by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
While in Rome for the “ad lumina” pilgrimage, I had the opportunity to visit Casa Santa Maria, the Pontifical North American College residence for American priests who are studying for graduate degrees.
Father William J. Slattery, one of the residents of Casa Santa Maria, gave each bishop a copy of the first volume of a trilogy he has authored that is entitled: “Heroism and Genius – How Catholic Priests Built Western Civiliza- tion.”
The collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century was followed by what some have mistakenly labeled the Dark Ages, and others, more appropriately, called the “Age of the Monks.” St. Benedict, rejecting the decadence of the last days of the Roman Empire, founded the monastery at
Monte Casino. The foundation of Monte Casino inaugurated the monastic move- ment across Europe, which preserved what was worthwhile and salvageable of Greco-Roman culture and began a distinctly Christian culture. Apparently, one of the reasons our current Holy Father chose the name Benedict was to invoke the intercession of the founder
of Western monasticism, as the pope has set about the renewal of Christianity in Europe.
At the same time that St. Benedict was launching the monastic movement in Italy and southern Europe, St. Columbanus and his Irish monks embarked on a similar venture in northern Europe. Similar to Benedict, Columbanus was a larger-than-life figure who, in a relatively short time, founded a string of monasteries across Europe.
Father Slattery describes the reac- tion of the barbarian world to this mo- nastic movement: “The barbarians were perplexed in the presence of such hitherto unknown strength of character. They intuited a purpose and intensity in the asceticism of the monks beside which they suddenly saw their own sav- age unrestrained ferocity as weakness. Moreover, they were not only powerful ascetics and men of superhuman energy but also extraordinarily cultured, refined and lion-hearted. Admiration for this new type of man, unknown to the barbarian world, grew within them as they watched these monks live with never a truce with mediocrity, never a pause for comfort beyond the utterly necessary, and never a compromise with the lust of the flesh or the tyranny of rulers.”
Interestingly, one of the essential tools for the renewal of faith, sparked by the Irish monks, was their innovation regarding the sacrament of penance. Up until that time, sacramental confession was rarely utilized. The dominant pastoral practice regarding the sacrament of penance during the first centuries of the church was that it should only be used once or perhaps a couple times for an entire lifetime. In many places, the confession of sins was a public matter made before the entire community. However, even when this was not the case, the penance was public. After receiving the sacrament, one was segregated from the community, becoming part of the order of penitents. Oftentimes, the penance given to penitents was burdensome: the amount of prayer, almsgiving, fasting and other works of charity usually required months of effort.
The form of the sacrament of penance that had been developed in the Irish monasteries was revolutionary because: 1) the confession of sins was always made privately to an individual confessor; 2) the assignment of the penance was done confidentially; and 3) the sacrament was available as often as desired and/or needed. The frequent use of the sacrament of penance became a powerful tool in changing the lives of individual penitents who, in turn, helped to transform the culture.
The Irish monks, having utilized the frequent reception of sacramental confession to assist with their own growth in holiness, became remarkable confessors and spiritual guides for penitents. Father Slattery describes the spiritual revolution that resulted:
“For these monks were not satisfied simply with receiving absolution from the guilt of serious sin. No, they wanted much more. Passionately they wanted to purify the soul from even the ashes of evil in order to allow the new supernatural life received in baptism and the other sacraments to transform their thoughts, aspirations and actions. They wanted Christian perfection, a transformed personality, Christ-likeness — and being Celts, they wanted it fast. But, naturally, such an arduous task and such a subtle surgery of the soul could not be done on one’s own. A master physician was needed, and where else to seek one, and where else to undergo such surgery, than in confession? After all, who knew the soul better than the priest who had just listened to the tale of one’s sins and evil inclinations? And who was better equipped to be a master surgeon than the priest who was already so knowledgeable? Was he not himself a man who had spent years living amidst the peaks of Christian self-conquest?
“The insertion of spiritual guidance made Celtic confession a powerful and subtle tool for the pedagogy of transforming raw human nature into the new Christ-like man. For it was personalized like a tutoring system, able to take each one where he was at, helping him both to appreciate God’s unique love for him as an individual as well as the importance of an energetic response. It was an effective surgical instrument for a successful heart trans- plant because it facilitated three conditions for the operation: self-knowledge, wise decision-making and practices of self-mastery.”
I hope each of you has taken advantage of the sacrament of reconciliation during this Lenten season. If you have not, it is not too late. There are still opportunities in our parishes during Holy Week. The Sunday after Easter is Divine Mercy Sunday and also affords many opportunities for receiving the sacrament of penance.
My hope, however, is that people will not just use the sacrament of recon- ciliation during the penitential seasons of Lent and Advent. I am convinced that, just as it was centuries ago, the frequent use of this sacrament is essential for the renewal of individual lives and the life of the church today. If we are not going to be satisfied with being mediocre or lukewarm Catholics, then we need the medicine for our souls and the power surge of love that this sacrament alone can provide.