‘I am a sinner’

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The following is the homily of Bishop Rhoades, delivered at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Ash Wednesday, February 10th:

In a famous interview after Cardinal Bergoglio was elected Pope, a reporter asked the new Pope Francis: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” The Holy Father answered: “I am a sinner.” We learned later that this is also what he said when he was asked by the Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel if he would accept his election. He said to them: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In coming forward to receive ashes today, this is what we are admitting and saying: “I am a sinner.” Without sorrow for our sins and the humble admission of our sinfulness, receiving ashes is meaningless. Remember the words of Jesus: Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

While recognizing that we are sinners, we also know and believe that God is greater than sin, that, as Pope Francis says, “the forgiveness of God is greater than any sin.” The Jubilee Year of Mercy reminds us of this truth.

Through the prophet Joel, God called the people of Israel to repent and return to Him. He calls us to repent and return to Him during this season of Lent. Joel assures the people and assures us that the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment. This should give us all hope and confidence when we pray in the words of Psalm 51: Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.

Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning, the Lord says to us through the prophet Joel. How do we do this “with all our heart?” Is such a return to God possible, a real conversion of our thoughts and feelings, our choices and actions? It is not possible if we just rely on a power that resides in our own hearts, but it is possible with a power that springs from God’s own heart. That power is what we call “mercy.” Pope Benedict XVI once said that “to return to the Lord is possible as a ‘grace’, for it is God’s own work and the fruit of our faith in His mercy.” Our Lenten penances, our acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, are concrete ways for us to return to the Lord with all our hearts, allowing Him to transform, renew, and convert our hearts.

It is necessary that we take up the path of repentance individually, but we don’t do it alone. God instructed Joel: Blow the trumpet in Zion! Proclaim a fast; call an assembly; gather the people; notify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children…”. The whole community is called to return to the Lord. This dimension of community is an essential part of our Christian faith and life. It’s not just me and God. We don’t go through Lent alone. We walk the path of repentance together with our many brothers and sisters in the Church. It is important to pray as individuals: A clean heart create for me, O God; but also to pray as a community: Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned (Psalm 51). Consider also that when we go to confession, it’s individual, but it’s not just me and God. There’s also the priest who represents God and the Church, for our sins are offenses against God and wound Christ’s Body, the Church.

Though we are all sinners, we live within the communion of saints. So we walk together on the path of repentance during these forty days of Lent. We will assemble often at the liturgy. I invite you, if you are able, to attend some daily liturgies during Lent, in addition to Sundays. The sacrament of Penance is so important in our journey of conv