"The Lost Sacrament"
Readers of The Missionary of Wall Street know that for over a decade now, my wife and I have led a street evangelization mission in one of the most affluent neighborhoods of New York, seeking out Catholics who have grown lukewarm on their faith or in many cases, fallen away from it entirely. Of the 3 million or so souls our missionaries have greeted out on the streets, we’ve found roughly 250,000 Catholics or former Catholics. Many of them are struggling like the rest of us with the temptations and false promises of our highly secularized culture. To attract them to a street side encounter, we’ve developed many techniques and methods, laced heavily with love, joy, and the Holy Spirit, the three pillars of the street evangelist. All of these methods are ultimately designed to get them to one place: in the hands of the Lord, through a patient and loving priest en persona Christi, in the sacrament of Reconciliation. What I sometimes refer to as “The Lost Sacrament.”
Of all of the blessed sacraments given the Church by our Lord, the sacrament of reconciliation is at once the most potentially transformative even as it is the least popular. For the laity, there is the embarrassment of relating to another human being the falls and stumbles, both large and small, that we are most ashamed of and deeply regret. “What will the priest think?” “How can I be forgiven for this?” Or, “do I really want to give up this habit or attitude? I know it’s wrong, but I like to do, or am stuck in it, or I’m in fact addicted to it.” For our parish priests, the sacrament is both time consuming and exhausting. Putting on the person of Christ, they literally have to also, with Him, take on all of our sins. When I contemplate this reality, it can bring me to tears.
Perhaps because of the sacrament’s natural unpopularity with both laity and priests, it increasingly has fallen out of favor. To quote from The Missionary of Wall Street:
In many parishes these days, [Reconciliation] has been confined to a “scheduled appointment”, which carries with it a gravity that often puts off rather than encourage us. Or it’s a brief, once-a-week, thirty-minute interlude before the Saturday vigil Mass, which creates a time deadline discouraging deep discourse with God.
Little sins, unforgiven, have a way of piling up into bigger sins, still unforgiven. In self-defense, we begin to rationalize the sin away, but in doing so, we build a bigger and bigger wall between us and Christ. We stop praying. We no longer hear his voice. Our New York City mission, above all else, is a direct attempt to help our brothers and sisters in Christ break down that wall and let His love and mercy back in.
This vicious cycle has another, more deeply negative effect on the entire faith community: the concept of “Sin” itself begins to be lost. Moral relativism sinks in. Then, with no such thing as “Sin”, or absolute wrong, it is a short jump to no such thing as God, or absolute good. The entire community becomes infected. As our relationship with God grows stale, church attendance dwindles. Now, the pastor has another reason to downplay confession: it’s unpopular, and too harshly juxtaposed against the emerging consensus that “I’m ok, you’re ok.” The spiral continues downward, not just for each of our souls individually, but for His Church itself.
There is another side of this darkness, a lighter side. All street missionaries have experienced this side. It is what we call “the confession glow”, the bright light shining from a person’s face, from deep within their soul, when they return to us on a street corner having experienced the Lord’s abundant mercy firsthand in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, many for the first time in years. They are alive. On a new course. And back in touch with Him. They were lost, and are found.