Fr. Michael McGourty is the pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in Toronto, Ont.
The Sisters of Life, who have their Centre for Life in the rectory of St. Peter’s Church, run a ministry for those who have had an abortion called, “Hope and Healing.” This ministry is intended to help bring Christ’s “light into the midst of darkness.” Through this ministry, the Sisters of Life invite those who have had an abortion, or helped an individual to receive one, to “step into His mercy and receive a new beginning.”
This Hope and Healing ministry is so important because it is central to the kind of healing which Christ came into the world to bring to all people.
Sadly, so often when a person does something wrong, she/he thinks that God is no longer interested in them and that they are condemned forever. This kind of thinking is so opposite to the message of Christ and that of the Church. In fact, the idea that any person is without hope and cannot be saved is the work of the Devil.
The kind of darkness and despair that causes a person to think that she/he is lost and without hope is exactly the kind of thinking that Jesus came to dispel and cast out. Sin can lead all of us to think that we are lost and no longer loved by God. When we give our lives over to despair, the darkness can overwhelm us and we are inclined not to resist sin as we think we are already lost to God’s love. However, as this Sunday’s readings proclaim, no one is ever lost to God’s love.
In fact, perhaps the best summary of Christ’s mission is found in today’s Gospel passage from John, which proclaims: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
It is easy to understand why we humans could think that our sins could make us disposable to God. This is often how we treat one another. In our individualistic and consumer society, some people are only interested in other people for their own selfish reasons. When a person is no longer of value to them, they block them or find someone else to satisfy their ego needs. Often we are also given false ideas about God’s love by our parents, teachers and sometimes even by religious figures. These messages can make us think that just as we are only pleasing to some people if we behave as they like, so too God is only interested in us if we behave. Yet, God’s love for us is unconditional and eternal.
I can remember once I was invited to a family home for dinner. At the meal was a young girl who was preparing for her First Communion. This young girl was not a big fan of vegetables. At one point in the meal, the mother announced to me that I was to tell this particular young girl that God only loved little girls who ate their vegetables and that only little girls who ate their vegetables could make their First Communion. When I heard this, I happily announced that this was not true and that God loved everyone, especially little girls who did not eat their vegetables. The look of joy that overtook this young girl made me quite certain that I was at that moment proclaiming the Gospel of Christ’s love for all people. Needless to say, I was not invited back to that home. The Gospel message is not always well received!
For me, this is an example of how the messages we sometimes receive from the world can make us think that God will stop loving us when we do something that is not good for us. Although they might be intended for our own good, in an effort to keep us on the right path, sometimes rules, and the messages that we receive from authority figures, can make us think that we only have value if we keep to the right path. With God, however, we always have the value that He gave us when He created us as His beloved daughters and sons — always! No one is disposable to God.
The message of Christ is that we are always His beloved children and that we never lose this dignity. Jesus always welcomes us back. We simply need to turn back to Him and receive His forgiveness.
We hear this love of God for His people expressed in the first reading this Sunday from the Second Book of Chronicles. Here, we are told of the manner in which God continually sent prophets to call His people back to Him and to be faithful. This faithfulness of God to all of His people is expressed beautifully in the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer, as it states:
And when through disobedience he (the human person) had lost your friendship, you did not abandon him to the domain of death. For you came in mercy to the aid of all, so that those who seek you might find you. Time and again you offered them covenants and through the prophets taught them to look forward to salvation. And you so loved the world, Father most holy, that in the fullness of time you sent your Only Begotten Son to be our Saviour.
Everything about Christ’s mission, and that of the Church, is directed to the salvation of all persons. Even when God punishes, it is done with the intention of calling back the sinner that she/he might have life. This point is also expressed in the first reading from Chronicles, when we read how God used secular kings to bring about the Babylonian exile so that He could call his people back to Himself. This is also the only reason why the Church imposes the penalty of excommunication for some sins. The purpose of this penalty is not to condemn, but to call the individual to understand the seriousness of the offense so that she/he might turn and be saved.
St. Paul writes in this Sunday’s second reading from his letter to the Ephesians: “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ, for it is by grace you have been saved.”
The Gospel of John tells us that Christ was so concerned to save all people that He died on the cross for our sins. Jesus tells Nicodemus this Sunday in John’s Gospel: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.”
In this passage, Jesus is referring to the fact that Moses held up a snake on a stick that all who looked at it might be saved. Jesus is comparing this to the fact that He will be put on a cross so that all who believe in Him might have eternal life. On the cross, Christ proclaims the value that each one of us has to Him and the Father. His arms are nailed open for all eternity so that we might return to Him no matter what we have done. His loving embrace can never be closed to us; we need only turn to Him and have life.
From the cross, Jesus intends to shine the light of God’s love upon all people. When the darkness of sin and despair threaten to overwhelm us, and we believe that we are not lovable, we are invited to look at the cross that we might know how much God loves each of us and what He has done to save us. From the cross, Christ announces for all eternity that all people are invited to salvation through His mercy. The Gospel of John presents Christ’s cross as His throne, from which He brings salvation to all the world. The cross is the pulpit from which Christ announces: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life.”
Absolutely everything about Christ’s message is directed towards the salvation of all people. This is also the mission of His Church. All of the sacraments have as their end the salvation of those for whom they are celebrated. In this Lenten season in particular, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is intended for those who are already baptized to seek out God’s forgiveness and return to His loving mercy. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we acknowledge our sins and ask for God’s healing grace to return to Him. The Sacrament of Reconciliation allows us to bring the light of Christ’s love into the darkness of our despair. If we confess and turn away from sin, there is no sin that Christ and His Church will not forgive.
In the coming weeks, throughout the Archdiocese of Toronto, parishes will mark the Day of Confessions by holding times for additional confessions. This is a time when all will be welcomed back gently and lovingly to the Church. Some people wonder what the priest will say to them if they have not been to the Sacrament of Reconciliation for thirty or forty years. My guess is that the priest will simply say “welcome.” When it has been so long since our last confession that we do not know what to say, we simply need to ask how to proceed with the sacrament. If a person is nervous about approaching a priest that she/he knows, it is possible to consult the times of confession at another parish and to visit there to celebrate anonymously with another priest. Ultimately, it is Christ who is confessed to and the priest is only an instrument of Christ’s loving forgiveness. Through this sacrament, we cast away the darkness and despair that sin can cast upon us, and free ourselves for the light of Christ’s saving grace.
It is such a joy to be forgiven, to be loved, and to know that we have a value that can never be destroyed by sin. God sent His only son into the world that we might know this love and grace. In the season of Lent, we are invited to turn back to Christ and know this love through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. With Christ, and His Church, there is no condemnation for anyone who repents of their sin. The message of Christ and His Church, as announced for all eternity from His cross is: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:17).
May this season of Lent be a time for all of us to celebrate Christ’s love in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
This reflection based upon the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B: 2 Chronicles 36, 14-17a, 19-23; Psalm 137; Ephesians 2:4-10; and John 3: 14-21.