through Jesus Christ. And, as indicated above, this New Covenant can only be embraced by a life of ongoing repentance, by which the Holy Spirit leads one to go beyond renouncing one's own sins into a reparational repentance. This more profound repentance draws the soul into a sanctifying intimacy with Christ crucified, Who suffered unjustly in order to justify the guilty. Through Baptism into Christ, one is able to enter into the efficacious dynamic of divine graciousness. By being drawn more deeply through repentance into the obedience of faith, one is able to become pure gift with Christ in a way that blesses humanity for all eternity.
It should be noted here that an authentic catechesis of repentance requires that we cometo discover anew an important dimension of this mystery, which unfortunately has been eclipsed in our society. That is the fact that repentance is an essential dimension of the ministry of hospitality. Going back to the Garden of Eden, we can see that the sin of our first parents was tragically ratified by the sin of inhospitality. When God, Who is pure graciousness and mercy, came into the garden, instead of welcoming Him as pure and gracious mercy by sincere repentance, they hid from Him. (It is a bit reminiscent of how a family sometimes pretends not to be home when unwanted guests arrive for a visit) When confronted with their lack of hospitality, they further perverted themselves by seeking to justify their hostility to His mercy by excuses and resentments. (e.g., "The woman, whom You put here with me - she gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it" [emphasis added]) Thus we can see that their original sin, based upon doubting God's gracious love, was compounded by their second sin of hostility, whereby they denied any hospitality to Him,
Who is gracious mercy and love. As a result, they initiate the frustrations that come about by seeking "salvation" through abiding in the debilitating quagmire of excuses and resentments, which continue to alienate the soul from the hospitality of true repentance required for authentic and life-giving intimacy.
In stark opposition to this degrading dynamic of sin, repentance is revealed to us as the only way, in which one can rediscover and, by the gracious mercy of God, be renewed in one's true dignity as a child of God. Contrary to what is asserted by the secularist agenda, repentance proclaims that our true dignity is able to be realized by a humble and docile obedience to the sanctifying and saving Word of God. Such obedience opens the soul to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, Who makes clear to it a central truth of salvation - what God irrevocably says about the soul's dignity as His image and likeness has been asserted by Him Who is Truth itself, whereas what sin says about the soul comes from the Father of Lies. Moreover, God's Truth is not merely factual, it is also faithful and efficacious, always offering to graciously renew the repentant soul in that purity, whereby authentic intimacy can be nurtured and enjoyed, rather than manipulated and exploited, even as its fruits are being shared with numerous others.
The grace of authentic repentance also leads to a liberating gratitude. Not content with merely getting some short-term respite from a heavy burden of guilt, the soul is filled with a joyous and gracious gratitude, whereby it seeks to share as a gift the saving reconciliation it has received as a gift. After all, authentic intimacy with another is
impossible without a humble gratitude for that person. This is one of the reasons why the most perfect mode of Christ's Presence to His Bride is His Eucharistic (grateful)
Presence. And this is why the Church stresses that true repentance necessarily leads to reconciliation. A soul cannot be redeemed in alienation from others. It cannot reverence God by despising His image in itself or in others, disfigured as they may be by the power of sin.
It should be further emphasized here that salvation is not a possession to be hoarded, but rather a mystery to be shared. This is one reason why the image of a redeemed soul is that of a life-giving spring, rather than that of a stagnant cistern. The more one can share this regenerative gift, the more one is able to actually become a sanctifying and encouraging gift to others. As one spiritual director put it, in the end we will be judged not so much on the basis of what we have done, as on the basis of what we have become by our faithfully abiding in the dynamic mystery of reconciling and redemptive love infused into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
The grace of repentance, then, enables the soul to be renewed in the spirit of reverent and humble hospitality, whereby it can be cleansed by God's gracious mercy of sin and drawn into the sanctifying and sacrificial joy of divine intimacy. When Jesus stands at the door and knocks, He does not expect to find our house in perfect order. But rather, as He is reverently and humbly welcomed by us, He enters and lovingly helps us to get our house in order.
Thus it is that we need to rediscover the basic truth that the foundation of any authentic evangelization is the gracious and sanctifying invitation of God for a soul to become receptive to the saving mystery and ministries of divine intimacy. And evangelization can only be fruitful when the Church herself conscientiously embraces repentance as not merely an occasional contact with God's mercy, but rather as an ongoing immersion into the profound mystery of divine graciousness. Through it, He both transcends and transforms us and our perspective, so as to lead us to embrace others with the same redemptive and regenerative love, with which He has embraced us in Christ Jesus, Our Savior and Lord.
Rev. Thomas Collins is a Catholic priest who serves the people of Virginia.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.