My dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Throughout the Catholic Church in the United States, the month of October is recognized as Respect Life Month, dedicated to the Gospel of Life, which upholds the dignity of every person from the moment of conception until natural death. As a community of faith, with charity for all, we give special attention at this time to thank God for the great gift of life and to proclaim unambiguously the right to life for every person from the very moment of conception until natural death. Knowing our own human weaknesses and failures, we implore the Lord to "Increase our faith!" (Luke 17:5). "Increase our Faith," O Lord, that we may be your instruments of life, to protect all life. Let us recall the words of Pope Benedict XVI, in his address to government officials and diplomats on Saturday, September 7, 2007, in Vienna: "The fundamental human right, the presupposition of every other right, is the right to life itself. This is true of life from the moment of conception until its natural end. Abortion, consequently, cannot be a human right — it is the very opposite. It is ‘a deep wound in society.’" With the mercy and love exemplified by our present Holy Father, Pope Francis, we seek to repair that wound and to heal the hurt endured by so many women and men "who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision." (Letter of Pope Francis to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, September 1, 2015).
In that same letter, Pope Francis conceded "to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it." However, for many years now in the arch/dioceses throughout the United States, Bishops, having the authority to do so in their particular jurisdiction, have granted to priests in their respective dioceses the faculty, that is the privilege and permission, to absolve penitents of the sin of abortion. Realizing the deep pain suffered by those who have been so grievously wounded, the Church has sought to be the instrument of God’s mercy and reconciliation in sacramental confession by having anticipated this now general faculty granted to all priests by Pope Francis: "May priests fulfill this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence." (Ibid.).
This beautiful expression of forgiveness underlines the primary place of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in celebrating the Year of Mercy beginning on December 8, 2015, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and ending on the Solemnity of Christ the King on November 20, 2016. Through the sacramental ministry of the priesthood, the faithful are given the opportunity to restore their relationship with Christ that has been damaged by sin. Jesus, through the Church’s ministry, never abandons us; even when we fail, we are not alone. Because we have become His sons and daughters in Baptism, we belong to Christ, we share in His resurrection, and His forgiveness and mercy await us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
In the earliest days of the Church, the apostles preached this belief and expression of hope. To anyone who would listen to them they proclaimed that sins are forgiven by Jesus who is alive and lives among us. Our struggles are no longer ours alone but we have Jesus extending His hand in sacramental benevolence. To His apostles and to the bishops and priests who would follow them, Christ gave this power and mission to forgive and to reconcile on that first Easter Sunday when he appeared to His disciples. He greeted them with the words: "Peace be with you. As the Father sent me so am I sending you." Then Jesus said to them: "Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained." (John 20: 21-23; cf. also Matthew 16:19). The mission of the disciples is joined to the ministry of charity recognized in reconciliation and there one discovers true peace.
The presence of Jesus and the power of His Holy Spirit are felt in every aspect of our life, especially at those times when we are troubled and struggling, on the brink of despair and feeling so alone, when sin overwhelms us. With arms outstretched, Jesus says: "Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you." (Matthew 11:28). Our God is not removed or absent from our lives. How true the words: "He shall dwell with them and they shall be His people, and He shall be their God who is always with them. He shall wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, crying out or pain, for the former world has passed away." (Revelation 21:3-5).
I pray that during the Year of Mercy the beauty of the Sacrament of Reconciliation will be discovered anew and its importance in the live of the Church restored. I have asked our priests to extend the hours of Confession during this year in each of the deaneries. I desire that the faithful have ample opportunity for personal confession. It is also a privileged opportunity for confessors to serve the faithful in the most beautiful of ways: restoring broken hearts, extending compassion and offering encouragement through the teachings of Jesus and the Church. Can there be any renewal without each of us seeking forgiveness!
As we meditate more intently upon the beauty of Jesus’ willingness to forgive us, I cannot help but recall Saint Dismas, the repentant sinner who hung from a cross aside of Christ on Calvary. (Cf. Luke 23: 39-43). In that mutual time of suffering, Dismas was provoked by the insolence of the other criminal, who mocked Christ, saying: "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us as well." Dismas responded: "Have you no fear of God at all? You got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it; we are paying for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong." Then Dismas said: "Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom." Dismas pronounced a few sentences which are like an eruption of the volcanic changes that his encounter with Jesus had set in motion. We are at times inclined to over-simplify these words of Saint Dismas as if they were a quick and easy sound byte, giving us all some kind of license to live as we please, hoping to grasp eternity with one final breath. But the truth is that, in a few words, Dismas uttered a few of the most profound truths of our faith.
First of all, Dismas puts the record straight for the other thief: "Don’t you realize how absurd you are? We have no right to be saved; we are being justly punished with death for our crimes." This is a confession of sin: Dismas has had the humility and the courage to accept responsibility for his errors, and he does it in the hearing of Jesus. Then he went on to say: "But this man has done nothing wrong."
After having recognized the innocent Lamb of God, Dismas spoke of Jesus’ kingdom. Dismas could not have possibly meant an earthly kingdom, since both he and Jesus were at the point of death. When he said: "Remember me," he is appealing to Jesus to accept his faith in Him and so to save him from the death and judgment he was about to undergo, not from men, but from the Most High. In other words, Dismas was professing his faith in the resurrection of the dead. The response of Jesus to him confirms this: "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." The thorn-crowned King upon the cross thus accepts Dismas’ confession of sin, his act of faith in Jesus’ own divinity and in His power to raise the dead, and Our Lord thus assures him that that faith will lead him to communion with God in eternity.
In His encounter with Dismas, Jesus fulfills in a very beautiful, personal way, the meaning of His entire life: to save a person, any person, all persons from sin through His Cross and Resurrection. In its essentials, the story of Dismas is the story of every soul. We all live with the failures of our sins and are in need of forgiveness; we all live in suffering, but no more so than Jesus who comes to our side to suffer with us and for us so that our sins might be taken away. He asks us only to be open to His friendship, to recognize and confess our sins, to profess His sinlessness, to witness the immensity of His tenderness and compassion and to die in the sure promise that He will remember us when we stand alone at the threshold of paradise. Only Jesus could transform the tears of Calvary into the joys of eternal life. Dismas looked beyond the tears and embraced his King upon a cross — at last he was home!
God’s mercy is boundless, beyond human comprehension and so abundant in generosity that we humans cannot begin to fathom its fullness and depth. Too often we restrict our own bestowal of mercy and forgiveness; we find God’s magnanimity is just too much to take. But our lack of understanding will never diminish or mitigate the eternal mercy of Perfect Love, which repeats again and again those words to Dismas, "this day you will be with me in paradise," echoed in all the confessionals of the world: "… I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
Invoking the intercession of Mary, Our Mother, during this month of the Most Holy Rosary, and asking that she bring to her Son the needs of our Diocese and our world, I remain
Devotedly yours in Christ,
The Most Reverend
Salvatore R. Matano
Bishop of Rochester