March 19, 2023 Essay: I Am a Sinner

Mar 10, 2023

 In the now famous interview with Pope Francis in 2013—a few months after he was elected Pope—the editor of an Italian Catholic journal began by asking the Pope: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?”. The editor wrote: “The Pope stares at me in silence. I ask him if this is a question that I am allowed to ask. He nods that it is, and he tells me: ‘I do not know what might be the most fitting description. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner. I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon. And he repeats: “I am one who is looked upon by the Lord. I always felt my motto, Miserando atque Eligendo (By Having Mercy and By Choosing Him), was very true for me.

For me, the Pope’s answer identifies him as a son of St. Ignatius. At the beginning of our formation in the Society of Jesus, every novice enters into a 30-day prayer experience based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. In those initial days, the young Jesuit is asked to pray for a deep awareness of his sins and for the gift of a growing and intense sorrow for them. This grace is so important to St. Ignatius that the individual is asked not to proceed to prayer over the life and ministry of Jesus (which is the usual next step) until there is some sign that this grace has been given. As a Jesuit for over sixty years, I can confidently say that no progress in the Christian life can be made until one is aware beyond doubt that he/she is a sinner in great need of God.

We have a sacrament for that. It used to be called “Confession” or “Penance.”

The more proper designation today is “Reconciliation,” which suggests the restoring of friendship. The word “reconciliation” highlights what is most important about the sacrament and what God does in the sacrament.

About twelve years ago, dioceses throughout the country began the practice of designating one day in Advent, and one day in Lent, as “A Day of Reconciliation.” Parish priests are asked to make the sacrament available throughout the day. Here at St. Ignatius, with the help of Jesuits from the community on 83rd Street, we will be offering the sacrament to individuals on Monday, April 3rd, from 3 PM to 5 PM, and from 6 PM to 8 PM.

Sinfulness is never a private and individual matter. My sins are always disruptive to my relationships in the larger community. Whenever I sin, the whole body of the Church is weakened. We probably don’t think enough about this. When I experience the sacrament in the company of other repentant sinners, I may have a deeper experience of the reality that we are saved as members of a community, not as isolated individuals.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation calls us back to a closer relationship with God and with the community of the Church. Every Catholic has the right to hear God’s forgiveness announced personally: “The Lord has freed you from your sins. Go in peace.” If it has been some time since you last heard those healing words, I invite you to come to the Archdiocesan Day of Reconciliation here on Monday, April 3rd.

— Rev. William J. Bergen, S.J., Senior Priest