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Why Is the Confraternity of Penitents So Necessary in Our Modern World?

(Painting of Jesus Condemned to Death)


Address to the 2009 Life Pledged Chapter of the Confraternity of Penitents

By Confraternity of Penitents' Visitor, Father Michael A. Sisco


 Why is the Confraternity of Penitents so necessary in our modern world?

 How could a revival of the old rule of Saint Francis originally written in the Middle Ages ever be considered a useful contribution in the 21st century? Is this simply a clinging to nostalgia, a longing for a church that once was ?


What could be more necessary in the world right now, than penance? In a world that has overindulged itself in every possible excess—in a world that has replaced love of neighbor with love of self—in a world that seems bent on pushing God away, what could be more necessary in this moment of history than a group of people committed to doing penance in reparation for the sins of the world, praying these selfless acts might turn the tide of current events?

Here, in our parish school of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, I have the privilege of teaching the 7th grade religion class. And it truly is a privilege, but it’s also a challenge. I find myself constantly locked in a contest of wills with this class of seventeen twelve and thirteen year olds. And much like a wolf pack takes down a bear, they know how to work together to run me down and tire me out. (Don’t worry; I’m not finished yet! This old bear still has a few surprises left!)  But humanity throughout the ages has done much same thing with God. God is the father to a creation of seventh graders. If we were to pour through the Scriptures we would find the Lord always locked in contest of wills with Israel.

God is always trying to push the people toward royal priesthood, and they keep pulling for royal kingship.  God continually tries to get the people to strive for holiness, but instead they want to achieve greatness.

And so Israel, all throughout its history, keeps falling into idolatry. There is no better example of this of course, than the golden calf. God had just rescued his people from slavery. God had delivered them from Egypt with mighty signs and wonders. God had parted the Red Sea for the people to pass safely through while He allowed Pharaoh’s army to drown. And then while Moses is atop the mountain, receiving the covenant from God, the people make a golden calf to worship. Dr. Scott Hahn of Franciscan University makes note that this was the image of the Egyptian god Apis, the god of money, flesh, and power. That is what all idolatry ultimately boils down to--money flesh and power.

Moses makes an interesting observation before the people are allowed to enter the Promised Land. He says, in essence, “The Lord led Israel out of Egypt, but will the Lord ever be able to lead Egypt out of Israel?” (See Deuteronomy 29:24-27) What does that mean?

That means the Lord liberated Israel from slavery in Egypt, but would the Lord ever be able to deliver Israel from its slavery to Egyptian gods, idolatry? Will the Lord ever be able to lead Israel to freedom from its slavery to sin?

And if you ever wonder why the Lord demanded so many animal sacrifices in the Old Testament, that’s one of the reasons why. What kids of animals

did the Lord ask Israel to sacrifice? Goats, rams, ox, sheep, birds. What forms did the Egyptian gods take? Goats, rams, ox, sheep, birds. God is nothing if not a good psychologist. He understands the value of subliminal reinforcement.

So we see this recurring pattern in Scripture. Israel falls into idolatry. Disaster follows. The people repent, which results in an onslaught of animal sacrifices.  The people stay faithful to the covenant for a time, but later fall into idolatry. Disaster follows. The people repent, which results in an onslaught of animal sacrifices.

So the first reason for the animal sacrifices is subliminal reinforcement. Slay the gods of Egypt! Spill the blood of the gods of Egypt! I am Yahweh! I am the Lord! There is no other but Me!

The second reason for the animal sacrifices is precisely because it was that, a sacrifice. In an agricultural community livestock is capitol. Livestock is money! So they showed their repentance by sacrificing what was most valuable to them.

Our modern world has completely lost its sense of sacrifice. The modern culture wants everything with no cost, effort, or responsibility. That attitude is the shortest path to idolatry, and that is right where we are.

Look at all of the ills in society today. Don’t they all revolve around one of the three forms of idolatry--money, sex, and power? Look at what the greed of a few has done to our entire country in recent months? Look at what our pursuit of pleasures of the flesh has done to two generations now, and it’s only getting worse. What about power? You know, I noticed something recently. I am not a fan of reality shows at all. But one night, not too long ago I watched part of a popular reality show, and I noticed all these reality shows are a resurrection of the Coliseum of ancient Rome. Why did people go to the Coliseum? Basically to see other people act like, and be treated like animals. Isn’t that what we’re seeing on reality shows? Let’s make people do disgusting things, eat disgusting things and degrade themselves. Let’s put married couples on an island paradise and make them switch spouses for a week and see if they can refrain from cheating. And all while we sit at home and watch like a spectator sport. That’s entertainment! The old empire has risen from the ashes and seduced the nations. And more and more people are falling under its spell.

Atheism is the fastest growing “religion” in the United States right now. The US census bureau did a survey ten years ago where over ninety percent of the nation identified itself as Christian. That survey was just redone last month and the number of Americans that identified themselves as Christian has fallen to 64%. That’s a huge drop in ten years, and that should make us take notice.

I’ve seen the difference. In my last assignment I was acquainted with a teenage boy who frequented the CYO center. He was active in all the spiritual activities there. I keep in touch with many of the youth of my previous assignments through Facebook on the Internet. I checked out his Facebook page today and his status statement reads, “There is absolutely

no use for religion.” This young man was very active in his faith less than a year ago!   I responded to his statement and said, “I take issue with your assessment.” We’re meeting to talk after Easter. Pray for both of us.

I was a student at Roger Williams University from 1984-1988. There was always a strong atheist/agnostic presence on that campus, but the attitude was, “You want to do the ‘God thing’? Fine. Just don’t bother me.” I return to the campus now twenty years later as the Catholic chaplain, and I’m greeted sometimes with outright scowls from students. I’ll be coming upon a group of students and greet them, to have them walk straight past me like I’m not there! This “new” atheism is of the attitude that religion is evil. Religion is holding back society. Therefore religion must be destroyed.

This is what we’re up against. And all of this is why you, the members of the Confraternity of Penitents are so necessary to the world right now. Nothing is going to stop these trends short of a direct, Divine intervention. And you are the people who bring that intervention, because penance directly combats the three forms of idolatry.

Almsgiving (charity) combats the idols of materialism and the love of money, because in almsgiving we are sacrificing money I could be spending on me for the good of another.

Fasting combats the idol of flesh, because in fasting we impose a suffering on the flesh for the sake of not letting our whims, our desires rule us.

Prayer combats the idol of power, because prayer is about surrender. The main objective of prayer is to lay down our will to the Divine Will.

The wonderful thing about all of this is that you don’t have to be evangelists. You don’t have to remember clever arguments, or read volumes of theology. Doing the works of penance is all you need to change the world.

In the book of Joshua, how is the battle of Jericho fought? The weapons that win the battle are all liturgical: the Ark of the Covenant, the trumpets, the priests, the procession. These were all liturgical instruments and liturgical actions.

When the apostles fail to cast out a demon and ask Jesus why, he says, “That kind can only be driven out with prayer and fasting.”

When the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith he responds, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to that tree, be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.”

In all of these passages the meaning is the same. God makes it very clear that spiritual power can affect the physical world.

We have been given everything we need to change the course of the world. All we need now is enough people willing to commit themselves to acts of penance to open the floodgates of Grace upon creation. I commend you and I thank you for taking on this commitment for a world that so desperately needs you.

--Father Michael Anthony Sisco (4 April 2009)

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