JUNE 7, 2004




In His Light

by Bishop Allen H. Vigneron

Penance and renewal: the work of the Church

Dear Sisters and Brothers:

This week I am writing the second of three reflections from my visit “ad limina apostolorum” in Rome last month. In my last column I wrote about my private audience with our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. In my next I will share my experience of praying at the shrines of the martyrs and saints in Rome. Today, I want to comment on the address the Holy Father gave to us bishops of California and Nevada. (The full text of his remarks is printed on page 8 for your own personal consideration.)

On Friday, May 14, at the end of the morning, after the Holy Father had seen the last of us in private audience, all the members of our group gathered together with him for a final meeting, at which he entrusted to us his message – a reflection on our ministry of sanctification, with particular emphasis on the indispensable place of repentance in a Christian’s growth in holiness. These lines from the Pope’s speech serve well as a statement of the fundamental conviction on which he based his remarks - that Christian living requires “a profound conversion of heart and mind…[that] the Church is always in need of purification and so she must constantly follow the path of penance and renewal” (nn. 1, 3).

Before I highlight some of the elements of the Holy Father’s message, I want to make clear what we Christians mean by “holiness,” because sometimes sanctity conjures up in people’s minds images that are really beside the point. Holiness does not consist in remarkable mystical experiences or dramatic gifts – like the power to perform miracles or read hearts. Holiness, Christ teaches us, simply consists in conforming our will to the will of God our Father. To be a saint is to love God completely with all our minds and hearts, our intellect and will — to say “thy will be done” and then to do it. We are holy to the extent that we make back to God a gift of ourselves in love since He has first made a gift of Himself to us.

Seeing clearly the heart of what it means to be a saint lets us make sense of the Holy Father’s reminder that all progress in holiness happens only by walking the road of repentance. All of us are in recovery from sin. All of us are born with original sin. That is, we have an innate instinct to put our own will ahead of God’s will, to love ourselves more than we love Him. And, as we move on in life, we make choices contrary to God’s commandments, which reinforce that disposition to live as if we were, so to speak, “the gods of our own lives.” We are all sinners, as the Pope reminds us by quoting St. John’s first letter: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 Jn 1:8).

Now, without a sense of God’s loving mercy for us, His sinful children, the fact that “sin is an integral part of the truth about the human person” (n. 3) could crush us with discouragement. But we know that when Christ came, He brought us deliverance from sin. So, instead of hiding my sinfulness from myself or others, I can stand up and say, “Yes, I’m a sinner, but God has shown me mercy, and so I’m glad to have people know how good He has been to me, even though I have not deserved His love.”

One of the necessary implications of this Gospel truth is that every “yes” to Jesus and His message will require a “no” to some part of what we find attractive in our world and in our lives – a “no” to everything that is not in accord with God’s plan. And we can be absolutely sure that in each of our lives and in every group of people, no matter how large or small, there is something to which we must say “no,” something we must cast aside along the road of repentance.

So then, I think you can see why the Holy Father is so concerned that all of us bishops address what he calls “the crisis of the lack of the sense of sin” (n. 3). Unless we recognize that rebellion against the will of God is the root cause of all disorder – in my life and in the life of our communities and society – we cannot begin to reach out for the only real remedy for these ills: the mercy of Christ and that new capacity for love that is His grace.

One very significant way this “lack of the sense of sin” shows up for me is in the view that tries to understand the Church apart from seeing that Christ established her as the means to bring us back into communion with God through deliverance from our sins. Anyone who tries to comprehend the Church without a set of categories in which “sin” and “repentance,” “reconciliation” and “holiness” stand at the top of the list will have a skewed sense of what we are about. Among such distorted views are those that look to the Church first of all as a helpful support for sound values or as a reinforcement of uplifting experiences or as a force for improving the lot of the human family. True, belonging to the Church helps in all those areas, but she exists principally as Christ’s instrument to transform us from sinners into saints. For Christ’s disciples, the first priority all day of every day is repentance and renewal in the Holy Spirit.

One of the most powerful parts of the Holy Father’s address for me is his reminder that my service as a bishop in the Church must be “marked by [my own] personal quest for holiness” (n. 2). That is, I cannot help you pass from sin to holiness unless I am totally committed to making that same journey. In connection with this affirmation, the Pope admonishes us bishops to avoid shaping our ministry according to secular models or thinking about being a bishop as a career. In other words, if repentance is not the highest priority in my life, I will get mixed up about the priorities according to which I should set the direction for our diocese.

I consider this advice particularly timely because today so many voices urge us bishops to live out our ministry according to criteria other than working for the salvation of those entrusted to our care. Some people want us to be managers, who keep the operation moving smoothly by avoiding anything controversial. I see a fair number of commentators who warn us bishops that we must tailor our witness of the Gospel to fit ideas that the majority will find acceptable or else we run the risk of shrinking our membership. However, to be guided by such concerns would be to think that the principal aim of a bishop is to maintain whatever power the Church could preserve within this world’s order. And, as the Holy Father reminds us, his brothers, that can’t be how we lead.

To conclude, I want to underscore here once more Pope John Paul II’s call for us bishops and priests to take the lead in a renewal of the sacrament of penance in the lives of our people (n. 5). Penance and reconciliation is the privileged sacramental moment for living most intensely that commitment to ongoing conversion to which we were consecrated at baptism. I pass along here one piece of very practical advice one of our lay catechists shared with me about how to make a fruitful confession, one that gets to heart of the matter: Embarrass yourself in confession. That is, tell the priest in confession the real truth about your sinfulness, the whole mortifying reality of how you fall short of being faithful to Christ. That sort of humble admission is a first long step forward to becoming the friend of Jesus we all aspire to be.


Official newspaper of the Roman Catholic
Diocese of Oakland, California encompassing all of
Alameda &
Contra Costa counties.