CardinalTimothy Dolan of New York,
president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Address given at the USCCB General Assembly Fall meeting on November 12, 2012.
My brother bishops,
Yes, we have "a lot on our plate" as we commence our meeting, urgent issues very worthy
of our solicitude as pastors -- the suffering in vast areas not far from here caused by the Hurricane of two weeks ago, the imperative to the New Evangelization, the invitation offered by the Year of Faith, and our continued dialogue, engagement, and prophetic challenge to our culture over urgent issues such as the protection of human life, the defense of marriage, the promotion of human dignity in the lives of the poor, the immigrant, those in danger from war and persecution throughout the world, and our continued efforts to defend our first and most cherished freedom -- all issues calling for our renewed and enthusiastic commitment.
But I stand before you this morning to say simply: first things
first. We gather as disciples of, as friends of, as believers in
Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, "the Way, the Truth and the Life," who
exhorted us to "seek first the Kingdom of God."
We cannot engage
culture unless we let Him first engage us; we cannot dialogue with others
unless we first dialogue with Him; we cannot challenge unless we first let Him
The Venerable Servant of God, Fulton J. Sheen, once commented,
"The first word of Jesus in the Gospel was ''come''; the last word of Jesus was
Fifty years ago, on October 11, 1962, Blessed John XXIII courageously convened the Second
Vatican Council "the
greatest concern of which," he insisted, "is that the sacred deposit of
Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously." (Allocution on
the occasion of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudet mater ecclesia).
We gather for our plenary assembly in our nation''s premiere see, at the close of the XIII
Ordinary General Synod of Bishops,
still near the beginning of the Year of
Faith. Both occasions have the same
origin, the same goal expressed by Blessed John XXIII: the effective transmission of the faith for the
transformation of the world.
A year ago
we began our visits ad limina Petri et
Pauli. I know you join me in expressing deep gratitude for the
extraordinary affection, warmth and fraternal care with which our Holy Father
Benedict did not stop with his gracious hospitality. No. He also gave us plenty of fatherly advice --
for our ministry as pastors of the Church and our personal role in the New Evangelization.
especially striking example from his first ad
limina address: "Evangelization," the Successor of St. Peter noted, ". . . appears
not simply a task to be undertaken ad
extra; we ourselves are the first to
need re-evangelization. As with all spiritual crises, whether of
individuals or communities, we know that the ultimate answer can only be born
of a searching, critical and ongoing self-assessment and conversion in the
light of Christ''s truth."
bishops at the just concluded Synod of
Bishops confessed in our closing message:
however, should never think that the new evangelization does not concern us
as Bishops personally. In these days voices among the Bishops were raised to recall that
the Church must first of all heed the Word before she can evangelize the world.
The invitation to evangelize becomes a call to conversion."
"We Bishops firmly
believe that we must convert ourselves first to the power of Jesus Christ who alone
can make all things new, above all our poor existence. With humility we must
recognize that the poverty and weaknesses of Jesus'' disciples, especially us, his
ministers, weigh on the credibility of the mission. We are certainly aware – we
bishops first of all – that we can never really be equal to the Lord''s calling
and mandate to proclaim His Gospel to the nations. We… do not hesitate to
recognize our personal sins. We are, however, also convinced that the Lord''s
Spirit is capable of renewing His Church and rendering her garment resplendent
if we let Him mold us." (Final Message of the Synod of Bishops
to the People of God,
October 28, 2012)
Evangelization reminds us that the very agents of evangelization – you and
me -- will never achieve that abundant harvest Blessed John XXIII described
unless we are willing and eager to first be evangelized themselves. Only those themselves first evangelized can then
evangelize. As St. Bernard put it so
well, "If you want to be a channel, you must first be a reservoir."
I would suggest this morning that this reservoir of our
lives and ministry, when it comes especially to the New Evangelization, must first be filled with the spirit of
interior conversion born of our own renewal. That''s the way we
become channels of a truly effective transformation of the world, through our
own witness of a penitential heart, and our own full embrace of the Sacrament
"To believers also the Church must ever preach faith and penance,"
declared the council fathers in the very first of the documents to appear, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. (SC, n. 9)
To be sure, the sacraments of initiation - -
Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist - - charge, challenge, and equip the
agents of evangelization. Without those sacraments, we remain isolated,
unredeemed, timid and unfed.
But, the Sacrament
of Reconciliation evangelizes the evangelizers, as it
brings us sacramentally into contact with Jesus, who calls us to conversion of
heart, and allows us to answer his invitation to repentance -- a repentance
from within that can then transform the world without.
What an irony
that despite the call of the Second Vatican Council for a renewal of the Sacrament of Penance, what we got
instead was its near disappearance.
very good in the years following the Council in calling for the reform of
structures, systems, institutions, and people other than ourselves.That, too, is important; it can transform our
society and world. But did we fail along
the way to realize that in no way can the New
Evangelization be reduced to a program, a process, or a call to structural
reform; that it is first and foremost a deeply personal conversion within? "The
Kingdom of God is within," as Jesus taught.
