Today’s Mass continues the Lenten theme of repentance. During Lent the Church is literally at pains to challenge us to consider just where we are in our relationship with God, the Church, and with one another. The bottom line always is: what does our conscience really tell us? Do we, in actual fact, live out the faith we will shortly profess with our lips, or do we simply go through the motions? None of us are, or ever will be perfect, we can never sit back and say, well, I’m all right. And so during Lent we are encouraged to step back from the activity and the distractions of daily life and consider the state of our spiritual health. For Catholics the ordinary means of doing this is to confess our sins to a priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or to seek the advice of a Spiritual Director, much as we would consult a doctor when we have physical problems. Christ didn’t come into this world to console the healthy and the strong, but to cure the sick and the weak: that is, sinners like you and me.
Bishops and priests have a solemn responsibility to teach the Faith and, by that I mean, of course the Catholic Faith, not some watered down version of it, or indeed our own personal interpretation of what we think the Church should teach. As you know, the teaching of the Catholic Church doesn’t always fall on open ears and docile hearts, even among its own children.
Like the prophets before him, Our Lord caused controversy and conflict within people wherever he went. He upset the Jewish leadership right, left and centre. Even some of his closest disciples couldn’t always understand or even accept what he taught. But Christ taught the Truth. The Church teaches the Truth. And what prophet has ever been accepted in his own town?
It’s good to be patted on the back from time to time and commended for what we do. But all our good works are futile if our interior life and our motivations are not right. The Pharisees thought they were pleasing to God simply by the mere external practice of their religion. But Christ taught that actions were not enough; and he challenged the Pharisees: if there is one of you without sin, let him cast the first stone. And let’s not forget that the woman didn’t get away scot free, she was challenged also, Our Lord didn’t condemn her, but she was told not to sin again.
That same challenge is there for us. There is no one here today, myself included, who doesn’t have something new to learn. And I believe adults learn best when we are challenged, and as a result of that challenge we make a conscious decision to accept it or reject it.
The priest’s challenge each week, indeed each day, is to preach the Truth and to encourage Christ’s faithful people to become living and authentic witnesses of that Truth as taught by the Catholic Church, which we believe is the sole guardian and authentic teacher of all revealed Truth. Your challenge is to accept that teaching; and to accept it with a docile heart. As Catholics this is what we are called to do. Even with a string of degrees in Theology we may not fully understand what the Church teaches but we may not criticise or oppose such teaching and still remain faithful. Those who ‘protest’ withdraw themselves from the unity of the Church. You can’t be a Protestant and a Catholic at the same time; you must be one or the other, because one contradicts the other.
We can’t allow ourselves to become complacent, especially in this day and age. We need challenges to keep us on the straight and narrow path that leads to life. What parent would allow his child to do something dangerous like put his hand in the fire? Like a good parent the Church has our best interests at heart and through its teaching does all it can to guide us along the narrow path that leads to eternal life.
It stands to reason that a sensitive and informed conscience will help us. But many people ignore their conscience and gradually become numb to its prick. Many Catholics get to the stage when they actually fear going to Confession because they may be too ashamed of their sins or because it’s been such a long time since their last confession and they think the priest will tell them off. But let’s put ourselves in the position of the woman in today’s gospel. Caught in the very act of committing adultery she is hauled up in front of everyone: her sin exposed, her dignity gone, and her fate in the balance. As the scribes and Pharisees drag her before Our Lord she probably realises that she is not only being condemned as a sinner, she is also being used as a pawn. The Pharisees are not really interested in her or her sin; they are using her to trap Jesus. She stands there, ashamed, humiliated and afraid, waiting for sentence to be pronounced and the dreadful punishment, of being stoned to death, carried out. And then, in an instant, everything has changed. The scribes and Pharisees are walking away and she hears Our Lord say to her: “Where are your accusers? Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more”.
Fear, anxiety and shame are suddenly replaced by the joy of liberation and release. A moment ago this woman had been face to face with certain death; but now she is free to go and she can live again.
If you were face to face with Our Lord right now, with all your sins exposed, what would you say to him? What would you want him to forgive? Would you really want to make the standard Catholic confession that goes something like: “I missed my morning and night prayers; I swore a few times; I was impatient; I had uncharitable thoughts; and I told a few small lies”? Do you think Our Lord would really want to hear any of that? And would you really want to tell him?
When we become complacent we become our own god, we make up our own rules and regulations, we want our own way and we don’t want to face up honestly to the demands life and our Faith makes upon us. And so we avoid our responsibilities, we take short cuts to happiness, and we try and make ourselves invulnerable by not facing up to the fact we are vulnerable and in desperate need of God’s saving forgiveness. In effect what it boils down to is a chronic lack of faith. And this is why so many of our churches today are closing down or reducing the number of Sunday Masses.
And yet our challenge should also be our consolation. Do we imagine that Our Lord will treat us any differently than he treated the woman in the gospel? Without God’s grace we will inevitably fall back into sin. But with the grace of God we can often avoid sin and, like Saint Paul says in the second reading, always try to avoid it. If we are attached to a particular sin, we may not be truly sorry for it. And this, I think, is what holds many of us back. We may be sorry for lots of things, but there may be one or two sins that we enjoy just a little bit too much and simply can’t let go of. But the very fact that we confess our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation means that we have allowed the Holy Spirit to draw us closer to the Father. And the Holy Spirit will allow us to complete that journey only if we persist in prayer and persevere in our call. And that call is to repentance and to a change of heart and lifestyle; it’s the call to a life of continuous conversion.
And that’s the challenge which faces each and every one of us: it faces the Pope himself, it faces the cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons, religious, men, women and children. The challenge to change our lives and to repent of our sins; in other words, to fulfil our destiny, which the Lord himself gained for us as he hung upon the Cross on Calvary. That’s what it’s all about, that’s why the liturgy is so full of references to sin. Sin brought about our estrangement from God. Our Lord, through his suffering and death, healed that rift and drew us back into a loving relationship with the Father. Sin continues to be the obstacle between ourselves and God.
Let us not turn our back on everything Our Lord did to save us, but let us take up the challenge to truly repent of our sins and accept God’s love for us, no holds barred. Let there be no conditions. Let us hold nothing back. Only then will we be at peace with God and with ourselves. It takes but a little courage and that first step is always the hardest. But God’s grace, given to us so abundantly through the Sacraments of the Church, makes it easier to fulfil our destiny; and what is our destiny but life forever with God in heaven, which is, after all, why God created us.