Thursday, February 11, 2016

The First Story Pope Francis Told

Lent - Ash Wednesday - 2016 (Yr C)
Holy Spirit Parish/UK Newman Center

          In his first Angelus address just days after his election, Pope Francis told a beautiful story.  It was the story of an elderly woman he encountered right after becoming bishop in 1992.  There had been a huge gathering to pray for the sick, and he was hearing confessions.  Just as he was getting up to leave, Pope Francis (then Bishop Jorge) encountered her.  In his own words:

          [A]n elderly woman approached me, humble, very humble, and over eighty years old. I looked at her, and I said, “Grandmother” — because in our country that is how we address the elderly — “do you want to make your confession?” “Yes,” she said to me. “But if you have not sinned…” [I said.]  “We all have sins...[and t]he Lord forgives all things,” she said to me with conviction…I felt an urge to ask [if she had earned an advanced degree in theology], because that is the wisdom which the Holy Spirit gives: inner wisdom focused on God's mercy.
Let us not forget this… God never ever tires of forgiving us…the problem is that we ourselves tire, we do not want to ask, we grow weary of asking for forgiveness. He never tires of forgiving, but at times we get tired of asking for forgiveness.

          The first story Pope Francis told the world was a story of mercy – God’s mercy.  The first story Pope Francis told the world was a story of God’s mercy, and the confessional – God’s mercy waiting for us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation …and our hesitation in receiving that mercy.
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          Isn’t it funny how eager we are to connect with our need for God’s mercy – this gesture and symbol of our sinfulness in the ashes we receive today?  Students skip class and people take half days from work to receive their ashes.  Last year, in the middle of the worst snow storms in years, folks drove on treacherous roads to get their ashes and mark their need for God’s mercy.
Isn’t it funny how motivated we are to claim our need for God’s mercy…but how deftly we avoid encountering the mercy we so desperately need in the confessional?  Nation-wide, almost half of us never go to confession - half; not once a year, not once a decade, never…half  – but 90% of us make it to Ash Wednesday.  We go out of our way to acknowledge our sinfulness and our need for mercy on Ash Wednesday…why do we have such a hard time reaching out to receive God’s mercy by making a good confession?
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I have a confession to make…I was part of that 90% for my first 15 years as a Catholic.  I went to confession just before coming into the Church, and then didn’t go again until just before I left for seminary.  Even my first 4 years in seminary, I struggled to make it to confession.  I was embarrassed and ashamed that I continued to fail at loving God and others the way I should.  What Pope Francis said in that first Angelus address was so very true in my own life – God hadn’t grown tired of loving me, forgiving me, showing me mercy.  I had grown tired of reaching out to receive His patient, loving mercy.  I had grown tired of so desperately needing God’s mercy.
Every year on Ash Wednesday I was ready to admit – I needed to admit to myself and others that I was a sinner and needed God’s love and forgiveness – every year I reached for the ashes from the depths of my soul because I knew how desperately I needed God’s mercy…and every year I made a promise: this year, Lord – this year I’ll make my confession.  I prayed for the courage to confess.  I hungered for the relief of knowing that experience of God’s mercy in the confessional.  I wanted to confess my sins – I wanted absolution – I wanted to experience God’s mercy…and every year, I waited. 
Sometimes my embarrassment at how long it had been won out.  Sometimes that embarrassment led to me getting defensive when someone invited me to confession (or when someone preached a homily like what I’m preaching now)…and in that mindset, I got very good at looking for reasons that I didn’t need to go to confession.  But every year – every year – some part of me was desperate inside to feel God’s loving embrace in the sacrament.
We tell ourselves that we don’t need to confess…that we haven’t sinned badly enough to need confession…that the Church is mistaken in showing us our need to encounter Christ in the confessional as the most perfect expression of God’s mercy.  We sometimes decide we might go, and then we wait.  We sometimes acknowledge deep in our hearts that we desperately want to hear those words of Christ spoken by the priest, “I absolve you from your sins…” – sometimes we feel that desire deep in our souls, but we just can’t seem to get there…  I know, friends…I’ve been there…I was there…until one day God broke down the walls of my heart and whispered my name and brought this poor sinner face to face with His mercy in the good and honest confession of my sins. 
And friends…I have never been the same…never been the same… because what I found in that confession – what I find every time I go to confession – is God’s love – I come face to face – literally – face to face with the reality that God’s love and forgiveness are so much more powerful and beautiful than my reluctance.  Face to face with Jesus Christ who loves me and forgives me.  I come face to face with mercy…
Why is it that we come out in droves to receive our ashes, but shun the confessional?  Pope Francis is on to something when he say, “The problem is that we ourselves tire, we do not want to ask, we grow weary of asking for forgiveness.  [God] never tires of forgiving, but at times we tire of asking for forgiveness.”
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Friends…God bless you for being here today to acknowledge our need for God’s great mercy.  His mercy is huge.  It is boundless.  It is patient.  It is filled with love.  But let’s go deeper…go deeper than acknowledging our need for mercy, and stretch out your hand to receive it, to feel it, to experience it.  As we travel this Lent together – this Lent, this year, in this time, together let’s do whatever it takes to help one another to encounter the mercy of God. 
I’m not pleading with you alone – I’m pleading with Pope Francis, who is himself a beautiful and beaming face of God’s mercy – Pope Francis who says about this Lent in the Year of Mercy, “Let us place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the centre once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands. For every penitent, it will be a source of true interior peace.”  I’m pleading to you with Pope Francis – and there is not anything – anything I won’t do to help.  You name it – and I’ll do it.   
Friends…God’s mercy is so real – and you are so loved – and Jesus desperately wants to show you that mercy in the forgiveness of your sins.  Will you go deeper than acknowledging your need for God’s mercy with ashes this year? Will you make your confession this Lent?  Will you?

Behold – now is a very acceptable time…Behold, now is the day of salvation.