The premier answer to the question "What''s
wrong with the world?" "what''s wrong with the church?" is not politics, the economy, secularism, sectarianism,
globalization or global warming . . .none of these, as significant as they are. As Chesterton wrote, "The answer to the
question ''What''s wrong with the world?'' is just two words:''I am,''"
I am! Admitting that leads to conversion of heart and repentance, the marrow
of the Gospel-invitation. I remember the
insightful words of a holy priest well known to many of us from his long
apostolate to priests and seminarians in Rome, Monsignor Charles Elmer, wondering
aloud from time to time if, following the close of the Council, we had sadly become
a Church that forgot how to kneel.If we
want the New Evangelization to work,
it starts on our knees.
few years back, when Cardinal Cahal Daly led us in our June retreat? Speaking somberly of the Church in his home
country, he observed, "The Church in Ireland is in the dirt on her
knees." Then he paused, and concluded,
"Maybe that''s where the Church is at her best."
We kneel in
the Sacrament of Penance because we
are profoundly sorry for our faults and our sins, serious obstacles
to the New Evangelization. But then we stand forgiven, resolute to
return to the work entrusted to us - as evangelizers of the Gospel of Mercy.
I recall a
conversation about a year ago with one of our brother bishops, newly ordained, attending his
first plenary assembly. I asked his
impressions of the meeting. "Well organized,
informative, enjoyable," he replied, but he went on to observe that it was one
moment in particular that had the greatest impact on him. It was during our closing Holy Hour, as he
entered the large room next to the chapel, to see dozens and dozens of bishops lined up to
approach the Sacrament of Penance. This
new Bishop told me that he felt that moment had more of an influence upon him
than anything else at the meeting.
forget the prophetic words of repentance from Blessed John Paul II, during the Great Jubilee, as he expressed contrition –
publically and repeatedly - for the sins of the past? He mentioned the shame of the slave
trade, the horrors of the holocaust, the death and destruction wrought by the
crusades, the injustices of the conquest of the new world, and the violence of religious
wars, to name only a few.
I remember during the
celebration of the 50th International
Eucharistic Congress in Ireland last June, when Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the
Papal Legate, expressed this so forcefully as he spoke on behalf of the Holy
Father at the penitential shrine of St. Patrick''s Purgatory: "I come here with
the specific intention of seeking forgiveness, from God and from the victims,
for the grave sin of sexual abuse of children by clerics. . . In the name of
the Church, I apologize once again to the victims, some of which I have met
here in Lough Derg."
And so it
turns to us, my brothers. How will we make the Year of Faith a time to renew the Sacrament of Penance, in our own lives and in the lives of our beloved people whom we serve? Once again, we will later this week approach the
Sacrament of Penance.
have the opportunity during this meeting to approve a simple pastoral
invitation to all our faithful to join us in renewing our appreciation for and
use of the Sacrament. We will "Keep the Light On" during the upcoming
The work of
our Conference during the coming year includes reflections on re-embracing
Friday as a particular day of penance, including the possible re-institution of
abstinence on all Fridays of the year, not just during Lent. Our pastoral plan offers numerous resources
for catechesis on the Sacrament of
Penance, and the manifold graces that come to us from the frequent use of
confession. Next June we will gather in
a special assembly as brother bishops to pray and reflect on the mission
entrusted to us by the Church, including our witness to personal conversion in
Jesus Christ, and so to the New Evangelization.
We work at giving our people good examples of humble,
repentant pastors, aware of our own personal and corporate sins, constantly responding
to the call of Jesus to interior conversion. Remember the Curé of Ars? When a
concerned group of his worried supporters came to him with a stinging protest letter
from a number of parishioners, demanding the bishop to remove John Vianney as
their curé, claiming he was a sinner, ignorant, and awkward, St. John Vianney
took the letter, read it carefully ... and signed the petition!
As I began my talk this morning, my brothers, so I would
like to end it, with Blessed John XXIII.
It was the Sunday angelus of October 28, 1962.The message the Holy Father delivered on that
bright Roman afternoon never even mentions the phrase New Evangelization.But it
strikes right at the heart of the mission entrusted to each of us as shepherds.
"I feel something touching my spirit that leads to
serenity," Good Pope John remarked. "The word of the Gospel is not silent.It resonates from one end of the world to the
other, and finds the way of the heart. Dangers and sorrows, human prudence and wisdom, everything needs to
dissolve into a song of love, into a renewed invitation, pleading all to desire
and wish for the establishment of the Kingdom of Christ. A kingdom of truth and life; a kingdom of
holiness and grace; a kingdom of justice, love and peace."
How could we
not see it alive in those holy men and women of every time and place, the
heroic evangelizers of our faith, including most recently St. Kateri Tekakwitha
and St. Marianne Cope?
We have beheld
it in the Church''s unrelenting corporal and spiritual works of mercy, in the
heroic witness of persecuted Christians, in the Church''s defense of unborn
human life, the care of our elders and the terminally ill, advocacy for the
unemployed, those in poverty, our immigrant brothers and sisters, victims of
terror and violence throughout our world, of all faiths and creeds, and in our defense
of religious freedom, marriage and family.
And, I have
suggested today, that as we "come and go" in response to the invitation of Jesus, we begin with the Sacrament of Penance.This
is the sacrament of the New
Evangelization, for as Pope Benedict reminds us, "We cannot speak about the
new evangelization without a sincere desire to conversion." (Homily
for the Opening of the XIII Ordinary General Synod of Bishops).
With this as my
presidential address, I know I risk the criticism. I can hear it now: "With all the controversies
and urgent matters for the Church, Dolan spoke of conversion of heart through
the Sacrament of Penance. Can you believe it?"
To which I reply, "You better
First things first!