by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Every diocese has a patron saint. The primary patron for our archdiocese is none other than Mary, under the title of the Immaculate Conception. Our secondary patron is St. John Mary Vianney, patron for priests.
St. John Vianney was not a gifted student. He struggled to make it through his seminary studies. After a few years as an associate pastor, John Vianney was appointed the pastor of Ars. In 1815, the village of Ars consisted of 40 houses and a very dilapidated church. It was considered in contemporary clerical circles that being sent to Ars was like being sent to Siberia.
The story is told that during his early years at Ars, some of the parishioners circulated a petition to the bishop requesting that John Vianney be removed as the pastor. One of John Vianney’s supporters brought him a copy of the petition that accused the future saint of being a sinner, ignorant and awkward. John Vianney read the petition carefully and signed it.
This past November, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York in his address to his brother bishops, as president of our episcopal conference, quoted from the closing message of this past October’s Synod of Bishops. The Synod Fathers said:
“We, however, should never think that the new evangelization does not concern us as bishops personally. In these days, voices among the bishops were raised to recall that the church must first of all heed the word before she can evangelize the world. The invitation to evangelize becomes a call to conversion.
“We bishops firmly believe that we must convert ourselves first to the power of Jesus Christ who alone can make all things new. . . . With humility, we must recognize that the poverty and weaknesses of Jesus’ disciples, especially us, his ministers, weigh on the credibility of the mission. We are certainly aware — we bishops first of all — that we can never really be equal to the Lord’s calling and mandate to proclaim his Gospel to the nations. We do not hesitate to recognize our personal sins. We are, however, also convinced that the Lord’s Spirit is capable of renewing his church and rendering her garment resplendent if we let him mold us.”
To this, Cardinal Dolan added his own challenge to the American bishops: “When it comes especially to the new evangelization, [our hearts] must first be filled with the spirit of interior conversion born of our own renewal. That’s the way we become channels of a truly effective transformation of the world, through our own witness of a penitential heart, and our own full embrace of the sacrament of penance.”
Cardinal Dolan reminded the bishops: “The sacrament of reconciliation evangelizes the evangelizers, as it brings us sacramentally into contact with Jesus, who calls us to conversion of heart and allows us to answer his invitation to repentance — a repentance from within that can then transform the world without.”
Every bishop and priest must first be a penitent. We must first face the truth that we are sinners in need of a Redeemer. We must first allow ourselves to be transformed by God’s mercy. It is out of our own experience in the sacrament of penance of the unconditional love of Jesus for us in our weakness that we find the grace to be the Lord’s instruments of mercy for his people.
In his address, Cardinal Dolan observed: “What an irony that despite the call of the Second Vatican Council for a renewal of the sacrament of penance, what we got instead was its near disappearance.” Essential for the renewal of the church in our time is the rediscovery by all Catholics of the power and beauty of the sacrament of reconciliation as a tool for growth in holiness.
The church in France at the time of St. John Mary Vianney was reeling from the effects of the French Revolution and the ensuing persecution of the church. The faith in France had grown tepid, and the town of Ars was no exception. St. John Mary Vianney, through his own holiness, his preaching, and, most of all, through his ministry as a confessor, was able to reignite the faith in Ars and much of France. It was not unusual for St. John Vianney to spend more than 12 hours in the confessional.
Once again this year, the priests of the Archdiocese are available every Wednesday night of Lent for confession from at least 6-7 p.m. I urge you to take advantage of the grace of the sacrament of reconciliation during this Lenten season and make this sacrament a regular part of your spiritual life throughout the year.
I invited you at the beginning of our Faith Initiative — “Faith: Love It, Learn It, Live It” — to gaze on the face of Jesus depicted on a crucifix, while asking the Lord how he wanted you to observe this Year of Faith. The name for this year’s Lenten confession campaign is “Gaze on the Face of Christ.” If you go to our archdiocesan website — archkck.org — and visit our special Lenten confession site, you will find a host of resources, e.g., examinations of conscience, information on how to make a good confession, and many other pertinent articles.
Pope Benedict in 2011 stated: “The new evangelization . . . begins in the confessional.” In that same address, our now-retired Holy Father said: “The sacrament of reconciliation, which begins with a look at one’s actual condition in life, contributes uniquely to achieving the openness of heart which enables one to turn one’s gaze to God so that he may enter one’s life. The certainty that he is close and in his mercy awaits the human being, even one who is involved in sin, in order to heal his weakness with the grace of the sacrament of reconciliation, is always a ray of hope for the world.”
Pope Benedict observed that it is from our “experience of that mercy which Jesus of Nazareth, Lord and Christ, has given to us” that we will find the power to “become credible witnesses of holiness which is the aim of the new evangelization.”
If the devout frequent reception of the sacrament of penance by the parishioners of Ars in the early 19th century could trigger a renewal of the faith and the conversion of many hearts, the same can happen in northeast Kansas at the beginning of the 21st century.