by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
As you read this column, I am still in the Holy Land. Today, Jan. 27, we leave to spend a few days in Galilee, where Jesus was conceived, lived most of his life in the obscurity of Nazareth, and did much of his ministry. In particular, we will visit Capernaum, which was home base for much of his Galilean public ministry.
The Gospels are clear that the mission of Jesus was to bring his Father’s mercy to the world. In last Sunday’s Gospel, we heard the core message of the preaching of Jesus: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1: 15). We hear the echo of this verse in one of the formularies on Ash Wednesday for the application of ashes: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
For the Sunday immediately preceding the beginning of Lent, we will read from the second chapter of Mark (2: 1-12) about Jesus preaching in a home in Capernaum. People are so drawn to Our Lord that the house was crowded to the point it was impossible to get even near the doorway. The Gospel tells us four men bring a paralyzed man on a stretcher in the hopes that Jesus will heal their friend.
When they see it is impossible to get their friend anywhere near Jesus by conventional means, they climb up on the roof of the home. They hoist the paralyzed man up onto the roof. They open up the roof and lower their friend on his mat into the presence of Jesus.
Then the Gospel tells us two very interesting and surprising aspects of the story. First, it tells us that Jesus is impressed not just by the man’s faith, but by their faith — meaning the faith of his friends. Secondly, Jesus does not heal the man of his physical disability, but rather tells the man “your sins are forgiven.”
The religious leaders, the scribes, condemn Jesus in their thoughts for blaspheming. The Gospel uses irony at this moment as it describes the internal thinking of the scribes: “Who but God alone can forgive sins?” Not realizing it, before even the disciples, the scribes have acknowledged the true identity of Jesus. They are correct that only God can forgive sins. Jesus is able to grant mercy to sinners because he is truly God and man.
Jesus calls the scribes out for their thoughts. Then, to demonstrate his authority over sin, he heals the man of his physical paralysis, instructing the man: “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.”
Last week, I shared with you a letter I had received from a woman who had helped her 17-year-old daughter procure an abortion 22 years ago. Both the woman and her daughter have struggled with believing that God will forgive them this sin.
The truth is that none of us deserve to be forgiven whatever sins we have committed. In the glossary of terms found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, salvation is defined as: “the forgiveness of sins and restoration of friendship with God, which can be done by God alone.” Mercy has been aptly described as God’s love in response to our sin.
A major error found in faulty Christian theology is the belief that somehow we can earn God’s love or deserve his mercy. The truth is: Both the love and mercy of God are gratuitous gifts that he freely offers to us. Our responsibility is to accept these gifts and, in response, to live lives of profound gratitude.
On Easter evening, as described in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus appeared to the apostles and passed on to them — the first priests and bishops — the authority to forgive sins. To those who had betrayed and abandoned him, just three days before, he said: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20: 21-23).
Like the scribes in the Gospel, thinking Jesus is blaspheming because he forgave the sins of the paralytic man, some dismiss the sacrament of penance by questioning: “Why should I confess my sins to another human being? Priests cannot forgive sins.” The irony is that they are right. In the sacrament of penance, it is not the priest who forgives sins. Priests are merely the frail human instruments that Jesus uses to extend his ministry of mercy through time.
The Gospel of Jesus makes no sense if we do not recognize ourselves as sinners, as those in need of God’s forgiveness. However, once we do accept and actually encounter the mercy of God, our lives will be transformed. Once we accept God’s mercy in our hearts, it unleashes within us an incredible capacity to love others.
Once again this year, priests throughout the archdiocese will be available to minister the sacrament of penance/reconciliation on the Wednesdays of Lent from 6 to 7 p.m. Last year, I was gratified by the large numbers who took advantage of these additional Lenten opportunities to go to confession.
The archdiocese again will be placing ads for this initiative on secular radio stations in an effort to reach those who have been away from the sacraments for some time. I was encouraged by the reports last year of many receiving the sacrament who had not been to confession for many years.
You do not have to wait until Lent to receive the sacrament of penance. Do yourself a favor and begin to make regular use of this sacrament. Sacramental confession is steroids for the soul. It will increase your peace, your joy and your power to love.
Also, like the friends of the paralytic, through our prayer, we can carry others to Jesus to receive his mercy and to be healed of the spiritual paralysis caused by sin. I encourage you to consider who in your family or friends needs to reconnect with the Lord and his bride, the church. I encourage you to begin now praying and fasting that, during this Lent, particular friends and family members will receive the sacrament of penance.
More powerful than any radio ad in motivating those you love to return to Jesus will be your prayers and your own example of the joy and peace you receive from encountering the Lord’s mercy in the sacrament of reconciliation.
If you want to reflect more on this subject and learn more about God’s mercy, attend Mike Scherschligt’s free first Thursday lecture at Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park on Feb. 2 at 7 p.m.