As we begin the twenty-first century, we find ourselves in a new kind of war. Its objective is not the conquest of territory, but of human hearts. I am not going to attempt a political analysis in this homily. Rather I would like to focus, in light of the Sunday readings, on a very powerful weapon, but one that has been underused.
In his magnificent book Priests For The Third Millennium Monsignor Timothy Dolan devotes a chapter to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He states: "I believe the Lord is calling us, priests of the new millennium, to be not only good confessors, but apostles of this sacrament."
Today's Gospel offers a striking image for the sacrament. Ten lepers approach Jesus, seeking cleansing. The disease not only consumed their flesh, but separated them from the worshipping community. In contrast to other miracles, Jesus does not heal them instantaneously. Rather he gives a command which, as we shall see, had a trajectory far beyond first century Palestine. But first let's clear up a misunderstanding.
Because the conclusion focuses on the gratitude of the Samaritan leper, it is easy to overlook the courage of the other nine. At the word of Jesus they took a step of faith. And they did have an exact order: "Go show yourselves to the priests." (Lk 17:14)
The Church Fathers saw a specific application to that command. Full reconciliation requires the involvement of the ordained representatives. For publicly known sins like apostasy, murder and adultery, this meant public penance before the entire body, headed by the bishop. But the forgiveness of other sins was handled more discreetly. In that regard the Fathers often cited Jesus command to the ten lepers. Sixth century Irish monks did not invent confession, as is sometimes asserted. More recent research shows they were drawing on patristic practices with deep New Testament roots.* (cf. Jn 20:23; Mt 18:18; James 5:16)
Regardless of its history, confession is a great gift. Monsignor Dolan reports a conversation with a Jewish psychiatrist about the sacrament. He asked if it was true there had been a sharp decline in the practice. Monsignor Dolan admitted that was the case. The psychiatrist responded with a chuckle:
"Well, a decline in confession is good for my business. If that sacrament ever really caught on, I'd be out of a job. People pay me well to do what you guys do in the confession, and I can't even forgive their sins, all I can do is help them live with the results."
As we struggle to understand what is happening in our world - and to make sense of our own lives - we should ask if Jesus' command to the lepers also applies to us.
*Cardinal Ratzinger summarizes the research in New Song For the Lord
From Archives (28th Sunday, Year C):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Catholic Bishops' Conference President Issues Statement on Military Action
Bulletin (Mass Count, Peru Trip, Local Anti-Catholicism)
My bulletin column
St. Mary of the Valley Album
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
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MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru
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