BALTIMORE — The U.S. bishops Nov. 13 overwhelmingly approved an exhortation encouraging Catholics to take advantage of the sacrament of penance, also known as reconciliation.
The vote, which required approval of two-thirds of the bishops, was 236-1.
The text was prepared by the bishops' Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, chaired by Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay, Wis.
The exhortation quotes from the Gospel of John after Jesus arose and told the Apostles: "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them."
In so doing, the exhortation says, Jesus was "proclaiming that all the suffering he had just endured was in order to make available the gifts of salvation and forgiveness."
It adds, "In the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, we meet the Lord, who wants to grant forgiveness and the grace to live a renewed life in him. In this sacrament, he prepares us to receive him with a lively faith, earnest hope, and sacrificial love in the Eucharist. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, we repent, let go of any pattern of sin, grow in the life of virtue and witness to a joyful conversion."
Bishop Ricken, in remarks Nov. 12, said the document was prepared so that it "might assist in the conversion of hearts for Jesus Christ, which is at the heart of evangelization."
He added the exhortation is "rooted in the teachings" of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The brevity of this statement is intended to foster a wide dissemination in parish bulletins, diocesan publications and social media. In response to a question, Bishop Ricken said the document, if approved, would be published as a pamphlet.
The exhortation tries to ease the fears of Catholics who have not gone to confession for some time.
"We bishops and priests are eager to help you if you experience difficulty, hesitation, or uncertainty about approaching the Lord in this sacrament," it says. "If you have not received this healing sacrament in a long time, we are ready to welcome you. We, whom Christ has ordained to minister this forgiveness in his name, are also approaching this sacrament, as both penitents and ministers, during Lent. We want to offer ourselves to you as forgiven sinners seeking to serve in the Lord's name."
The exhortation reminds Catholics that "Pope Benedict XVI has said, 'The new evangelization ... begins in the confessional!'"
One change in the text of the exhortation as proposed will be the inclusion of a reminder to Catholics -- still to be written -- that they are obliged to go to confession at least once a year.
Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M., complained that such language did not appear in the exhortation and that a bid to include it had been rejected by the committee.
Without such language, "it becomes a bit of a vague statement," Archbishop Sheehan said. "Catholics shouldn't have to go to the website to find out such basic things about our Catholic faith."
Bishop Ricken replied it was the committee's intent to make the exhortation "invitational" in nature. "We didn't want it to be seen as 'You're invited, but you have to come.'" But, with the objection raised by Archbishop Sheehan and other bishops, he said he would take the exhortation back to the committee to find a way to incorporate details of the once -a-year requirement into it.
The exhortation would be made public in time to allow for dioceses to prepare for Lent 2013 and to offer the sacrament at times that are "convenient and plentiful," according to a background document on the exhortation.