Our preparations for Easter come early this year.  Ash Wednesday will be Feb. 13 when we begin our ascent to the holy mountain of Easter.  Repentance and Baptism are the two special themes of the Lenten season.  Throughout the forty days of Lent we journey with the catechumens to the Baptismal fonts in our parish churches where they will be initiated to the Christian family.  We join them in the spirit of repentance, confessing our sins and experiencing the forgiveness of the Lord as we ourselves renew the Baptismal grace we received, many of us long ago.

The formation of our catechumens and candidates for the Easter sacraments is well underway in almost all our parishes.  On the first and second weekends of Lent we bishops will be presiding at Rites of Election with the catechumens and their godparents, the candidates and their sponsors.  On Holy Saturday night the sacrament of Baptism will be conferred upon the elect and the rest of us will be invited to renew our own Baptismal promises.  After all, it was in Baptism that we became sisters and brothers in the Catholic family, cleansed of original sin and empowered to give witness to Christ in the world as participants in the church’s evangelizing mission.

The catechesis our catechumens and candidates receive usually takes place in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) throughout the year.  It is then that these good men and women are schooled not only in the social consequences of sin but also in the true meaning of the virtue of penance, namely, the rejection of sin as an offense against God.  Not only do we take the time to seek forgiveness for our own sins the church exhorts us to pray for all sinners, especially those who have distanced themselves for a long time from God’s mercy.

Our Year of Faith is well underway.  In preparation for Lent this year we American bishops have issued a pastoral exhortation on the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.  It is entitled “God’s Gift of Forgiveness.”  It was on the night of his resurrection, when Jesus appeared to the apostles in the upper room, that he extended to them his message of peace.  He then added, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.” (John 20: 19-23).  Back on that first Easter night the risen Savior was opening the minds and hearts of the apostles to the reason for his suffering.  He endured all of this for us so that the gifts of salvation and forgiveness will be ours.  The apostles certainly needed forgiveness after the way they abandoned the master on the night of his arrest.  Jesus not only wanted to forgive them but he wanted them to forgive others in his name.

Nowadays we call this sacrament of forgiveness the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, but I think most Catholics refer to it as confession.  There we meet the Lord and we ask him to forgive us our sins and give us the grace we need to live a renewed life in him.  In fact, anyone who’s aware of having committed a mortal sin is bound by the obligation to receive this sacrament at least once during the year, particularly in the season of Lent.  Even without serious sins on our conscience, we are encouraged to receive the sacrament so we will “grow closer to Christ and to His Body, the church.”

In this year we are focused on the work of the New Evangelization, strengthening our own friendship with Christ and encouraging others to renew their own.  To do so we need to let go of some of the habits of sin and grow in the life of virtue, giving witness to a joyful conversion.  Pope Benedict XVI has said that because the graces of this sacrament are so similar to the purpose of the new evangelization, “The New Evangelization… begins in the confessional!”

People who have been away from confession for a long time are sometimes hesitant to return.  They find it difficult to talk about past failings or they may be uncertain about how to approach the Lord through his priest in the sacrament.  I encourage you to take consolation in the fact that we confessors are sinners too.  In fact, in our training to administer the sacrament we are reminded that good confessors need to be good penitents too.  We who administer the sacrament in the name of Jesus are forgiven sinners who seek to serve God’s people in the name of Jesus.

Throughout this Lenten season special penitential services take place in most of our parishes.  During these gatherings of the faithful individual confessions take place after common prayer.  I have asked our priests to make themselves available often for individual celebrations of this sacrament during Lent in the Year of Faith.  Because the final days of Holy Week are so intense in the liturgical life of the church, we implore you to avail yourselves of the sacrament before Holy Thursday and to consult parish bulletins about the regular and additional times when the individual celebration of the sacrament will take place.  

Even though it is not necessary to receive this sacrament when there are no mortal sins to confess, the confession of our everyday faults (venal sins) is an important opportunity for sacramental grace.  In acknowledging our lesser sins we form our consciences more effectively, we take some concrete steps against any evil habits that are gradually developing and we allow ourselves to be healed by Christ as we progress in the life of the Holy Spirit.  In fact, in experiencing the mercy of God we ourselves are inclined to become much more forgiving in our dealings with one another.

In addition to the focus on Baptism and Reconciliation, during the season of Lent the church’s devotional life is inevitably intensified and renewed.  As I have already advised you, during this Year of Faith we Catholics across the United States are being asked to pray regularly for respect of all human life from conception to natural death, for the strengthening of marriage and family life and for the protection of religious freedom.  Catholic parishes are asked to host holy hours monthly in their churches.  Those who cannot attend are asked to make their own private holy hour at home in a peaceful place where they are at ease with the Lord.  We are also asked to pray the rosary every day, even a decade if only that much is possible.  In addition, during this Year of Faith we are all asked to abstain from meat and fast voluntarily every Friday.

Other devotions like the Stations of the Cross, Litanies of Jesus, Mary and the saints, pilgrimages to official archdiocesan Year of Faith churches and many other private prayers found available in a host of prayer books will assist us in our efforts to accompany those journeying to the Easter sacraments and lighten the burden of our sins forgiven by Christ through his priests in the sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance.

God bless you during this holy Lenten season in the Year of Faith.  As we receive the blessed ashes on Wednesday, Feb. 13, may they be a reminder to us of our God’s great love and mercy, so readily available to his people through the Lenten gifts of Baptism and Reconciliation.  May they also be a sign to all whom we meet that they too have a very special friend in Jesus who truly wants to be their friend too.  A blessed Lent for all of you, my dear friends in Christ!